Waste Britain

On the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, 120,000 discarded fridges are evidence that the UK still has a recycling problem. Charles Arthur surveys the state of the nation's rubbish
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The Independent Online

The fridge mountain is back. Two years after a change in European regulations saw a million unwanted refrigerators pile up around the country, Manchester has an unsightly addition to its skyline. The 120,000 fridges on the banks of the ship canal in Trafford Park - the result of a dispute between Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA), the Environment Agency, landowners and local authorities - are an unwelcome reminder of the UK's pitiable failure to hit waste targets.

The fridge mountain is back. Two years after a change in European regulations saw a million unwanted refrigerators pile up around the country, Manchester has an unsightly addition to its skyline. The 120,000 fridges on the banks of the ship canal in Trafford Park - the result of a dispute between Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA), the Environment Agency, landowners and local authorities - are an unwelcome reminder of the UK's pitiable failure to hit waste targets.

The Government - backed by a £10m advertising campaign - speaks grandly of the need to recycle more. But the reality is that the UK still falls short of its targets in dealing with the most plentiful or the most intractable waste products that our society generates, such as computers, plastic, toxic byproducts, cars and their components (such as tyres, batteries and engine oil) and cardboard.

The Manchester problem could have serious implications for the environment. There have already been six serious fires at fridge storage yards in the region, the most recent last month. Each fire releases CFC gases into the atmosphere, which rise into the stratosphere and eat away at the ozone layer.

GMWDA fired its contractor a year ago but the fridges kept on coming. A spokesman for Brixon, the property giant that owns two of the sites, containg about 50,000 of the junked goods, said it hoped to have them removed "if not before Christmas then certainly very soon in the new year".

The owner of another of the disposal sites, Garry Bucklery, said that seven weeks after the fire there, neither the Environment Agency, which polices pollution, nor the GMWDA had offered any help. "I've still got 3,000 fridges to clear and I can't risk another fire, so I've put them in containers," he said. "When I try to contact the Environment Agency I'm passed from one person to the next - the whole thing is a complete mess."

Fridges are only one of the areas in recycling blighted by serious problems .Wrap, which aims to find and encourage markets for the "streams" from recycling, thinks we should take a holistic view of what is possible. "Recycling isn't just about waste," said Philip Ward, its director of waste minimisation. "It's about preserving valuable resources for the future."

The problem for many consumers is seeing any value in what they are about to tip into the waste bin.

Mr Ward sees it from the would-be recycler's view. "Building suitable markets [for recycling] which respect those principles of waste minimisation will inevitably take time," he said. "But annual recycling rates in the UK are rising rapidly."

Indeed, the irony of the Manchester fridge mountain is that it need not be happening at all. Each fridge costs a little less than £20 to dismantle safely, leaving the CFC-bearing foam used as an insulator as a crumbly sand with no known use (so far); so that mountain of 120,000 fridges represents about £2.4m of work for someone.

Each year we get rid of about 2.3 million fridges, according to the Department for the Environment (Defra) and the Environment Agency. "Yet we have enough capacity to deal with three million," a Defra spokeswoman said.

The trick is to match supply with demand. We have people willing to recycle; we have people willing us to recycle; yet closing the loop seems to be a step too far.

What Gets Thrown Out?

Cars

There are about 32 million cars in the UK, and every year two million - each weighing roughly a ton - are disposed of. The EU directive on "end of life vehicles" requires us to reuse or recycle 80 per cent. Yet scrap metal prices have plummeted, meaning that many dealers have refused to take cars. Consequently, many were just abandoned on streets.

According to the pressure group Friends of the Earth, "the current [2003] recovery rate was just 72.5 per cent - achieved through spare parts reuse and metals recycling". Clearly, we have some way to go, especially when you look at just two components: oil and tyres.

According to Environment Agency figures, less than a third of all waste oil is recycled. Instead, 13 million litres of this toxic substance is "lost into the environment" each year.

Tyres do only slightly better. About 30 per cent of the 40 million junked each year (100,000 per day) go to landfill, where they pose a fire risk, allow insects such as mosquitoes to breed, poison the water, and (because of their size) keep rising to the top of whatever land they are placed in. Yet another EU directive mandates that that must fall to zero by mid-2006.

Televisions

"There are about a million tons of glass from TVs and monitors sitting in homes and offices and most of this will be entering the waste stream within the next 10 to 15 years," said Claire Snow, director of ICER, the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling. "This is soon going to have to be recycled - both to avoid contaminating landfill sites and to meet the requirements of the new waste electrical and electronic equipment directive."

They will be hard to meet because the glass from TV sets contains lead which is so tightly integrated into the glass that the contents remain potentially poisonous without careful treatment. Similarly, the circuit boards and components contain plastics and other potential toxins.

Computers

It's the same story with computers (whose associated monitors carry the same chemicals as TVs) and mobile phones: the circuit boards contain all sorts of chemicals in the solder and the plastics used to make them. The computing industry estimates that 2.7 million PCs, weighing 53,500 tons, are disposed of each year; only 20 per cent are refurbished and reused.

Mobile phones

Only between 10 and 15 per cent of those mobile phones that are disposed of ever reach a recycling scheme. The most toxic part is the batteries, which often have to be sent to plants on the Continent able to deal with the lithium, nickel and cadmium they contain. The principal problem is one of scale: while we throw away more phones than we commit to recycling, producers cannot build up the economies of scale they need to extract valuable metals like gold from the devices.

Cardboard

Every year in the UK we use nine million tons of paper and cardboard, which makes up nearly one-third of the rubbish we dispose of. Yet much of that could be reused. Local recycling centres take cardboard, although it must be separated from other types of paper. Virtually the only sort of paper that cannot be reused is the glossy form.

The amount of cardboard that we recycled did increase, according to Defra figures, to 1.1 million tons in 2003-04, and made up 30 per cent of all the materials recycled through local authorities. Yet even that success story has been plunged into problems. A few years ago a glut in supply led to a fall in price for the recycled product; that put a number of UK manufacturers out of business. Wrap, the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme, says the demand for corrugated recycled cardboard is increasing - but in the Far East. It's not necessarily economic to ship the cardboard gathered here to those countries.

Glass

We use more than six billion glass containers each year (330 per person), and last year disposed of two million tons of glass bottles and jars. Yet despite having 20,000 bottle banks in the UK, and the fact that glass is one of the ultimate recyclables - it can be washed and melted down again and again - we only managed to recycle 38 per cent. The target is to recycle 60 per cent of those millions by 2008.

Plastics

UK households bin 460,000 tons of plastic bottles annually, and use about eight billion carrier bags. In 2002 the Irish government imposed a 15 cent (10p) tax on the sale of such bags to cut waste; within six months the number being used had fallen by 90 per cent. Yet despite expressing interest in the scheme, the UK Government has shown no inclination to follow suit.

Batteries

As for batteries, which contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals that can leach out and contaminate landfills and water tables, our record is even worse. We buy and get rid of between 20,000 and 30,000 tons each year; yet less than 1,000 tons are recycled. Along with engine oil, batteries stand out as a serious failure to encourage recycling of the most toxic substances.

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