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
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The Independent Online

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.