(Society section, p. 9)
17 July 2002
By Joanna Collins
THE BIG CLEAR-UP
Radical proposals for waste disposal
The government and many local authorities are in a deep hole over waste. With the amount of household rubbish set to double by 2020 to over 40m tonnes a year, and new European directives insisting that Britain significantly reduces its landfilling, the incineration option looks attractive, but is proving politically and financially difficult.
The government, which is currently conducting a full waste review, suggested last week that householders who do not recycle their rubbish would have to pay up to £1 a sack to have it removed. It hints that radical change is coming, but, in the meantime, many local authorities around the world are turning to a system called zero waste that would abolish landfills and reduce dramatically the need for incinerators.
Getting rid of waste altogether sounds pie in the sky, but is, in fact, quite simple. The premise is that everything we buy is, or eventually will be, made from materials that can be repaired, reused or recycled. So governments, councils and industry should be working together to find ways to turn waste into a profitable resource or designing it out of the system altogether.
Canberra, Toronto, California and, lately, New Zealand - where 45% of all local authorities have signed up to zero waste policies - are convinced enough to make it a target to be reached by 2015 or earlier. The UN and the South African government have agreed to green the Johannesburg summit by following zero waste principles.
Now the initiative has been picked up by Sue Doughty, Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford, who recently launched a charter and 10 commandments that call on government to get rid of household waste by 2020. "Councils are required to be financially risk-averse," she says, "so without government setting enabling regulations they don't have the empowerment to go as far as they might".
But Bath and North-east Somerset council is not waiting on government; it is the first authority to have adopted the zero waste vision. Colchester and Braintree councils, in Essex, are now following.
"Zero waste is, to me, a grassroots movement from local authorities and people," says Bath councillor Roger Symmonds. He was won over to the concept two years ago at a conference in Geneva, where New Zealand authorities that had taken the plunge recounted their experience.
"Don't get too hung up on the zero bit," he cautions. "It may not be achievable. But if we get anywhere near, then the benefits for health and jobs will be enormous."
The early signs are good. Where Britain currently recycles 11% of household waste, burns 8% and dumps the rest, within six years of a change in policy Canberra is recycling 59% of its rubbish and Edmonton, Canada, has reached 70%.
Surprisingly, organic waste makes up the bulk of a bin-load and causes the nastiest health risk when it rots and leaches from landfill. Composting, according to the cities which have adopted zero waste policies, can immediately reduce the problem.
In many cases, the high achieving cities and councils have introduced three-stream collection, separating organics, dry recyclables such as bottles and plastics, and tricky residuals such as batteries.
According to Robin Murray, a leading zero waste economist, as soon as this is done "they find suddenly that they are recycling more than 50%".
There's money to be made, too, say the zero waste proponents. In a recent US survey of high recycling programmes, savings were made in 13 out of the 14 cases. Resource recovery facilities and exchange networks were found to be turning waste into an asset, creating small business opportunities and employment in struggling communities.
This has been a key factor in New Zealand, where zero waste is regarded more as a driver of local economic development than a matter of environmental conscience. "It's very much a case of the people led and the government followed," says Warren Snow, of the New Zealand Zero Waste Trust. "It's a quiet revolution where non-profit community groups are turning waste into jobs."
Radical thinking about waste is seen to be essential. When it comes to the 15-20% of waste that is difficult or expensive to recycle, zero waste proposes a new way of looking at the problem: anything that cannot be recycled or reused should be designed out of the system.
Here, industry is seen as a key player. "The multinationals are on to this far quicker than governments or environmental groups", says Murray. Many large companies, he says, already foresee the arrival of legislation that makes producers take responsibility for what happens to their products at the end of the life-cycle.