Collectively, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) contribute substantially to environmental damage, although they may not be aware of doing so. Initiatives to improve the environmental record of SMEs can therefore play an important role. Incentives that cover 30 per cent of the cost of waste prevention schemes for SMEs in Austria, is an example of such an initiative.
The study conducted a simplified life cycle assessment (LCA) of 52 waste prevention projects from 2005 and 2006, measuring improvements before and after each project in terms of waste produced, energy consumed, CO2 and sulfur dioxide emissions. It also provides data on the impact associated with different waste materials such as paper, cardboard, plastics and metals.
The results were combined with expert opinion to rank each scheme in order of effectiveness. The authors note that one quarter of the projects evaluated were not truly waste prevention schemes, but waste reduction schemes. Waste prevention takes place before waste is generated, collected, stored, processed or disposed of and is aimed at avoiding waste altogether. The three main types of waste prevention measures are:
- Optimisation. This reduces the amount of material and energy required, as well as the use of harmful substances, by introducing more efficient processes.
- Substitution. This replaces material and energy inputs by using more environmentally friendly options, such as replacing plastic packaging with wood.
- Product re-use. This repeatedly uses a product in its original form.
This method suggested that some schemes are not as environmentally beneficial as previously thought. For example, a previously highly regarded scheme to reduce hazardous waste from X-rays was discovered to be not as cost-effective as initially assumed due to the small quantities of chemicals involved. The scheme had been ranked fifth for efficacy in previous comparison studies of waste prevention schemes, but this method placed it at the bottom of the table.
The authors write that SMEs are a vital part of the economy but are often unaware of their environmental impact. The new model could be a reliable method for assessing and ranking waste prevention projects. For example, it could compare the cost of saving 1kg of CO2 in different economic sectors, allow users to choose the most efficient waste management option, support qualitative decisions made by experts and increase the transparency of incentive schemes. Challenges include a lack of means for collecting data on the flow of goods and substances.