Your Planet: Throwing it all away

We live in a society addicted to the production of waste, and, says Donnachadh McCarthy, we badly need to kick the habit

A A A

It is hard to believe that there is a connection between the innocent-looking waste-bins in our kitchens and the alarm bells shrieking about the impending global climate crisis. But the truth is that all the rubbish we throw away has inbuilt emission costs, which include those involved in its manufacture and transport to and from our homes and workplaces; and those involved in its disposal, whether by landfill, incineration or recycling.

The combined contents of all our overflowing rubbish bins in the UK add up to a shocking 180 million tons of waste a year. According to government figures obtained by the Liberal Democratic MP Norman Baker, in 2003 we dumped six billion disposable nappies, 972 million plastic bottles and 468 million batteries. We spend nearly £3bn every year collecting and disposing of this waste. And the problem is getting worse. The waste mountain continues to rise, despite modest increases in recycling rates, because the amount of rubbish we produce outpaces recycling efforts.

We have gone from an almost zero waste society - in our grandparents' time - to a resource-hungry rapacious-disposal consumer lifestyle. The consequences go far beyond the threat of climate change. To feed this huge waste stream, we are destroying rainforests in our search for more metals and fossil fuels; our mining conglomerates are polluting rivers with toxic run-offs; and our burgeoning incinerators and rapidly filling landfill sites are emitting poisonous chemicals.

The UK government's response is to propose a massive expansion in waste incineration, from the current 15 to over 115 plants. With current landfill sites scheduled to be almost completely filled by 2010, urgent action is needed. However, while modern incinerators are cleaner than their predecessors, they destroy the incentive for recycling, produce toxic ash and are invariably placed in poorer communities, which do not have the political clout to protect themselves. Fifteen years ago, scientists were unaware that incinerators emitted dioxins and so did not test for them. These are now recognised as among the most dangerous known chemicals. They are still emitted by incinerators when they fail to act at optimum operating levels, which even the most modern plants frequently do. In addition there is no knowing what other dangerous chemicals are being emitted that we have not yet identified from the thousands of chemical reactions produced by burning our extraordinarily complex modern waste-streams.

Thankfully, the European Union is taking the lead on getting a hold on this wasteful and dangerous disposal culture. Through its waste and recycling directives it is putting pressure on European governments and is also taking on some of huge vested interests, such as the motoring and electrical goods industries. From next year, all electrical goods will have to be recycled and from 2007 the EU will also require that car manufacturers provide for the recycling costs of all new cars. Currently, nine million cars are dumped every year across the European Union.

Targets have also been set for national recycling rates. The UK currently languishes with one of the lowest European recycling rates at 13 per cent. Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands already have rates of over 50 per cent. Even the US, under arch climate-crisis sceptic George Bush, manages over twice our rate, at 28 per cent. Pressure from the EU is forcing the government to act.

The threat of EU sanctions is being passed down to local councils. Some local-authorities, such as Southwark, which had an appalling recycling rate three years ago of 3 per cent, have quadrupled their rate to over 12 per cent by introducing door to door and council-estate based recycling services. Lewisham is introducing a prize draw to encourage its residents to recycle more and Enfield has introduced fines of up to £1,000 for those who consistently refuse to recycle.

To be fair, the UK government has had remarkable success in encouraging recycled paper use in the newspaper industry. In 1997 the recycled content of newspapers was 41 per cent. Through a voluntary agreement with the government, it has now risen to 75 per cent, thus creating a market for the paper we recycle at home and saving millions of tones of CO 2 emissions. Yet it is still almost impossible to find recycled photocopying paper in high-street stationers and the criminal use of virgin paper for toilet tissue continues unabated. The government needs thorough regulation to assist the creation of healthy markets for all the materials being recycled.

But while millions of us now recycle, the real stumbling-block remains: how to reduce the waste we produce in the first place. This is because reducing waste is dependent on thousands of individual decisions by people in businesses and homes across the country, which are hard to influence. As a result, "reduce" remains the Cinderella element of the "Reduce, Re-use, Recycle" mantra. It is seen as easier to try top-down solutions such as incineration or installation of recycling infrastructure.

Yet it is possible to encourage "bottom-up" solutions as well. The government should, for example, introduce targets for local councils for the reduction of domestic waste produced per head, as they have been made to do by the European Union for recycling. Such league tables are very effective in encouraging local council delivery.

Secondly, the government needs to engage energetically with industry simply to outlaw the production of much unnecessary waste. It is 34 years since Friends of the Earth launched its campaign to bring back returnable glass beverage bottles. Yet things have got disastrously worse since then, with almost all bottles from pubs now being dumped, instead of sorted and returned to the brewery for refilling as they were formerly. The government could legislate now for compulsory returnable bottles and a tax on plastic bags. The plastic bag tax in Ireland reduced their use almost overnight by over 90 per cent.

Even organic food frequently comes over-packaged. The Soil Association is now adding standards for sustainable packaging to its certification criteria. The behemoth supermarket industry is also showing small signs of responsibility for the waste mountains it creates. B&Q has introduced a charge for plastic bags and Sainsbury's is experimenting with 100 per cent biodegradable plastic wrapping made from corn starch. The future aim for our waste should be one of a zero waste culture, where rubbish is not produced in the first place and any resources that are used in the production and packaging of goods are 100 per cent recycled. This is not Utopian.

Last year using many of the ideas outlined on pages 8-15, I produced only half a wheely-bin of rubbish during the entire year. A truly modern consumer society would be a mirror image of a forest, in which all the leaves and wood are continually recycled into new plants and trees. With the huge new competition for resources from the emerging industrial giants of India and China, such a vision is essential if we are to maintain human life as we know it on the planet.

The window of opportunity is closing fast. But if government, business and, no less important, we as individuals tackle our waste mountains urgently, this emissions source at least can be eliminated. For a practical guide to doing so, turn the page.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
News
news
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer, Douglas Booth and Jack Farthing in ‘The Riot Club’
propertyfilmReview: It's the sheer nastiness of the Riot Club that takes you aback, says Geoffrey Macnab

Sport
Twelve of the winning bidders will each host three group matches
football
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Supply Teacher - Loughborough

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Teacher looking fo...

Primary General Cover Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teacher lo...

Part Time Primary Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Part Time Primary TeacherOur...

Science Technician

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:School Science Technici...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week