As someone who makes frequent visits to my local council rubbish dump – sorry, recycling centre – I’m frequently reminded by the calls of the seagulls circling overhead of the crying shame of our ever-growing mountains of waste.
The problem of landfill continues to grow at a speed far too close to the rate at which we’re consuming packaged products. 23.6 million tonnes of waste were produced in the UK in 2016/17, according to Defra. In a perfectly re-cycled world, there would be no seagulls above landfill mountains.
A report issued by the UK’s National Audit Office earlier this month warned that much of the waste we put into our recycling bins doesn’t in fact get recycled. In the report, the NAO comments:
“Reducing waste and using resources more efficiently are long-standing objectives for the government, and tackling packaging waste is essential to achieving these ambitions”.
I couldn’t agree more. And neither, no doubt, would Athelstan Spilhaus, writer of an article entitled “The Shape of Things to Come”, which appeared in Reader’s Digest way back in August 1970:
” … industry so far is doing only half its job. It performs magnificent feats of scientific, technological and managerial skills, taking things from the land, refining them, and mass-manufacturing, mass-marketing and mass-distributing them. But then the same mass of material is left, after use, to the so-called public sector, to be ‘disposed of’. By and large, in our society, the private sector makes things before use, and the public sector disposes of them after use. There must be a loop back from user to factory, which industry must close. If industrial genius can mass-assemble and mass-distribute, why cannot the same genius mass-collect, mass-disassemble and massively re-use these same materials? If industry were to take upon itself this task, its original design of “things” would almost inevitably include features facilitating their return and re-making. If, on the other hand, we continue to allow the private sector to make things and the public sector to dispose of them, designs for re-use will not easily come about”.
However, here we are, nearly fifty years later and the future has arrived, without Spilhaus’s dream having anywhere near come true. Things have moved on to an extent, of course. We have regulations on the initial sorting of household waste via different coloured local authority collection bins; recycling centres and processors have made vast strides technologically; since the passing of the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007 act, we have had Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs), which provide evidence waste packaging material has been recycled into a new product; and, according to recent data from Defra, 46.7% of household waste is being recycled.
But a recent study suggested that in the UK packaging producers pay only 10% of the cost of recycling, much less than in many other countries. And the NAO report makes clear that too much of our waste is evading the system and being shipped abroad, with too little control on what happens next – for instance, what proportion ends up in landfill. Environmentalists are calling for PRNs to be toughened up. They want to see packaging producers and supermarkets being made to make much more use of recycled materials, with more insistence on ‘closed loop’ recycling, where packaging materials are returned to the manufacturer and re-used within a continuous loop of production, usage and recycling. And, maybe most important, they want to see the building of a whole new domestic industry, with associated employment opportunities, by keeping waste products in the country and making it cost-effective for manufacturers to use home-produced recycled materials. Experts suggest that manufacturers would absorb costs in such a system.
So, forty-eight years on, the seagulls still circle above the landfill mountains; the polluter is yet to really start paying for the huge stream of waste being dumped and pumped into the environment; and an effective solution to the recycling conundrum is still part of The Shape of Things to Come.
Picture credit: colin grice [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons