Structuring incentives for waste

As we try to navigate the climate transition, we are working within a framework of incentives and economic structure where incentives are sometimes mis-aligned to driving climate-positive behaviours. Not just climate but sustainability overall. Waste management represents one of the more problematic area. In many situations, the cost of waste management is pretty much socialised with the cost spread out across a large number of people while the economic benefits accrued by only some. Take electronic waste without proper framework in place for disposal and attribution of responsibility to producers, the society bears the overall cost of managing these difficult waste while the benefits are borne only by the users (especially those who are replacing devices extremely often, and the producers who are selling electronic products.

By incorporating producer responsibility, the cost of disposal and waste management should preferably be priced upfront to customers so that they are paying for the lifecycle cost.

The same should be done for various product packaging. After all, the producers are typically the ones responsible for handling the packaging in the first place so it won’t be too bad for them to take on the responsibility. They can then put the cost into the price tag of the users, who would then be the ones paying for those goods that require the particular packaging. The thing about packaging materials and electronic waste is that they have value as recycled materials anyways – which means that if the ‘disposal’ logistics cost can be at least in part offset through the value recovered from aggregation of these materials, it is a win-win.

What about food waste? Food waste should not be the responsibility of the producers since it is the consumers who determine the level of waste based on how much they purchase and eventually consume. Likewise, those in-between the value chain from farm to table would also be responsible for some of the food waste through their utilisation of the ingredients. The way to make them responsible for the disposal cost is to allow only specific channels of disposing food waste and pricing it properly. The cost of disposing food waste will necessarily be the logistics involved, and then offset against whatever residual value the food waste can generate. What kind of residual value is there? After all, food waste cannot be used to remanufactured food (unlike cardboard whose fibre can be used for recycled paper, or e-waste where the extracted metals can be turned back into materials to produce new products).

Food waste can be turned into energy through anaerobic digestion. And the process will generate methane that can be used as a fuel. The fuel potentially displaces fossil fuel and emits biogenic carbon dioxide in the short carbon cycle. Of course, there are plenty of other biofuels that can also be produced from food waste. If we start putting a value on the food waste, does it mean more of such waste would be produced? It is quite unlikely since the value will probably represent some kind of residual value from the primary use of the food. Yet we find CEO of multi-national company Lufthansa thinking otherwise.

The challenge we have today is that the incentives around recovery of residual value from waste. We will need to redesign how we are able to extract residual value, offset against the disposal costs. We will also need to ensure disposal costs are properly priced and applied to the right parties responsible for the waste generation. We need to set up incentives such that waste is properly sorted and pushed into various streams. The cost of mixed-stream convenience needs to be costed to reflect the cost of sorting.

There’s a lot of work ahead. We need people to get on to them.

Convenience and waste

Our convenience in this day and age is built upon waste. Lots of it. When we order delivery, we compel an additional person in the society to actually go to the shop to fetch the food for us, bringing it to us before going about his or her way. This creates 3-4 journeys instead of two. It generates more packaging waste and potentially more transactions: between you and the platform, the platform and the deliveryman as well as the platform and the food outlet.

Yet our economy is built upon such foundations, that we generate more activities, monetise and measure it, and consider that an uptick in our growth and economy. Sure, maybe the ability to pay for the service and choice to take it up means you are able to spend that time more productively, at something where you can make a higher level of contribution to society. Indeed, if that is the case and the basic parameter of decision-making, then the economy and society becomes more efficient, not more wasteful. But that is unlikely to be a real decision parameter.

Convenience is something more about psychology, behaviours and motivation than with the cold-calculus of cost and benefits. Besides, the weighting of cost-benefit across time is not as simple as imputing an interest rate or discount factor the way we analyse it in economics. The discount factor adjusts due to the manner our psyche responds to context and situations.

The question then is whether we want to make that short term gain in our economy, giving in to our impulses or to generate the long term sustainability in our world and fulfill a greater meaning for our lives on earth?

Demand for energy is growing

We’ve been seeing on the news that 2023 will probably go down in history as the year oil majors backtracked on their promises towards the climate transition, and continued their trajectory of emissions as the demand for fossil fuels continue to grow.

