Value added: modes of sustainable recycling in the modernisation of waste management systems

A. Scheinberg

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


For many centuries urban waste management in Europe and Northern America consisted of private – to – private arrangements to remove waste from the city centre and so restrain the spread of cholera and other diseases, odour and nuisances. The agricultural and industrial value chains provided a destination and a motivation to extract and valorise rags, ashes, dust, excreta, metals, food scraps, and many other forms of secondary resources which had some value to someone. The business of recycling developed alongside of municipal waste management, and absorbed many discarded materials, but remained a separate sector with its own practices, institutions, and economic rationality. The management of solid waste management became primarily focused on dumping waste outside the city boundaries.

The ‘discovery’ of the relationship between open dumping and groundwater contamination in the 1960s set the stage for a round of modernisation of waste management practices and institutions in high-income countries. The widely recognised and celebrated result was the shift from open dumping and open burning of waste to the engineered “regional sanitary landfill” as a large technical facility that concentrates waste, isolates it from population centres, protects ground-water and thus allows for safe modern disposal of increasingly complex materials.

This proved to be a costly affair though, and  triggered a process of ecological modernisation in solid waste management characterised by institutional and financial reforms, which elevated the cost of removal. Disposal became costly, and as cities expanded, land to dump became a scarce resource. This set the stage for incorporating valorisation into the modernised waste management landscape as an alternative to modernised disposal.  The ecological modernisation process that took place in Northern Europe and North America in the 1980s and early 1990s changed the policies and practices of waste management in fundamental but seldom understood ways. Pricing of disposal in high-income countries represents a core financial reform which in turn stimulates local authorities to invest in their own recycling (composting, reuse) infrastructure as a lower-cost and environmentally attractive alternative. Municipal recycling emerges as a key modernised institution in the landscape of integrated waste management, where investment in recycling produces higher and higher recovery rates and a virtuous circle of more investment, more recovery, less waste, co-operation with the value chains which have been re-constituted as “recycling markets,” and lower system costs. In municipal recycling, the agricultural and industrial value chains function as alternative and lower-cost sinks, complementing the landfill and lowering costs for the whole waste management system.

In low- and middle-income countries, in contrast, the ecological modernisation of solid waste is problematic and incomplete, and ‘recycling’ becomes a key new area of global conflict. Priced disposal does not come about, either because of low levels of disposable income or unwillingness of elected officials to impose a burden on tax- and rate-payers, or because the motivation to modernise disposal comes from global institutions and is insufficiently embedded in genuinely local policymaking. Without it the system-internal benefits of diverting materials from disposal to valorisation are missing. Municipal recycling does not emerge, and the virtuous cycle of increasing recovery ambitions and performance is replaced by a vicious cycle of interrupted private value chain transactions, declining valorisation rates, and increasing volumes of materials requiring expensive disposal.

City authorities in low- and middle-income countries seeking to gain the financial benefits of selling materials compete with private (informal) waste pickers, recyclers, and livestock feeding operations, claim monopoly rights to materials, and criminalise value chain activities. But  they are unable to organise effective valorisation themselves, as they lack knowledge and commercial channels to reach the value chains. The value chain actors are blamed for not buying materials, but also for exploiting poor workers in miserable working conditions. Valorisation businesses are unwilling to do business with municipalities who supply low-quality materials, so the value chain transactions fail, and both avoided costs of disposal and offsetting revenues from valorisation remain elusive.

Municipalities, waste system users, and the environment lose in this situation when local authorities are unable to pay landfill operating costs, and the expensive sanitary landfill infrastructure reverts to the status of a pre-modern dumpsite, which has to handle more and more waste. Agricultural and industrial value chains also suffer, because the thousands of individual and family enterprises in waste picking, recycling, and animal feeding are at risk to lose their livelihoods, or see reduced returns on their efforts due to monopoly behaviour, criminalisation, or harassment from the formal waste system actors. Mid-level value chain enterprises get fewer materials, and increasing volumes of potentially recoverable resources end up in the dump.

But there are already some examples of how changing the model can produce improved results. In a small number of cities in low- and middle-income countries, the ecological modernisation of the waste management system appears to be leading to the emergence of a new model for institutionalised valorisation, provisionally called inclusive recycling. Inclusive recycling is a model for public sector acceptance of private value chain activities of valorisation. It is  a model of shared ownership, risks, and benefits, where each set of actors does what they are best at. While it builds upon the techniques for participatory planning and stakeholder engagement, as well as on technical innovations for separate collection, processing, and environmental education that characterised the development of municipal recycling in the 1980s in OECD countries, inclusive recycling does not rely on the institutional reform of priced disposal.  Rather, it maintains the centre of gravity of valorisation activities in the industrial or agricultural value chains, where the knowledge and infrastructure exists to receive, process, and market materials. Instead of re-inventing recycling as a part of the municipal solid waste department’s responsibilities, inclusive recycling looks to intermediary institutions such as labour unions or recycling co-operatives to facilitate shared risks and responsibilities between local authorities and value chain actors.

Inclusive recycling can be seen in some of its emerging forms in Asia and Latin America, particularly in situations where there is a tradition of co-operation between civil society and local authorities, large numbers of waste pickers at the base of the value chain pyramid, and where the paper and metal value chains are long, healthy, and deeply rooted.  In place of a single municipal recycling system, inclusive recycling is a mixed system where there are many different types of actors, economic niches, and business models. The results may be high levels of recovery and diversion from disposal, making it comparable to municipal recycling as a modernised institution. Like municipal recycling, inclusive recycling contributes to the pluralism of the modernised system, with a proliferation of actors, activities, and economic niches, which qualify it as what ecological modernization scholars have called a ‘modernised mixture’.

However, inclusive recycling is not municipal recycling, and in the absence of priced disposal, the risks for both local authorities and value chain actors remain high. Combining global knowledge with local control of ecological modernisation processes is one approach to keeping the risks limited and enlarging the space for the virtuous circle of inclusive recycling to take root and flourish.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
Award date1 Nov 2011
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789461730114
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2011


  • recycling
  • sustainability
  • waste management
  • refuse
  • usa
  • bulgaria


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