MEMORANDUM BY SOUTH WEST SUSTAINABLE WASTES
MANAGEMENT CAMPAIGN (DSW 73)
Archaeologists excavate the waste heaps of older
civilisations and as they penetrate through the layers literally
dig their way into the past. What societies throw away can tell
as much about their nature and purpose as the edifices and monuments
they more deliberately raise for the benefit of posterity. The
ancient waste heaps are benign, organic and unextensive They are
of interest to generations like ours and pose no kind of threat.
Myth, scripture and philosophical dialogue suggest that other
human activities going back into the unrecorded past may not have
been so environmentally benign: semi-continents desertified by
irresponsible pastoralism, a whole continent sunk beneath cataclysmic
floods due to misuse of the forces of nature. The uncertain significances
of myth can only suggest, but certainly Humankind, the Natural
World and something of human and divine wisdom (even if only in
documentary form) survived into modern times.
Around World War I, the Liebigian revolution
led to general use of artificial fertilisers and an early environmentalist
response in the beginning of the organic farming movement. However,
it has only been since the last months of World War II that dangers
to the environment on an apocalyptic scale have emerged: first
the nuclear and thermo-nuclear threat which rumbles on with such
manifestations as Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, maverick nuclear
powers, the Star Wars Project and various leaky installations
and organisations (especially in Russia). A few years later (famously
documented by Rachel Carson in "Silent Spring" and latterly
by Colborne and Myers in "Our Stolen Future") there
slowly appeared the dangers from a vast range of synthetic chemicals.
These have already led to a worrying reduction in biodiversity
and threaten to bring it to a catastrophic level. In particular,
numerous halogenated hydrocarbons interfere with human and animal
endocrine systems. They are prime implicants in reduced human
sperm levels, cancer and birth defects. Of recent years Biotechnology
has led on a new procession of spectres whose real outlines are
as yet only dimly perceived. For the sake of completeness one
could elaborate other barriers across the human path to the future,
but they would be more eloquent by omission, although one cataclysmogenic
field of technology still at the politically pre-emergent phase
should be mentioned: microwave and electro-magnetic pollution
of atmosphere, hydrosphere and even geosphere by international
defence systems, mobile telephony, power grids and so on.
Of course all these technological applications
have perceived and even real benefits, but overall they represent
greater threat than benefit. Of the tainted fruits of the Faustian
contract, that which is most advanced in its deleterious effects,
most intimately connected to our everyday lives and most readily
ameliorated by individual action is that of waste: of the unassimilable
by-products of personal and communal consumption. Waste and industrial
and agricultural chemicals are the terrible triplets of the chemical
nemesis outlined above. To a degree they are interconnected, industrial
and agro-chemicals often entering the environment through the
general waste stream. Domestic waste, although not the largest
fraction by weight of the waste stream, is the most visible, the
most complex and potentially one of the most geocidal.
Landfill is currently by far the most adopted
solution to the problem of what to do with domestic waste. However,
it is now acknowledged by all European and English-speaking nations
to be an unsustainable means of dealing with waste. Traditional
waste disposal authorities and companies have turned their attention
to incineration (with or without power or heat facilities). The
advantage of this for them is that the management and profits
structure remains almost unchanged, whereas sustainable wastes
management needs radical, diverse, decentralised and more community-centred
solutions. Incineration is in fact more environmentally damaging
than landfill, as the combustion inevitably produces dioxins when
there are halogenated materials in the feedstock. To filter these
out of the flue emissions is only to put them into the fly ash
which needs to be buried on a special site, unless it is added
to the bottom ash. This seems to have been the case at Byker.
Here it was spread on the ground where it was trodden upon, even
handled and getting into the growing of food. This was an especially
unwise disposal of incinerator ash, but burying such material,
which can be considered on a par with radio-active waste, is equally
irresponsible as it only hands the problem on to another generation
when the intensely toxic component will eventually leach out into
water supplies. (Note: the old canard about bonfires producing
more dioxins than incinerators seems to refer in fact to barrel-burnings
into which householders throw all kinds of noxious wastea
feedstock if anything worse than that of incinerators).
The only solution to the chemical threat is
to abolish the concept of waste altogether. There are now 13 zero
waste authorities in New Zealand. Some of them are entirely dependent
on the pristine quality of their off-shore waters to attract tourists.