This is exactly the kind of behaviour that makes it easy for people to keep painting them as the enemy. As a matter of fact, they risk painting themselves out of the low carbon future when they allow their “core” fossil fuel business to continue cannibalising their renewables business. Yes you heard me right; in refusing to see their core business as that of providing the world with sustainable energy, they are rapidly destroying a market they want to be part of.

Instead of seeing it as demand for fossil fuels, the oil majors need to recognise that there’s demand for energy – and it is growing. The opportunity to convert their customers to green users, energy users of the future rather than keeping them in the past. Their behaviour will at some point push the authorities to act even more aggressively against fossil fuels. The trouble right now is that they think the world needs them to go on spinning.

Recycling woes

When you deposit a recyclable item into the rubbish bin or down the chute here in Singapore, did you know that it means the item will actually never be recycled? It will definitely end up in the incineration plant where everything is burnt. Metals are sometimes recovered but that is just about all. This is because everything collected in the green waste bin by the licensed public waste collectors have to be sent to the incineration plants.

On average, incineration removes more than 90% of the waste matter, leaving a residue which is buried in our offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Soon, when the Integrated Waste Management Facility in Singapore is built, there might be more post disposal sorting that takes place after our public waste collectors retrieve the waste. But before that, despite the possible economic incentive of picking out suitable waste materials or matters to be recycled before incinerating the rest, the market is unable to respond to them.

Incineration keeps going and expanding in Singapore as waste volumes increase because that had been a proven solution that is difficult to challenge even when contending technologies and approaches works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Yet as our landfill approaches the point of its maximum capacity, we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

What would a net zero agrifood business look like?

Talking about creating net-zero businesses reminds me of the time when I wrote about zero-based thinking about the education system. Only by reconstructing what we want to achieve from scratch, can we try to uncover new innovations and ideas that we have been missing out to think about problems we have.

The agrifood industry supposedly produces about one-third of all the carbon emissions that humans are responsible for these days. We can try to think about where to cut emissions or we can consider how to overhaul things. One of the chief challenge of the world today is that we have been taking the theory of comparative advantage and trade too far, forgetting in part the risk of concentration, and the issues around carbon emissions of the logistics and supply chain. Once we start factoring in carbon costs, we can start considering more about growing and consuming local more because it might actually be worth the while.

Overspecialisation in the agrifood sector may bring about economic efficiencies at the expense of carbon emissions and food security. A long time ago, there were stories about fish being sent from the Nordic seas to China to be fillet only to be sold back in the Nordic states. It is a reflection of how capitalism have morphed our appreciation of craftsmanship, and our values around environmental stewardship.

So a net-zero agrifood business quite likely will have start from considering crop cycles, relevant crops to be growing for the local taste and preferences, and the techniques for cultivation, processing, and marketing these products. It will have to reduce distribution or tap on synergies with other nearby industries for distribution. It should concern itself with strong focus on quality and selection of robust crops.

Of course, it will also concern itself with minimizing packaging, pioneering newer retail approaches; once again leveraging more on synergies with surrounding industries. Of course, there is still room for trade and exporting but it might be harder especially if the produce is perishable. Nevertheless, the idea is no longer to use economies of scale and efficiency to sell to the mass market and allow the whole capitalist-industrial complex to be built upon heaps of waste and trash.

Blue bins

In the first episode of my recently launched podcast, I kind of ranted about the blue bins in the National Recycling Programme that Singapore has. My major gripe was that the system for blue bins which was completely open access and operated by riding on the back of the public waste collection system was designed to fail because by seeking to include everyone, it made securing a clean stream of recyclables harder.

I noted that an alternative system where people sign up to gain access to the blue bin, and pledge to abide by the ‘rules’ of using the blue bins could do better. They could pledge the following:

  1. they will use the blue bin only for recycleables allowed,
  2. they will ensure the items are cleaned and ready for recycling,
  3. they will only access the blue bin themselves,
  4. they will ensure the blue bin is locked after their use,
  5. they will not deposit into the blue bin when it is full or when they note it is contaminated

Friends at Upcircle has shown that by giving assurance to people who care and show up for the environment that you are able to deal with the recyclables properly, you can actually obtain good quality post-consumer recyclable stream. By preventing those who doesn’t care about recycling from taking part in pseudo-recycling by their own terms, we can actually do better.

Recycling better by excluding people isn’t exactly the best narrative to the ears but in due course, that can actually change the culture.