Joan Bakewell: From junk mail to nuclear waste - it's all unwanted

Waste is one of the unintended consequences of capitalism and industrialisation
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The Independent Online

"No Junk Mail", the notice says on my front door. In green letters. It is provided by Camden Council, who are at last making a serious attempt to deal with one of the mounting problems of our time: what to do with all the stuff we produce and no longer want. Yet the junk keeps on coming. Clearly the senders don't recognise their own circulars under such a disparaging heading.

Yet almost anything free and unsolicited must count as junk. Two types persist right now. Political leafleting is mounting as local elections approach, and in this ward the Lib Dems are the most prolific. Messages come in print, in pseudo handwriting, again and again. At least they seem to be using recycled paper. Labour has so far made only one strike, an all-singing, all-dancing full colour broadsheet proclaiming their virtuous past and future intentions. A small offering from local Tories slipped in almost unnoticed. I give them all a cursory read as I head for the bin. At least election fodder is brief, short term and might have some relevance to my life and my vote.

Not so the regular lifestyle glossies, vehicle for estate agents' publicity, that regularly thunder on to the doormat entirely ignoring my green sticker. This month's London Magazine runs to 260 pages, half of it chat about grossly indulgent consumption - fashion, food, décor - half given over to the property market. It's spring, this is the house-buying season and the promotional copy is nauseous. Straight into the bin. As the cliché has it, how many forests must be felled to provide this tidal wave of unwanted and insidious promotional fodder. And how can it be kept away from my door?

Waste is now a major issue for developed countries. Packaging is a prime example. Buy any iPod or electrical gadget and you discard cardboard, perspex covering and pre-formed blocks out of all proportion in size to the product within. Bubble wrap, oceans of drifting polystyrene snow, come with virtually any mail-order delivery. Need it really be so? And how is it all to be disposed of? Landfill sites and car-crushing centres make great locations for social realist movies, but how many of them can the country sustain? We shall have to address seriously the issue of using less, reducing society's detritus, before we drown in a tsunami of polystyrene. The market is not self-regulating, and someone has to set limits.

And then there's really serious waste. Think of the Albert Hall and then multiply it by five, and fill from floor to ceiling. That's how much radioactive waste is being stored at power stations in Britain, according to Keith Baverstock, a former World Health Organisation radiation expert. He broke ranks with fellow scientists at the weekend, having supposedly been sacked last year from the government-appointed committee on radioactive waste management (CorRWM). In the week that marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, this committee is reporting on how existing radioactive waste could be safely disposed of underground. Mr Baverstock claims they have done "a Mickey Mouse job" How are we to know?

The new report plays into the Government's imminent decision about its future nuclear energy policy. One of the greatest arguments against building more nuclear power stations is that we will be leaving a hideous and unpredictable legacy for coming generations, extending hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Always, its usual to add, supposing civilisation lasts that long. That is no silly qualification when brains as eminent as Lord Rees, the current President of the Royal Society, and James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia theory, have both expressed doubts about the capacity of our civilisation to survive at all.

The option of surface storage is considered no longer wise, given the risks of international terrorism. There are almost certainly wild and messianic groups who would see the acquisition of any kind of nuclear material as giving them the power they lack now. So the considered option is to bury radioactive waste deep within the earth, the sort of place where Gandalf and his like consort. If Britain goes for more nuclear power stations, the spent uranium fuel rods would triple radioactivity in the UK's current waste cupboard. So the digging will have to be deep and long.

On our small island, it's going to be an interesting debate as to where exactly we could dig. The Geological Society of London, and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining have expert members eager and willing to help with suggestions. Back in the 1990s, scientists planned an underground laboratory somewhere near Sellafield, but uproar at a local inquiry put a halt to it. The geology has to be correct before such momentous steps are taken. Places such as Wales, the Lake District, central Scotland and the east coast of England have been mentioned.

To the local people in such places, this will be far more offensive than my junk mail is to me. Whatever scientific evidence is offered that radioactive dungeons are safe beyond error, they will still see it as contamination. Numerous guardians of landscape, wildlife and natural beauty will be out in force to protest and resist. Waste is one of the unintended consequences of capitalism and industrialisation. But we can't wish it away. It calls for global strategies and a good deal of tolerant international negotiation. It's too late to stick a flyer "No Radioactive Junk" here. It's already on our doorstep.