A zero waste strategy is the only way to preserve the environment
which is the source of their livelihood. However, here in the
UK where we have already learned to live with a degraded environment,
a full awareness of the danger to human health, fertility and
genetic integrity from synthetic chemicals can equally provide
the dynamic for zero waste strategy. There are 100,000 synthetic
chemicals in commerce globally and another 1,000 additional new
substances coming onto the market each year. Braungart and McDonagh
surveyed the 7,500 chemicals used to dye and process fabrics and
found that there were only 34 that did not pose hazards through
being persistent, mutagenic, carcinogenic or known to interfere
with hormonal systems. They have designed what they call the Intelligent
Product System which distinguishes three types of goods on the
market: "Unmarketable Products" which impose a toxicological
burden on the environment and which must therefore be eliminated
by legislation and by making manufacturers responsible for the
externalities associated with their product. The concept of Producer
Responsibility needs to be extended from paying taxes for damage
caused to not causing damage in the first place. There is of course
a whole world of possibilities opened up by using natural rather
than synthetic chemical substrates. Cellulose-based plastics are
already on the market. There would also be "Products of Consumption"
and "Products of Service". The former, which would include,
for example, foods and cleaning agents, would yield products that
are entirely bio-degradable. "Products of Service",
on the other hand, would be items and materials that are continually
reused or recycled for the very same purpose: for example, computer
cases, motor car components and solvents (which would be filtered).
Much that passes for recycling is in fact down-cycling.
It is a linear process beginning with raw materials and gradually
moving through ever humbler incarnations eventually down to a
non-biodegradable or even toxic waste. Paper and plastics are
examples of this. Intelligent Product System (Ecodesign) on the
other hand follows cyclic processes. It substitutes for the traditional
slogan of sustainable waste management: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle""Eliminate,
It will not be possible to drift into Zero Waste.
Although it would function organically rather than institutionally,
and be operated more effectively by small and medium-sized organisations,
a Zero Waste objective needs to be implemented vigorously and
be adequately funded. Robin Murray in his "Creating Wealth
from Waste" (DEMOS1999) sees a "Zero Waste Agency"
as the means to facilitate the total elimination of waste. The
ethos of the Agency would be entrepreneurial rather than administrative,
and outcome-orientated rather than concerned with the observance
of procedures. The three main areas of activity for a zero waste
agency would be information/education/co-ordination, funding and
Traditionally the government funding agency,
the Treasury, deplores the tagging of specific taxes for specific
purposes. However, increasingly social justice and the achievement
of radical programmes requires full hypothecation of taxes in
particular areas. Directing vehicle taxes into road improvements
and extending public transport is one example. Likewise the sum
of over £500 million per annum from the two forms of waste
taxation needs to be directed in its entirely towards a zero waste
The Landfill Tax 20 per cent offset giving the
payer freedom to allocate funding to "environmental"
causes has in effect been useless because of the tendency of the
payer to pursue self-interest in its allocations: "sweetening"
communities suffering from its operations, introducing anti-competitive
clauses in its awards, using the money actually to promote landfill
and incineration, and perhaps worse goings-on, as alleged in The
Guardian in 1999 and stoutly denied by ENTRUST.
Producer Responsibility taxation is an interesting
concept. While it is driven by the underlying thesis: "The
Polluter Pays", there is a context of choice and even creativity.
The traditional fiscal position is: "Pay!" whereas,
in a producer responsibility situation there are two distinct
options and every possible shade in between: "Payor
mend your ways!" Moreoever, a type of currency is created
(PRNspackaging recovery notes) which makes possible a trade
in pollution liability. This creates a dynamic for recycling and
waste minimisation, though it does open up possibilities for avoidance.
In practice, Producer Responsibility taxation has imperfections.
The scheme needs adjustments and levels of penalisation need racheting
up. Again, see Robin Murray's "Creating Wealth from Waste"
for a more detailed critique and proposals for improvement.
To some degree the language of "Waste Strategy
2000" is that of the more advanced thinking on the subject,
yet in essentials it is a broken-backed, schizoid document. For
to argue in all seriousness that incineration can have a place
in a sustainable waste management strategy is to take up a position
well abandoned by other European and English-speaking nations,
which have without exception given up on the building of new incinerators.
Waste Strategy 2000 attaches much importance to the waste-to-energy
and combined heat and power facilities that can be added to incinerators.
