iPoint Blog

Waste Prevention vs. Recycling – Analyzing Material Flow Accounts

Why should we even bother about recycling, when we could prevent waste in the first place? Well, according to the following study, published in May 2011, forget that question. Turn it around. We shouldn’t even bother about waste prevention.

Seeking a European Resource Efficiency Framework

In an attempt to estimate the impact of policy efforts, the European Comission ordered several studies, aiming at the development of a frameweork contract for resource efficieny. The most interesting of all these studies is the analysis of the Key Contributions to Resource Efficiency. Three parties were involved in this study: two eco consulting agencies, Paris based bio IS and vito from Belgium, and one academic institute from Austria, Social Ecology Vienna. This reports findings are elaborate executive summary (PDF).

Recycling, Waste Prevention or better Product Design?

Based on Material Flow Accounts and waste statistics, the following materials were subject to evaluation: biomass, minerals, metals and plastics. Focusing on non-energy materials, there was no fuel involved. Now, looking at these materials, which is the most relevant path to improving their efficiency? Waste prevention and product design seem promising. Indeed, they are. Waste prevention may save 8-18% of the total material consumption in the future. Scaling things down to a single product, up to 80% of a product’s environmental impact may be prevented through a well-thought ecodesign. Citing the 2007 study on resource productivity and competetiveness (PDF), the authors state that a compact car like the VW Golf could save as little as 84% of the material involved in its production! In total, the report estimates a potential reduction in non-energy material consumption of 15-28% .

Most Effective at present: Recycling

However, this saving material by improving product design and by waste reduction is still up in the air. It is future potential. At present, things look different: 75% of the savings in material consumption are due to recycling measures.

Article image based on this photo by epsos



  • Interesting study, even if I´m not surprised. But your conclusion, that “we shouldn’t even bother about waste prevention” only applies to manufacturing industry and it is not an advice addressed to consumers, is it? 😉

    The consumer should still keep in mind that reducing his private consumption (so waste) is the most effective way to increase resource-efficiency.

    • Hi Matthias, thanks for commenting!
      Perfectly right, consumers should save as much waste (=materialized energy) as they can. I intended to provoque a discussion by citing the study. It was indeed conentrating on the industry.
      Personally, I totally agree with you. Talking about consumers, we should all buy quality stuff that lasts. Products worth repairing. And we should buy less, so *when* we buy something, we can afford quality. Before buying, we should also think of reusing the stuff others don’t need anymore (flea market, ebay, friends). Sometimes, vintage products last much longer than new ones (e.g. bike frames, sewing machines, watches).
      Moreover, before putting our old stuff in the trash bin, we should take an inspiring look at the infinitive possibilities of upcycling.
      That’s what I think 🙂

  • The topic waste recycling vs. waste preventing has indeed a high potential for savings – both costs and environmental impacts. Before reaching the goal of designing wastefree products and production systems, the methodology Material Flow Cost Accounting (MFCA) gives a good support in identifying inefficiencies in production systems. In some cases a production manager thinks, that some inefficiencies in material use are acceptable, as the waste material is recycled anyway internally or can be sold. What is mostly not taken into account are the costs accumulated to the later waste or recycling material during the whole production process. Analyzing the same case of a production system using MFCA and Conventional Cost Accounting may result in completely different decisions on purchasing criteria for material quality or investment decisions for new technology. End of 2011 the new standard ISO 14051 on Material Flow Cost Accounting will be published.