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Wednesday, 08 August 2012 17:11

The Problem is not with Waste, but with Climate… -how Perceptions Influence Behavior

Written by  Dr. Ulrich Wiegel Martin Steiner
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Editor’ Note: This paper has been targeted for a broad audience. The level of scientific detail provided is therefore not as high as would be normally be required in technical paper subject to peer review by environment industry professionals.The Problem is not with Waste, but with Climate…- how Perceptions Influence Behavior

Both solid waste and greenhouse gases are “wastes” in a broad sense, one solid, the other gaseous. Solid waste has access all our senses, not so greenhouse gases. Over recent decades, inadequate disposal of solid waste has caused locally felt environmental damage and nuisance. As a consequence our management of waste has improved to a level approaching sustainability, at an acceptable cost to society. Yet, in spite of the twenty-fold greater mass of greenhouse gases polluting our environment, we have so far not been motivated to act as we did, and continue to do, with solid waste. An urgent need exists to heighten society’s perception of the potential damage of our greenhouse emissions so that mitigating measures – both technical and value based – can be implemented.


Environmental problems and challenges can be attributed to a range of very different main causes: solid waste, wastewater, toxic gases, atmospheric particulates, noise, and greenhouse gases. These problems are resolved to varying degrees in the economically highly developed countries of Western Europe (let´s here take as examples Switzerland, Austria and Germany). This paper – written from the perspective of these countries and offering food for thoughts – compares “waste” against “greenhouse gases” to demonstrate to what extent our perception of the problem is steering our willingness to resolve it.

From a broad perspective both materials concern wastes, one solid, the other gaseous. The first is perceived with our senses, the other not. Solid waste is accessible to all the senses: we see, feel, smell – and even hear it, once the garbage truck arrives. The essential greenhouse gases of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are outside our sensory capacities: invisible, odourless – and, moreover are disposed of at virtually zero cost, even allowing for the current European carbon trade system. We simply dump the gaseous garbage into the “air ocean” on the bottom of which we live.

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