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Environmental management and waste

Environmental management provides the means to achieve humankind’s ambitions in a way that also allows our long term survival. 

Zero Waste Scotland | 18 Jan 10

Through it we learn both about the environment and our effect on it. We can then put in place policies, regulations, laws and guidance relating to society’s activities. It really is a vital part of our future as, without effective environmental management, businesses and society would be unable to address the challenges we face as we move into a low-carbon era. We would have no tools with which to measure our impact, no means of working out what we can and can’t do and, perhaps worst of all, no means by which to communicate this to the people who most need the information. It would be like trying to win the Premier League without a manager or trying to build a flatpack wardrobe without a manual.

But Environmental Management is also a bit like Subbuteo: it’s easy enough to dip into but incredibly difficult to master. You don’t need a pre-frontal cortex the size of Manhattan to understand the basic principles: use less, waste less. But getting to the point where you can accurately state the correct course of action in any given situation? That takes ages. It also takes copious amounts of energy, dedication and, yes, an enormous brain. Fortunately most of us aren’t burdened with huge brainpower and therefore don’t have to deal with things like existential angst or logarithmic equations. We are instead lucky enough to exist in a state of blissful ignorance, plodding gently through life and carrying out our work dutifully without need to question its deeper meaning.

But how can we, the befuddled majority, master the complexities of environmental management sufficiently to make a difference to the world? How can we access the deeper truths for long enough to change our actions and feel confident that we are protecting the planet for our children?

Take carbon. We generally understand that reducing our use of carbon is both inevitable (carbon fuels will run out) and important (continuing to use them until they run out may cause irreversible warming). Yet the process of working out which activities are most carbon-intensive and, even more difficult, comparing very different activities in a meaningful way is incredibly challenging. For example: holidays. How can you know whether it is better to:

  1. fly to Spain and spend your time lying on a beach, eating locally caught fish and cycling around your small fishing village to collect your seasonal shopping in the morning or
  2. get a train to Salzberg and spend your time eating and drinking in an International hotel chain which gets its food from all over the world and getting taxis around the place?

How can we even start to compare these two holidays? Should we even bother?

Carbon footprinting is a complex subject requiring a large brain. Just look at this list of conversion factors from DEFRA to see how many calculations are required to work out the carbon consumed by a business. Fortunately the calculations themselves have already been done: it’s only the conversions that the business has to carry out. This “footprint calculator” is one example of how the kind of knowledge involved with environmental management has become more accessible. There are carbon footprint calculators all over the internet and many are simple to use. Unfortunately none yet offer holiday comparisons in any meaningful way.

So that’s carbon. What about waste? What can the environmental management boffins teach us about waste and how can we know the best thing to do with our waste? Interestingly enough, waste has its own secret, shadowy world just like carbon. From the calorific value of residual municipal waste to the current market price of materials there are behind-the-scene calculations going on around the clock. Fortunately for us it matters little to the end user (business or household). All we need to remember are three key things:

1. Landfill is bad.

Landfill is a dead zone for materials that could otherwise have remained in use. Landfill generates methane, only some of which is recovered (have you ever seen the massive yellow flames next to m0st landfill sites? That’s methane being burned off, producing CO2 – which is considered the lesser of two evils).

2. Reduce, reuse and recycle (in that order).

Reducing waste eliminates the need to find a disposal option and reduces the materials being used in the first place. This saves you time and money. Reusing waste also avoids disp0sal. Recycling allows a material to live again.

3. Listen to your mother.

She’s probably right.

This final point is optional by the way.

So, can the environmental management of waste really be summed up in two short points and one piece of nonsense? Actually, yes it can but to implement these points and actually make a difference to the waste we produce in Scotland will take another kind of intelligence altogether: the intelligence to realise that we all have to get involved and that only together can we make Scotland a zero waste society.

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