What a load of rubbish

There's a nasty, smelly problem out there, and it's not getting any smaller. With the economy booming, we just keep buying things. And then throwing things away. And all the time a tide of rubbish is creeping closer to our front doors.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If future historians ever seek to put a precise date on when consumerism replaced the worship of Almighty God as the principal religion of the British, they might well plump for 26 August, 1994. That was the day on which, despite a long campaign against it by fuddy-duddies such as bishops and Marks & Spencer, the Sunday Trading Act finally became law, and triumphantly set the people free to shop themselves senseless not only on six days of the week, but also on the seventh.

And on the seventh day, He popped into town and picked up a few things, you know, couple of CDs, pair of jeans from Gap, half-ciabatta from Waitrose. Cool.

The social change that this great liberating measure has already worked is remarkable. Take Richmond in Surrey, at once an affluent suburb of London and a town in its own right. Georgian, elegant, beautifully sited on the Thames, Richmond is nevertheless unashamedly commercial and acts as a powerful shopping magnet for a large area of households with very high disposable income. Sunday, the former Lord's day, the former Sabbath, the former day of rest in this town by the river, is now in Richmond's shopping streets the busiest day of the week.

It is not only the busiest: it feels the most intense, the most - one might almost say - frenzied. The traffic jams are worst, the car parks most packed, the pavements most crowded, the crush in Habitat and HMV most unrelenting as thousands of people swamp the place to shop, shop, shop. The new religion now visibly has a sacred day of its own, with the altar replaced as the focus of worship by the plate-glass window.

Yet the Sunday Trading Act did not start the process, it merely consecrated it. Consumerism has been gathering pace these 25 years, underpinned philosophically at first by the long Tory insistence on the importance of Freedom of Choice, and of late given gigantic impetus by the enormous amounts of spare cash the lucky half of the country is trousering from the booming new economy.

But there is a downside. Not the one the fuddy-duddies might bang on about, about our spirits being coarsened by this demented pursuit of Mammon, or some such old rubbish. There is a real, measurable downside to all this consumption, which is creeping up on us and which has the Government in a blue funk. It stems from the boxes your trainers and your PC come packaged in, and the bottles holding your wine and the carton holding your pizza, and then from the trainers and the PC themselves when you get rid of them, as you soon and surely will, seeking newer and better ones to go with the newer and better decorations and furniture your sitting room requires. Not forgetting the style supplements you'll soon be throwing out, and the great fat weekend newspapers they're part of. The problem is waste.

Britain's throwaway society is consuming more than ever; it is also, as a consequence, creating waste faster than it has ever done before. Never mind industrial and commercial waste, there is a mushrooming mountain of domestic waste, the stuff that you and I produce at home: currently 28 million tonnes of it annually.

Last year the Government revealed a remarkable figure: this mountain is growing by 3 per cent a year, which means in 20 years it will have increased by more than four-fifths. And what to do with it is a problem of the most intractable and awkward nature.

At present, 83 per cent of Britain's domestic refuse is plonked in rubbish dumps, or, to use the technical term, landfill. But some areas, such as the overcrowded south-east, are starting to run out of landfill sites: the old clay pits and gravel pits which served so well are mostly full, and digging giant new holes in the ground for refuse tips is problematical with the stringent protection surrounding the purity of groundwater.

But that isn't the worst of it. The worst of it is coming up over the horizon from Brussels in the shape of a new European Union law, the Landfill Directive, which specifies that the 83 per cent of household refuse currently going to landfill in Britain must be cut to 35 per cent by 2020.

The Government has calculated that, depending on the waste mountain's rate of growth, this may mean that in 20 years' time about 33 million tonnes of rubbish will have to be dealt with annually somewhere other than in rubbish dumps.


Where on earth?

The Government doesn't know. It has two options: recycling, and incineration. Both have major drawbacks - recycling is expensive; incineration is unpopular.

Britain's recycling record is one of the worst in Europe: we recycle about 8 per cent of our domestic refuse compared to 45 per cent in The Netherlands and 42 per cent in Switzerland. Recycling is simply not part of our culture in any major way. To make it so would require enough money to give every household a comprehensive recycling service "at the door" - that is, separate bins and separate collections for paper, glass, plastics, cans and rubbish that can be rotted down to compost.

To do that nationwide would be an immensely expensive undertaking, and local authorities, beset by traditional funding needs such as education, housing and crime prevention, have thus far been unwilling to stretch their budgets to such fancy new ideas. Nor, for its part, has the Treasury.

Incineration is the alternative, and when last June it published its draft national waste strategy, the Government nervously indicated how many big waste incinerators might have to be built to do the job the Landfill Directive will require: up to 130 with a capacity of 200,000 tonnes annually, or up to 94 with a capacity of 250,00 tonnes.

Yes, you heard right.

There is no one in Britain, of course, who wants one of these belching behemoths in his or her backyard; every single proposal means a local planning battle fought tooth and nail, and Friends of the Earth has wickedly upped the ante by publishing a list of the likely sites.

Although 130 giant incinerators may well be necessary in terms of national policy, in term of national politics they constitute a pretty decent suicide note. This accounts, say those infallible authorities known as "sources", for the sudden postponement of the final version of the Government's waste strategy, which was due to be published on 5 April last. Labour had enough trouble in the recent local elections without the incineration factor sending more votes up in smoke. So they're still pondering,

And in the meantime, the British waste mountain keeps on growing. It is fascinating to look at its composition, and compare it with the waste of 50 years ago: the changes are radical.

The biggest item in the waste stream in the 1940s was dust and ashes: everybody had coal fires, for heating, hot water, cooking and burning other rubbish, and dust accounted for 57 per cent of the dustbin. Nowadays the biggest item by far is paper, from the great glut of supplement-padded newspapers and magazines we consume, which account for 33 per cent of the national bin: two-and-a-half million tonnes annually. Plastics, virtually unheard of 50 year ago, now account for over 11 per cent; metals (largely tin cans) over seven per cent; and disposable nappies, one of the throwaway society's defining items, perhaps 4 per cent.

The throwaway society shows no signs of changing course: consumerism has us too firmly in its grip. The waste mountain is the hidden side of it, booming, burgeoning, and now starting to spill out of its landfill sites and into politics as those in power wrestle with how to contain it. It will be a canny politician indeed who can cope when the irresistible force of our waste growth finally meets the immovable object of Brussels legislation.