Waste choices

Updated Tuesday, 1st August 2006
Stephen Burnley discusses how the questions about what we do with what we no longer want are for everyone to consider - and suggests action you might take

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Wastes are always with us and have been with us since prehistoric times. We could no more live without waste than we could live without farming, manufacturing, buildings and transport.

Having said that, collectively and individually we do have some influence over the amount of waste we produce and what we do with it. This article concentrates on domestic waste - the stuff we put into our dustbins and recycling boxes and the wastes we take to public waste disposal sites and recycling centres.

For details of how much domestic waste we produce in the UK and what happens to it, have a look at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website. In the following article we explore some of the choices facing ourselves, our local councils, the UK Parliaments and Assemblies and the European Union over what we should do with our wastes.

Bins waiting collection [Image: Mark McLaughlin under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]
Bins waiting collection [Image: Mark McLaughlin under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

You may feel that the generation and disposal of waste is the fault and responsibility of the supermarkets, industry in general or the Local Council, and beyond the control of individuals. That may be true to an extent, but there is a lot we can do and several choices that we can make:

  • To take an interest
  • To reduce waste
  • To reuse and recycle waste at home

Take An Interest

Our first choice is whether to take any interest in the subject at all. Most people are quite happy to put their waste out once a week and leave the rest to the Council. We pay for this service, so why not find out from the Audit Commission website how much is spent on collecting and disposing of your waste (you may be surprised how small this sum is)?

This site will also tell you how much of your waste is landfilled, used for energy recovery and recycled. Do you know where your local landfills and other waste processing sites are? The Environment Agency website can tell you all this and more about your locality.

There are many strident debates going on over how we should deal with our wastes. Many organisations promote one particular technology (usually the one they supply or operate) whilst other organisations oppose all solutions while proposing none.

We can leave these two groups to fight things out between themselves and let the winner take all the decisions for us. Alternatively, we can find the information ourselves, weigh things up and then use the democratic processes to make our views count.

Reduce Waste

We can all do a lot at the practical level to reduce the amount of waste that we produce at home. For example you could decide to:

  • register with the Mailing Preference Service to reduce the amount of "junk mail" you receive;
  • try putting a "no free papers please" notice on your letter box;
  • use your own reusable boxes, crates or bags when shopping;
  • buy loose vegetables rather than pre-packed ones;
  • if you have a home computer use both sides of the paper for printing.

Reuse and Recycle Waste at Home

Again, there is a lot you can do to reuse or recycle waste materials. You may well already do many of these, but you could:

  • use bottles and jars for storage (bits and pieces in the garage, home made jams, marmalades or drinks in the kitchen);
  • pass baby and child clothes down through families and friends;
  • take unwanted clothes to charity shops;
  • find charities who can use old electrical appliances;
  • make compost from garden and kitchen wastes (this also helps to conserve peat beds);
  • use door-to-door recycling schemes if your Council operates one;
  • use bottle, paper and can banks (but never make a special journey by car to a recycling centre)

Clothes waiting to be put onto Oxfam's online store [Image: net_efekt under CC-BY licence]
Clothes waiting to be put onto Oxfam's online store [Image: net_efekt under CC-BY licence]

What Choices Does My Local Council Have?

The local authorities that have to decide how to deal with our household waste on our behalf have to weigh up many factors in making their choice, but the main ones tend to be:

  • How much can they afford to spend?
  • What does central government require them to do?
  • How much landfill capacity do they have access to?
  • Do they have sites suitable for locating incinerators, composting facilities and recycling centres?
  • Can they sell power, compost and recycled materials?

Within the constraints set by these factors the options available for waste management are:

  • Landfill
  • Incineration with energy recovery
  • Composting
  • Materials recycling

All these options have some environmental benefits and, at the same time, cause some different environmental problems. The waste manager's task is to find the combination that minimises the problems and maximises the benefits while keeping costs down to an acceptable level.

Research and practice within the UK and elsewhere is demonstrating that the optimum solution is almost always based on a combination of all these options.

The precise combination will depend on many factors (for example, it would be ridiculous to attempt to use the same waste collection and disposal system in central London and the Highlands of Scotland). But a solution that does not include some element of all four options will either not meet legal requirements or will simply not work.

Spy Hill Landfill, Calgary, Canada [Image: D'Arcy Norman under CC-BY licence]
Spy Hill Landfill, Calgary, Canada [Image: D'Arcy Norman under CC-BY licence]

What Choices Do Central Governments Have?

It is often said that pollution does not respect national boundaries. Also, countries that cut environmental corners give their home industries an unfair advantage over those in neighbouring countries. For both these reasons, most waste management legislation is now agreed at the EU level where all member states have the opportunity to promote the measures and choices that they find appropriate. Some of the more important European and National measures are:

  • Landfill - The amount of degradable domestic waste that can be landfilled is being restricted and by 2020 the UK will have to have built several hundred more waste processing facilities to recycle, compost and burn waste.
  • Recycling - By 2005, there are targets to recover materials, compost and energy from 45% of domestic waste.
  • Packaging - the packaging industry (packaging manufacturers, producers of goods and retailers) already have to recycle 52% of packaging wastes and this proportion is set to increase each year.
  • Vehicles and Electronic and Electrical Items - Requirements for industry to vastly increase the recycling of motor vehicles and electronic and electrical goods are being introduced.

So who is responsible for the amount of wastes we produce and how we deal with it? It is easy to blame the supermarkets, the packaging industry, the Government or Europe. But we - the purchasers of the goods and electors of the politicians do have choices and can make a difference.

  • We can choose more or less wasteful buying behaviour;
  • We can choose to make our own compost, to reuse and recycle wastes;
  • We can choose whether to quiz or councillors, MPs and Ministers about waste or whether to leave it up to them;
  • We can choose to listen to the voices of industry and pressure groups or choose to think and form our own views.

Some useful contacts:

DEFRA - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Environment Agency - the leading public body for protecting and improving the environment in England and Wales

Scottish Environment Protection Agency - SEPA is the public body which is responsible for the protection of theenvironment in Scotland

The Northern Ireland Environment and Heritage Service - an agency which aims to protect and conserve Nothern Ireland's natural heritage and built environment

Waste Watch - the leading national organisation promoting and encouraging action on the 3Rs - waste reduction, reuse and recycling.




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