Waste management: when Joe Public gets involved

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Please note that this article may contain technical language. For this reason, it is not recommended to readers without professional investment experience.

Away from the media frenzy surrounding headline international events such as the COP21 global warming conference, the rise of new citizen-inspired movements lays bare the initiatives ‘Joe Public’ is taking to defend the environment and tackle waste management.

One such grassroots initiative is the Zero Waste movement. The idea stems from a growing awareness in the United States of the detrimental impact of the widespread waste produced by consumption patterns in modern societies.

Read the following and judge for yourself: Over the past 50 years, disposable packaging has pervaded our lives, becoming an integral part of our daily routines. Disposable packaging represents a major portion of our rubbish, specifically 50% in volume and 30% in weight (household waste in France equals 518 kg per capita per year). Such packaging is often made of plastic. There now exists an area of plastic waste, equivalent to at least the size of five continents and known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ floating on the surface of the Pacific ocean (see the infographic below). This ‘plastic island’ measures five times the area of France. Given that certain plastics take more than 1,000 years to decompose, the scope of this ecological disaster becomes clear. In addition, local taxpayers must bear the cost for treating waste. In 2013, for example, taxes for collecting household rubbish in the Paris region alone amounted to more than EUR 1.5 billion, or some 140 euros per capita per year.


Bea Johnson, a French national living in the United States, is one of the leaders of this movement. The young woman, a wife and mother of two children, has thoroughly changed the way she lives and consumes. She now advocates zero waste, with an approach based on five practical principles: refusing to consume certain products, reducing purchases, reusing items, recycling and composting. For example, she buys food in bulk or cut-to-order and keeps it in glass jars. She uses second-hand furniture and clothes and she mainly shops close to home to minimise her carbon footprint. Thanks to her diligent, steadfast efforts, she was able to fit all of her non-recyclable waste in a one-litre jar in 2014.


Another citizen-led initiative brought forth by Rossano Ercolini in Caponari in Italy, is beginning to have an influence on a growing number of politicians. In 2013, Ercolini won the Goldman Prize, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for environmental achievement. Under his leadership, groups of volunteers have banded together with an objective of reducing the amount of waste produced in their town. The focus is firmly on raising public awareness about the threat that waste accumulation poses to both the environment and public health. Financial incentives to provide support are offered by the municipality by introducing incentive pricing, which involves levying collection taxes that are commensurate with the amount of waste disposed. Municipal authorities have also opened recycling centres that accept all sorts of items from textiles to household appliances, before restoring them as well as possible and seeking a new owner. Besides generating a significant number of jobs, collection and recycling centres of this type help the taxpayer avoid having to fork out for costly expansions of incineration plants. One lesson for town councillors to ponder over: household waste has declined by 40% in the past 10 years.


This initiative is as notable for the results it has achieved as for its ability to harness the cooperation of an entire town. Admittedly,the municipality of Caponari has only 46,000 residents. Would the same approach be as effective in huge metropolitan areas such as Paris, Tokyo and New York? Could such interpersonal movements thrive in the impersonal environment of a megalopolis? What role should the public, local and national authorities play to foster the development of such movements? What measures should be taken, i.e. subsidies, tax incentives, training, learning tools, provision of facilities? An approach more in line with the traditional approach of the French State would be for public authorities to fully fund practical initiatives undertaken by such projects. That, however, might be a purely political question.

What partnerships can be forged with companies that specialise in reprocessing and recycling? Should governments require the population to pay for packaging at a rate that is proportionate with its reprocessing and carbon footprint costs at the time of its disposal, and if so, how are such costs best measured? More generally, should public authorities rethink their strategic urban planning to encourage the development of smaller communities more conducive to environmental and climate protection? If we have any hope of remaining below the critical two-degree rise in temperature (the threshold that climatologists say must not be breached), it is crucial we find answers to all of these questions, and pronto.

Some committed companies have already developed solutions for reducing and recycling waste. One such company is Tomra, a Norwegian firm that specialises in large-scale recycling of containers, particularly aluminium cans. Every year, Tomra collects and recycles 35 billion cans. One recycled aluminium can requires 40 times less energy than a can manufactured from scratch; this simple fact clearly demonstrates the positive impact of waste recycling. Investors looking to leave a meaningful impact and take advantage of the growing interest in environmental issues can help finance such companies by investing in BNP Paribas Asset Management’s SMaRT strategy.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Source: Visually.



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Alexandre Jeanblanc

Investment Specialist, SRI

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