Somerset has the lowest amount of waste going to landfill per head in the UK – an average of between 160kg and 165kg per head. This is significantly less than the UK target for 2020, which is 225kg per head. And Somerset also heads the league table on recycling.
One of the reasons for this is that they’ve introduced weekly collection of recycled waste and bi-weekly for the rest. When this happened in my area (South Somerset) it radically changed my habits – and it appears I’m not alone. Another thing that’s makes a big difference is the size of wheely bins – the bigger the bin, the more people chuck away.
I gave a key note presentation at a workshop organised by the Somerset Waste Partnership, who are responsible for waste throughout the county. My speech highlighted some of the public misperceptions about waste, packaging and plastic bags. I also illustrated the shocking problem that we have in what’s known as WEEE waste. This rather cute acronym stands for ‘ Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment’.
When I mentioned the problem of WEEE waste at a conference the other day, I was told that this country is now meeting recycling targets for the sector. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that the system doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny in terms of making the most of the valuable resources used by the industry. Did you know for example that 90% of computers chucked away have a re-sale value but only half are actually re-used.?
I was sent a podcast link last week all about recycling electronic waste and how it’s done. It was absolutely horrendous. Huge clunky chains smashing up equipment and reducing the valuable parts to scrap. That scrap is eventually sorted and some sort of recycling is done. But it could be so much better. When you think that abut 1,173 tonnes of stuff is dug out of the ground to retrieve a tonne of copper, surely we should be retrieving every ounce we can find of that material – not just smashing it to bits and creating rubble.
Also, plastics waste from computers and other electronics count as recycled when they’re shipped off to China. I have no objection to sending waste to China for recycling per se, but I do think that we need to make sure that it is actually recycled. And what’s more that it’s turned into something useful. There’s not much point to recycling if it doesn’t mean reducing demand for raw materials or saving energy.
Another big issue raised at the Somerset workshop was about food waste. Apparently, the average household in the UK chucks away the equivalent to £480 worth of edible food in a year. And from an environmental point of view this is disastrous. All the energy, land and resources used to grow crops is utterly wasted if it just ends up on the rubbish heap. And, for every tonne of food waste produced 4.5 tonnes of carbon are emitted into the atmosphere.
Luckily land fill taxes are rising exponentially over the next few years. This means there’s more and more incentive for local authorities to come up with other ideas about what to do. But one of the problems is to make sure that they’re actually targeting the waste materials that have the biggest environmental impact, rather than those that are heaviest. For example, if we put all our efforts into glass bottles or even newspapers, we could be missing other materials, where the potential for reducing carbon emissions is far greater.
Public concern over packaging can also lead to some distorted priorities. You may be surprised to learn that only 3% of everything thrown into landfill sites is actually packaging. We may need to shift our focus to the building industry, for example, which is a hugely wasteful.
There’s so much more we could and should be doing to reduce demand for raw materials coming into the system and the amount of waste coming out. We must make sure that what we maximise the efficiency of what we do by giving significant incentives for good practice and swingeing penalties for bad.
And whilst we’re at it, surely the government should be setting 2020 targets for waste reduction, significantly lower than what is readily achievable today? Somerset may be leading the way but we don’t want to be quite so far ahead of the pack!