01. 06. 2007

Wasting away

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To Peterborough, to mark 15 years of the City as one of the four Environment Cities. A lot of good things done during that time, but a long way still to travel.

Waste inevitably pops up as one of the biggest issues. Peterborough has the second best recycling performance of any comparative local authority in the UK- at more than 40%. That’s fantastic. But it generates more waste per person than most other places in the UK! Which neatly makes the distinction between waste minimisation and recycling: however good your recycling may be, the primary focus here has to be on reducing total waste per person.

There are many people in local government who think that this just can’t be done – but they’re wrong. There are huge variations in per capita waste levels from one local authority to the next. And specific policy and education interventions lie at the heart of those differences.

At which point in the discussion the work of the redoubtable Professor Hosking is raised to demonstrate what local communities can do, without any official backing from government, given the right kind of leadership. When the news broke of the success of Modbury in Devon in eliminating the use of all plastic bags (with all 43 shopkeepers and traders signed up to a joint campaign), the Professor was overwhelmed with requests for advice as to how to do it from all over the country.

Politicians constantly underestimate just how much people are prepared to do in terms of addressing their own waste responsibilities, and the ingenuity with which they’re prepared to set about doing something on that score – just so long as they’re given a chance.

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04. 06. 2007
Stuart Singleton-White

Dear Jonathon,

It is interesting to hear of your recent trip to Peterborough and as a past councillor I completely agree with you comment, “Politicians constantly underestimate just how much people are prepared to do in terms of addressing their own waste responsibilities, and the ingenuity with which they’re prepared to set about doing something on that score – just so long as they’re given a chance.” It seems there are a number of reasons why politicians are not able to hear or act upon the environmental aspirations of the people in their community. Much of the route of this problems lies in the disconnect between those local politicians and members of the community, coupled with very poor communications skills for both the politicians themselves and from the PR teams of the respective council: a clear lack of creativity here often results in exciting opportunities being lost and failing to excite: cases failing to be made and policies developed in isolation. In addition, however, I feel there is another problem in many local authorities and certainly in my own. That is the lack of political consensus and a lack of political responsibility.

In Reading we have recently seen attempts to introduce two quite progressive schemes which would have benefited the environment and the community. The first is a major transport scheme which would have seen a big reduction in town centre pollution and major advantage for cycling, walking and the bus. The second is the introduction of the alternate bin collections – general waste one week and recycling and green waste the other. Both have fallen victim to the most basic political posturing (though fortunately we are too far into the waste scheme to go back now). Both have fallen victim to Labour arrogance (they control the council) and poor communication on the one hand – particularly in the case of the transport scheme – and disappointingly base political opposition by the Conservatives and Lib Dems on the other; preferring to side with the shrill voices of outright opposition than argue for improvement or constructive alternatives. Until we break out of this silly political game playing and seek the clear and progressive environmental consensus we are going to need I am really not sure where the community leadership and the community’s chance, you so rightly point to, is going to come from.

Stuart Singleton-White

06. 06. 2007
Miriam Prys

Dear Jonathan,

I am a German student at the University of Oxford, and I have been following discussions about waste and recycling in the UK quite closely, though with distance at the same time - simply because I find it hard to get the basic parameters. For instance, why is there no charge on rubbish collection? This is, to be honest, one of the weirdest thing for me - probably because it is self-evident in Germany. The two things that amaze me most, however, are that plastic bags are for free and that there is no bottle deposit, not even on glass bottles. Two very easy to understand measures that would reduce household waste enormously. Now, I am sure that I am not the first person to think about this, but so far I have failed to grasp why this seems such an implausible thing to do here in the UK. Even in Italy, there are charges on plastic bag, and Italian politicians are far from claiming to be leaders in environmental politics.

I think you are completely right in saying that politicians are underestimating what people are willing to do. Particularly if measures can be reasonably explained and justified. There are many measures taken in other countries and I think politicians here could learn a lot looking at those examples more closely.

Miriam Prys

10. 06. 2007
James Greyson

Banning plastic bags is a great media stunt but it's a big fat decoy. The public get tricked into treating plastic as the enemy when the problem is disposability. Following Modbury's lead, my local town of Lewes is rallying against plastic bags but I'm clinging to my ancient reusable plastic bags. It's not hard to see retailers responding by bringing out 'compostable' plastic bags, which may be sufficient to contaminate and destroy Britain's tiny plastic bag recycling effort.

Could we hear from you please Jonathon about the more powerful expression of individual responsibility which is the trend towards returning unwanted packaging at supermarket tills? The principle of 'producer responsibility' is dead in Britain, with the bill for waste being picked up locally and government every year railroading more and more unsustainable waste 'treatment' Private Finance Initiatives based on burning resources that could otherwise all have been prevented, reused, recycled or composted. Peterborough City Council wisely withdrew from a waste PFI for Cambridgeshire which explicitly makes no distinction between waste that is not recycled (around 50%) and waste which cannot be recycled (as little as 10%). This PFI contract is due to be signed imminently and will lock the County into 28 years of dependence on disposal at a cost to local people of £750 million. Please see http://www.frontofpipe.net.

Do you think your national sustainability watchdog could sink its sharp independent teeth into government's massive mishandling of waste? Until government and their watchdogs address their waste responsibilities there is really little that individuals can do.

James Greyson

25. 01. 2009

Belated comment: Yes, we must reduce our waste; we must where possible turn it into charcoal and plough it into our soils. See James Lovelock's interview in New Scientist this week and look up "agrichar" on the internet. Charcoal agriculture plus underwater turbines seem very hopeful possibilities.

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