Why we want to prevent waste, not just recycle it



It’s hard not to think about waste when you’re living in the centre of a major city. Often, you can't walk down the street without seeing delivery boxes, plastic bags or food packaging littering the pavement. You could assume this is simply the result of ordering higher quantities of takeaway and delivered goods during the pandemic, but with the easing of restrictions in most cities, it is painfully clear that effective waste management is clearly a problem.


According to World Bank statistics, the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste every year – at least 33% of this isn’t managed in an environmentally safe manner. By 2050 global waste production is expected to grow to 3.40 billion tonnes per year.


The challenge

Waste is a serious problem, damaging the environment, threatening ecosystems and harming wildlife when not disposed of correctly. This includes humans, too.


Even when waste is disposed of properly, most of it ends up in landfills. A well-functioning, sanitary landfill will see garbage decompose in five phases until it becomes soil – essentially composting on a large scale. A crucial feature of this process is the gas produced in the decomposition process, especially carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), which are released when organic compounds break down.


In properly managed landfills, this gas is collected and flared or recovered for use. The problem is with improperly managed landfills, of which there are many. When decomposition gas isn’t collected, it enters the atmosphere and has the same negative impact on the climate as greenhouse gases (GHG). In 2019, municipal solid waste was responsible for 11% of global methane emissions. This is projected to grow to by 70% 2.38 billion tonnes by 2050 if no improvements are made in the sector.


So what about recycling?

In theory recycling is an excellent solution to the problem, because in a perfect world it implies zero waste. But that’s never actually the case. The recycling infrastructure varies greatly per country, so the first problem is that you simply can’t recycle in certain places. But let’s say you live in a country where recycling is widely available and relatively cost-effective. Paper is likely going to be the most recycled material – in 2018 it made up approximately 67% of recycled municipal solid waste in the US and 82.9% in the EU. Recycling paper is a resource-intensive, waste-producing process. It involves using chemicals and water to break it down into pulp, which then has to be separated from organic and inorganic compounds like ink. The sludge resulting from de-inking can account for up to one-fifth of the weight of the paper.


And then we have plastic, a highly durable but non-biodegradable material that comes in a wide variety of forms, not all of which can be recycled. It's said that less than 20% of waste ends up actually being recycled. The forms of plastic that can be recycled need to be melted down in order to be reformed into new products. This leads to polymer degradation, which effectively means that recycling plastic only really delays its eventual disposal.


Steel and glass, on the other hand, can in most instances be recycled again and again without quality loss. The same is true for concrete and aluminium. This is good news, and makes these materials preferable to plastic. But as with any manufacturing process, all of this involves money, energy and varying degrees of emissions.


Prioritising prevention

The United Nations projects the global population will hit 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. That's over a 50% increase in people producing waste that will need to be managed. Given the limitations of even the best landfill and recycling technologies, a sustainable waste management strategy has to include waste reduction.


Cutting down on plastic is arguably the highest priority. A study by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that by 2040 there will be approximately 29 million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean every year if business continues as usual. That means that by 2050, the volume of plastic in the sea could outweigh the fish.


Taking steps to reduce plastic waste is crucial. At Booking.com, we continuously assess our operations to identify areas of improvement. In 2020 we swapped plastic for aluminium cans in the vending machines in our APAC offices, removed all single-use plastic packaging in our Amsterdam offices and replaced single-use plastic products with reusable alternatives. We’re also a signatory of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative, as part of our effort to improve our own sustainability as well as to support our partners in reducing plastic waste.


Food waste – which makes up a significant proportion of the gas-emitting organic material in landfills – is another area where reduction is critical. There are plenty of simple changes individuals and companies can make to cut down on food waste. We’ve overhauled some of our biggest kitchens in our Amsterdam offices to actively monitor and reduce food waste. Employee education is also an important part of our broader strategy.


Of course, it’s impossible to completely avoid waste – plastic or otherwise – so recycling continues to be a crucial part of sustainable waste management. We currently have waste-streaming systems in place in offices that are located in buildings or municipalities that support it, and actively seek alternative solutions for offices that aren’t. In cases of office closures, we deploy our waste-processing policy so that wherever possible any functional furniture is left with the property manager so that it can be reused or donated locally. To complement these structural investments, we’re investing in education and overall waste mitigation.


The ultimate goal for waste management is a closed-loop economic system, where everything is shared, repaired, reused or recycled. However, bearing in mind that recycling is an imperfect solution, effective waste prevention is paramount. A goal like this may seem lofty, but using it as a north star can help guide business decisions along a sustainable path, so that we avoid the waste problem turning into a waste crisis. Each business and individual will have to approach this from their own unique capabilities. At Booking.com our focus is on making continuous improvements to our processes and policies, so that we’re always incrementally improving efficiency and reducing waste.