Waste not: recession leads to big drop in amount of rubbish we are throwing away

Households are consuming less and recycling more, according to the latest official figures

England's rubbish mountains are finally shrinking, with people binning less now than at any time in living memory. New figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveal that the conspicuous consumption and obscene wastage that have come to characterise the nation have slowed dramatically in the face of the recession.

Last week, the latest statistics from the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) revealed that the amount of waste sent to landfill or incinerated per person in England has fallen to the lowest level since estimates were first made.

Local councils and waste management companies across the whole country are reporting a drop of up to 10 per cent in waste collection in recent months, a fall that the UK environmental charity Waste Watch estimates could result in a massive reduction of 2.5 million tonnes in waste production in 2009 – enough rubbish to fill Canary Wharf five times over.

Experts believe that a number of factors have contributed to this remarkable fall, including a shift in public attitudes away from profligate living; a drop in the amount of white goods, such as washing machines and TVs, being thrown out; and a fall in construction waste, as the recession affects the number of building projects.

"We collected 4.5 per cent less waste in the last year, which is 7,000 fewer tonnes of rubbish" said Mark Banks, waste strategy manager for Westminster City Council. "This is common across the whole of Greater London – local authorities are reporting between a 3 per cent and 10 per cent drop in waste collection," he said.

Identical situations are being reported across the rest of England. Devon County Council has seen a 3 per cent drop in the amount of waste being produced, collecting 12,900 fewer tonnes of rubbish in the past year. Leading waste management companies – such as Cory Environmental, Viridor and Grundon – which work across England, Scotland and Wales have all been hit by the slump in waste production, with waste collection drivers being laid off in some areas.

"Volumes were down by over 10 per cent in the first quarter of 2009," said Malcolm Ward, chief executive officer of Cory Environmental, which collected 3.5 million tonnes of rubbish last year. "Major factors have been a fall-off in levels of construction waste, and lower household volumes as a result of reduced consumer spending," Mr Ward said.

Environmental groups and the Government have shifted their attention from recycling to waste prevention in recent years. For example, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, launched by the government watchdog Waste Resources and Action Programme (Wrap) in November 2007, has been successful in raising awareness of the £10.2bn of food waste we throw away each year.

Defra's figures, released last week, also highlight a surge in recycling. Britons recycled 36.3 per cent of their rubbish last year, up from 30.9 per cent in 2007. However, the research reveals big disparities between levels of recycling across the country, with Londoners recycling just 27.5 per cent of their waste, while environmentally conscious residents in the East Midlands recycled 43.8 per cent.

Experts believe that while there are clear links between decreased production and consumption due to the current recession – the UK economy shrank by 1.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 – and a reduction in waste, the increase in recycling points to a wider social shift.

"Not only are people moving away from conspicuous consumption, but they are also being more responsible with what they do consume, which is why recycling hasn't fallen. It is a movement away from disposable living," said Ian Mulheirn, director of the Social Market Foundation.

Defra's figures indicate that English households were already beginning to reduce the amount of waste they produced before the country felt the full force of the recession. Household waste dropped by almost half a million tonnes in the year up to September 2008 compared to the same period in 2007, while the amount of household waste sent to landfill or incinerated also fell to just 314kg per person – the lowest level since estimates were first made in 1983.

"The trend must continue long after the economy has recovered if we are to reduce our dependence on landfill and use our natural resources more sustainably," said Sam Jarvis, head of communications at Waste Watch.

"To do this, we need to decouple economic growth from waste growth," he said.

Recycle and reuse: 'It's always made sense to me'

Eleanor Harrison, 28, from London, and her daughter, Megan, nine months

"We do as much recycling as we can. There has always been something about recycling that made sense to me. I use reusable nappies for my baby, which some people do find a bit weird. We had an antenatal class of seven people and at first none of them used reusable ones except me, but now a couple of the others have got into it. Right from the beginning, we used reusable nappies and the amount of rubbish in the bin by the end of the week was just ridiculous.

All our recycling goes in one big orange bag – in which we put plastics, bottles, newspapers, etc – whereas my mum who lives in Oxford has lots of different ones. We don't have enough room for a compost heap, but if we did, I'd definitely have one.

I mend my clothes, and have made some from scratch. My mum taught me to sew when I was younger, and then we had lessons at school, too. I watch Grand Designs a lot and would like to build an eco house! Things like solar panels make a lot of sense to me, but they are a big investment.

I really try not to throw food away. I suppose it is a combination of not wanting to waste money and concerns about the environment. Not being wasteful does save you money. I think a lot of people feel the same as me about not wasting things."

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