SNV Story No. 5: A standard that makes inclusion a reality

Recycling has long been a global business. Individuals who collect waste and global corporations that recycle the valuable raw materials are both involved in the value chain. In developing countries, a large part of this business takes place in the informal sector. The ISO 59014 standard to be developed bridges the gap between the informal and formal sectors, thereby improving the quality of life for many workers around the world. ISO working group convenor Dr Sonia Valdivia provided us with insight into the world of recycling and the new standard.

What are secondary materials?
In simple terms, secondary materials are raw materials that are saved and not thrown away, allowing value to be recovered and reprocessed. The range of materials is diverse and hidden in plain sight in our consumer goods, cars, clothes and buildings. The example of electronics shows that this range also includes critical raw materials that are in short supply worldwide or that can only be mined under difficult conditions.

Are all countries involved in the recycling value chain?
It’s not easy to provide a meaningful classification of their involvement. However, it tends to be the case that poorer countries are better organized when it comes to the collection of materials, while industrialized nations have a more suitable infrastructure for recycling. All in all, we are talking about a complex global value chain that needs to function well in all sub-areas. The challenge is to bring together the best of both worlds. Developing countries need to be able to manage a greater number of sub-steps in a safe and health-conscious manner. Recycling without collection is of as little value as collection without recycling.

What does recycling have to do with social justice?
Depending on the raw material, up to 90% of the waste material is collected by workers in the informal sector. These are people for whom waste collection is their primary source of income and who have no lobby. It is frequently the case that such collection is associated with health risks. It is a matter of social justice to legally recognize those working under these circumstances and provide them with fair access to the formal sector. They are ultimately the ones who clean up after our consumer society and make recycling possible in the first place. The “ISO/CD 59014 secondary materials – Principles, sustainability and traceability requirements” standard creates the basis of fairness between the interest groups. It is fortunately the case that the understanding of the circular economy is widespread today. Interdisciplinary teams of experts from the fields of psychology, economics, social science and law work together effectively.

The predecessor of this new standard is an ISO Workshop Agreement. What is that exactly?
The ISO IWA (International Workshop Agreement) 19:2017 “Guidance Principles for the Sustainable Management of Secondary Metals” was established in 2017. Born out of a collaboration between the “SRI Sustainable Recycling Industries Program” and SNV, it is based on more than 12 years of experience in partner countries such as Ghana, South Africa, Peru, Egypt and Colombia. The focus at that time was on collecting and recycling metals and fostering inclusion. It is difficult to survey the informal sector, and official figures are hard to come by. Thanks to the activities of the SRI program, waste collectors in Ghana can register and be assigned an identification number. This number then provides the collectors with access to the formal sector and allows them to sell the material they collect to the recycling companies as a registered supplier. This may sound like a very modest improvement, but it is a change with far-reaching consequences for workers who were previously unrecognized. In a second phase, the ISO IWA will now be converted into an official ISO standard. The standard particularly aims to ensure that micro, small and medium-sized enterprises take into account the sustainability aspects of secondary material management (collection, recycling and disposal). In developing countries, waste collectors usually live at the poverty line and earn their living with this work.

How is the working group organized?
Switzerland and Mauritius are the lead countries in the working group, which began its work in May 2021. Over the last two years, the draft standard has been elaborated in 12 meetings. There were many discussions, some of which were very technical and precise. The process is one that the participants all benefit from by learning a great deal from each other. Some 50 countries are members, with 25 of them very active in the group. All regions and continents are represented, and the SNV takes care of the required administration. A lot of work is done to prepare for the meetings, allowing the ISO working group to later work as effectively as possible. The formal sector is involved in the drafting of the standard. This includes prominent representation of scrap recycling companies and IKEA, for example. They are examining in detail how the standard can improve the circulation of their materials within a closed-loop system.

