Friday 27 April 2007

Recyling, waste collections and landfill

The online edition of The Independent published this leader today:

Leading Article: No time to waste

Published: 27 April 2007

This newspaper's campaign against the excessive and wasteful packaging that supermarkets and retailers use to enshroud their products is making real progress. As we report today, MPs are prepared to press for tougher laws against excess packaging. The major UK supermarket chains are promising action. Asda is asking its customers in two stores to inform them of excessive packaging so it can take up the matter with suppliers.

Interestingly, all this has coincided with a fierce row over refuse collection. Fortnightly, rather than weekly, collections for non-recyclable waste have been adopted of late by more than one-third of councils. This has prompted complaints that leaving organic matter in bins for two weeks is unhygienic and encourages infestations.

First, let us acknowledge the pressures behind this shift. The EU has set a target of 2010 for the UK to reduce its landfill use. This is quite right. The UK dumps more household waste into landfill than any other EU nation. And councils claim this is behind their policy of fortnightly collections, pointing out that this tends to increase recycling rates. Householders find their waste bin for non-recyclable rubbish fills up, which encourages them to use the space in their "green" bin.

Yet there is a flaw in this reasoning. European countries, several of which have far higher recycling rates than the UK, seem to manage weekly refuse collections. To this extent, the critics of the fortnightly collection have a point. Where they do not is in labelling Gordon Brown's increased levy on council landfill dumping as just another stealth tax. Landfill is an increasingly scarce public resource. Britain's landfill space is on course to run out in the next decade. It needs to be priced to reflect this. Such critics should direct some of their anger at the lingering lack of transparency regarding recycling in Britain. There is a considerable amount of confusion about what can be recycled and what cannot. And different councils have very different methods. Some sort all recyclable refuse themselves. Others demand total separation by householders of everything from tins to plastic. This confusion, as much as the fortnightly collections, is an irritant to the public.

We must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Other European countries are so far ahead in recycling that catching up is going to be painful. There will be missteps along the way. But what is clear is that these issues - excess packaging, recycling, the environment - are entering the political arena. This is not before time - the status quo is wasteful and unsustainable.

This is another occasion for me to feel righteous... Living here in the village, we have had "selective sort" wheelie bins since we moved to this house more than five years ago. The system works thus: we have two smallish wheelie bins, both split into two compartments. In one bin, we put paper and cardboard in the first compartment, and tins, cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles and Tetrapak cartons in the second compartment. In the other bin there is a compartment for green waste (grass cuttings, banana skins, potato peel, eggshells, coffee grounds, etc.). In the other compartment goes all that's leftover after you've sorted your rubbish into the first three compartments.

The refuse people collect the bins twice a week. On Thursday, a specially-adapted lorry empties the green and general waste bin, and on Friday they take the paper and bottles bin. At the waste management centre, people then sort through the plastic and glass bottles, milk cartons and drinks cans, further sorting them. The compostable waste is put in a huge industrial composter/compressor that heats it and squashes it, which produces compost in super quick time. That is then sold, I believe, to local farmers and market gardeners. The general household waste is incinerated. This is the only part of the process I don't really feel comfortable with, what with all those dioxins and what have you...

So what's all the fuss about? What is so difficult about introducing a similar system in the UK? I also don't really understand the big debate about fortnightly collections. I would be perfectly happy with fortnightly collections, providing my bin was a bit bigger (you really can only get about three 30l bin bags in it, which would be a bit tight for two weeks). I put my waste in a bin bag, and when it's full I tie them up using the bit of plastic string that comes with them, and I tie them up good and tight. And I always make sure the bin lid is snuggly closed. No hygiene worries there, surely?

Again, the problem appears to stem partly from a lack of "education". If councils explained the system with a bit more care, maybe people would understand the objectives and would adhere to the whole operation. As an aside, councils really do need to better explain what garden waste is, or what it is not. I saw a news report with a woman complaining that they hadn't emptied her bin because they said she was putting the wrong rubbish in. A quick check revealed plastic plant pots and paint tins in her garden waste bin. Just because you used it in the garden, doesn't make it garden waste...

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