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Embracing the Complexity of Waste

The world is facing a waste crisis and the solution is simple: organizations need to embrace the complexity of the waste problem - reporting could help improve their waste management practices.

The world is facing a waste crisis and the solution is simple: organizations need to embrace the complexity of the waste problem - reporting could help improve their waste management practices.

It is no longer enough for a company to just track statistics on how much plastic they collected for recycling, or their reduction in waste going to landfill. The world is facing a waste crisis and the solution is simple: organizations need to embrace the complexity of the waste problem.

This is something GRI’s draft Waste Standard aims to support companies to do. Now available for public comment, the draft Standard will help businesses understand what causes waste-related impacts, giving them the basis for reporting and improving their waste management practices.

The draft Standard is being developed amidst a paradigm shift in how we think about waste. As we move closer to a circular economy, waste can no longer be seen as the end of the line for our industrial processes – the role of waste is changing, and its value increasing. This makes the process of reporting on waste challenging, even as it demands a radically new management approach.

As Dr. Maarten Dubois of EY Climate Change and Sustainability Services in Belgium, a member of the project working group developing the draft Standard, explains: “Just sending waste to sanitary landfills or incinerators is not sufficient. It’s the total consumption of materials, the total generation of waste and the low value applications of waste, that are the challenges of today.”

Transitioning from a linear system

We’re surrounded by warnings of the waste crisis. Plastic is devastating marine ecosystems and by 2050 our oceans could contain more plastic than fish. Around the world, 820 million people are going hungry, yet we’re wasting one-third of all the food produced. And, thanks to the unprecedented global demand for consumer electronic goods, the fastest-growing waste stream is e-waste.

These impacts are the consequences of our linear ‘take-make-waste’ approach. The variation in the content of waste streams itself demands a new way of reporting waste handling, treatment and disposal. Combined with efforts to move towards a more circular model - in which much of what we class as waste will ultimately be treated as input material - there is a need for a new approach.

As Dr. Dubois puts it, “the idea that if we manage waste properly we are dealing with all the material topics is an idea of the past”. Indeed, businesses should aim for more oversight and control throughout the value chain, from ‘designing out’ waste at the production stage to using waste as an input material and managing it better.

For all these reasons companies need suitable and up-to-date guidance to report on their activities, reflecting this new paradigm. Last updated in 2006, the GRI disclosures for waste focused on treating waste after it has been created, rather than looking at the creation itself. The Global Sustainability Standards Board determined it was time for an update.

Reporting that captures what matters

The draft GRI Waste Standard is designed to be relevant in a more circular future. Changes focus on improvements in four areas:

1. Circularity and waste prevention – Waste is complex but much of the opportunity to avoid its impact lies at the source of its creation. The draft Standard supports a fundamental shift in the perception of waste, from an unwanted burden to a source of valuable materials.

2. Relationship between waste and materials - There is a greater emphasis on the connection between materials and waste. The aim is to build a more complete understanding of how procuring and using materials affects the nature and impact of waste generation and waste quality.

3. Impacts in the value chain – The Standard helps organizations look at their impacts in the value chain and report how they manage those impacts. As working group member Jeff Sokol of NEPCon, USA, explains: “This draft standard really helps to encourage companies to take a look at their value stream and see where waste occurs. By doing that, you will naturally find points where it can be better managed.”

4. Disclosures that act as a compass for reporting - To capture what matters, organizations need strong guidance. As Daniel Gomez, a consultant in Colombia and a member of the working group, sets out, the draft standard will “help companies understand key elements and information they need to make good decisions in the future.”

Have your say

All GRI Standards are developed in a way that takes on board stakeholders’ views, to ensure they are globally relevant. This is certainly the case for the Waste Standard, as working group member Joseph Tong, of Fuji Xerox Ltd in Hong Kong, explains: “It is a practical standard that many companies, large or small, can use. It’s very good guidance for companies to think of their waste impact in a holistic way, which is something very new.”

As Jeff Sokol highlights, it’s important to get a wide range of input: “There are so many industries and cases out there, and so much is changing with circularity and waste management. Get involved to make sure that your data can be reported in a usable way, which will benefit all the efforts you're going to make to put your reporting together.”

Global problems need global solutions. So no matter what sector, type of business or region you are in, help us create a fit-for-purpose reporting standard, which inform choices that help us to understand, manage and transform our approach to waste and meet the challenge of this global crisis.

Previously published on GRI's 3BL Media News Room.

Image credit: Pixabay

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The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is an international, multi-stakeholder and independent non-profit organization that promotes economic, environmental and social sustainability. The GRI was established in 1997 in partnership with the United Nations' Environment Programme (UNEP).

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