What is the status of the standard?
The Committee Draft (CD) has been finalized. The member countries are currently discussing the comments that have been submitted and incorporating them where appropriate. No new content is being developed in this phase, and the working group is only finalizing the existing content. The standard is on the finishing straight so that the final draft, known as the Draft International Standard (DIS), will be ready this year, allowing it to be published in 2024. The standard will consolidate the requirements and guidelines for the collection and reprocessing of secondary materials on around 15 pages. The content is always drafted in English and later translated by the countries into their local languages if there is interest. This reduces costs while also taking local linguistic peculiarities into account. For example, Brazil does not use the term “collection”, but instead prefers the designation “reverse logistic”.

Waste collection can affect children. How does the standard protect the weakest members of the chain?
It is important here to clearly distinguish between two different concepts. Child labour is non-negotiable and explicitly excluded in the standard. No child should miss out on getting an education or risk their health because of work. At the same time, it is common practice in developing countries that children have to work to ensure the survival of the family. If such work is age-appropriate, compatible with school hours and not hazardous to health, then it is tolerated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and not excluded in the standard. In such cases, the term “working children” is used. The ISO standard also formulates guiding principles for this target group.

How does the ISO standard safeguard the health of workers?
In addition to child labour, health is also non-negotiable. This is particularly important when contaminated products, parts or materials are involved. The standard clearly states how such contaminated items are to be identified, separated out and stored from the very beginning. The ISO standard generally encourages stakeholders to think systematically. Thanks to the holistic approach, the consequences of current and potential decisions regarding the environment, society, health and the economy are considered more critically and sustainably in the implementation.

This standard is just the beginning – what other steps are planned?
The current content is deliberately being kept generic so that it is applicable across many different industries. A next step will be to create sector-specific guidelines. The SRI program will also be launching a pilot project in South Africa with a recycling company that will immediately put the ISO standard into practice. The knowledge gained from this experience will in turn be integrated into additional standardization work. There is already great interest in the standard. This experience proves that rules and regulations, when properly embraced, have a positive impact on the development of an industry or a country and that many market players take their responsibility seriously.

Who will benefit from the new standard?
The new standard will be applicable to the entire global value chain, offering a win-win situation for all market participants. All industries will benefit from it – from production companies to banks, governments and sponsors who can use the standard as the basis for due diligence. However, the plan is that those working in the waste chain who live below the poverty line will benefit the most. Thanks to the application of the standard, they will be better appreciated, benefit from legal certainty and obtain access to a system from which they have been largely excluded up until now in many countries.

What matters most to you when it comes to the subject of recycling?
Although recycling has become an essential industry, we really need to put our focus on consumption. I am convinced that we should and ultimately must think in terms of cultivating a circular economy – that we need to reduce consumption and extend the service life of products.

Profile: IWA 19:2017 and ISO/CD 59014

Published: April 2017
Number of pages: 51
Will be superseded by: ISO/CD 59014
Convenor: Dr Sonia Valdivia
Status: under development as of 30 June
Applicability: worldwide, 50 member countries, 25 of them active
TC: 207/SC 5 – Life cycle assessment
More information on IWA 19:2017
More information on ISO/CD 59014

How does an IWA differ from an ISO standard?

Market requirements sometimes demand a quick response. To meet this need, international workshop agreements can be more quickly prepared outside the usual ISO committee structures and processes. Care is taken to ensure that many relevant stakeholders are involved and that consensus is reached. If an existing ISO committee already exists for the topic of interest, the IWA is transferred to it for maintenance. An International Workshop Agreement is reviewed every three years and can be developed into a publicly available specification, a technical specification or an international standard, depending on what the market requires. The life cycle of an IWA cannot exceed six years. It is then either withdrawn or converted into another ISO document.

Find out more

Dr Sonia Valdivia

She has always been interested in recycling. From her first research paper during her industrial engineering studies to her current work, everything has revolved around the concept of bringing about a circular, closed-loop economy. Since 2014, she has worked at the World Resources Forum, where she currently serves as Scientific Director. She holds an honorary professorship at Leuphana University in Lüneburg. She is heavily involved in standardization work and among the co-authors of various regulations.

Dr Sonia Valdivia is heavily involved in standardization work and among the co-authors of various regulations.

Dr Sonia Valdivia is heavily involved in standardization work and among the co-authors of various regulations.

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