Yet in a recent Radio Four "Straw Poll" debate featuring
the leading pro- and anti-incineration proponents in the UK it
was quoted without challenge that a large one million tonne WtE
incinerator like SELCHP generates only one 34th the electricity
of an average power station. In addition, SELCHP belies its name
and should be called SELP as the heat-delivery option has not
been taken up. Seemingly this is because domestic heating is superfluous
for six months of the year and does not justify the expense of
installation and maintenance. If you add to this the fact that
there have been around 90 "incidents" in a year of operation
and the up-to-recent description of SELCHP as a state-of-the-art
installation is seen as hyperbole. Overall one is left by "Waste
Strategy 2000" wondering why the UK is so exceptionally susceptible
to corporate lobbying. This intransigence of government in the
face of public opinion is paralleled by that in the genetic engineering
From the viewpoint of Zero Waste the only course
is to treat all incineration as an intolerably polluting form
of disposal. Incineration has been identified as the main source
of dioxins in many countries including USA, Japan and Europe (A.K.D.
Liem and J.A. Van Zorge: "Dioxin and Related Compounds: Status
and Regulatory Aspects."Environmental Science and
Pollution Research, 2 (1) 1995, pp 46-56). Its fiscal status should
reflect its environmental status, with the following consequences:
1. It should cease to qualify for NFFO funding.
Incinerators do, after all, burn fossil fuels, plastics principally.
Also, that materials are burned that could have been recycled
means extra fossil fuels have to be consumed in manufacturing
materials from the raw state.
2. Incinerator operators should no longer
be entitled to issue PRNs. Burning something cannot rationally
be considered to be recycling it, even with some form of energy
recovery, so marginal is this form of valorisation.
3. It should attract a disposal tax similar
to that imposed on landfill, but at stiffer rates to reflect the
even greater environmental damage caused by incineration.
These three stages of cyclical materials recovery
also represent the three levels of government at which they operate:
local, regional and central.
Collection of wastes, especially domestic, is
best left to the private entrepreneurial sector because the salvage
of useful materials is essentially an economic activity and appropriate
to the economic sphere. The role of local and central government
must be simply to regulate (in as "hands off" a manner
as possible) all this activity. Especially important is to maintain
the recycling credits system, giving it security and setting it
at fair levels.
The big waste companies are best at simple,
large-scale operations. The complexity of high level materials
reclamation from the domestic or even commercial streams is beyond
them. Increasingly they will be less involved in landfill and
incineration as these run down, but there will still be ample
scope for activity in the bulk shifting of industrial materials
and also in the field of reprocessing.
Multi-separation doorstep collection of domestic
waste is the only way to achieve high level/total retrieval. Retrieval
from a conveyor-belt at a centralised MRF cannot deliver this
and leads to unpleasant, disinspiring working conditions. The
Germans have gone a long way down the MRF road. A useful consideration
of German practice is in the appendix to "Re-inventing WasteA
London Waste Strategy" (Ecologika, LPAC and Environment Agency).
Undoubtedly the single factor that would act
most powerfully to drive up recycling rates would be to extend
the charging by quantity of unsorted waste that applies in the
commercial sector to the domestic sector. Provided adequate weekly
doorstep collections of all recyclables (including compostables)
were available, initial public resistance should soon convert
to approval. Such measures seem to work effectively on the continent
and it enables producer responsibility taxation to be matched
by consumer responsibility taxation.
Reprocessing plants for all the main materials
need to be available on a regional basis. At the moment recyclate
has to travel too far. Green glass from Devon, for example, has
ended up in Argentina and China, and the bulk of its recyclable
paper travels to Kent. Waste mileage, like food mileage, leads
to global warming and other kinds of pollution. The miniaturisation
of reprocessing plants has already been carried some way and there
seems to be no reason why even comparatively low-population regions
should not be served by their own facilities. Even markets for
their products should as far as possible be within the region,
but of course this is hardly controllable due to the very nature
of economic activity. Particularly in the light of the current
fuel price crisis, rail offers by far the best means for the bulk
movement of materials, within as well as without a region.
The observations on market development in "Waste
Strategy 2000" are one of its strongest features. Central
government needs to act very strongly and imaginatively on raising
and stabilising prices for recyclate. At the moment the tragedy
is that it is more profitable to bury or burn waste than it is
to recycle it. One is surprised not to hear much mention of taxes
on raw materials. This is surely the ultimate tool for putting
life into a nation's efforts towards sustainable waste management.
Very probably one reason for this silence is that such instruments
are anathema to the World Trade Organisation. All things being
equal, free trade is to be encouraged, but fair trade has to take
priority, and what can be more fair to the world than preserving
Hopefully the observations in this submission
have not put delivering sustainable waste management into too
broad a context. If the kind of measures suggested are implemented,
it should help to remove one of the most serious challenges to
the physical survival of the human race from among the host that
loom here at the beginning of the Third Millennium.