Politics is all rubbish these days

Imagine your local authority stopping collecting rubbish because the landfill was full. This isn’t some nightmare scenario, in many parts of the country it’s a matter of a dozen or two months away, while in Naples in Italy it’s actually happening right now .

Due to mismanagement and “brushing the dirt under the carpet” so to speak, Naples’ landfill sites are now full and the local authority have stopped collecting it. One hundred thousand tonnes of rubbish lie in the streets, rotting or burning as concerned citizens take things into their own hands.

At the moment, the UK is only just beginning to talk about doing something and has no real policy on refuse disposal: it’s just transported somewhere else so it can pile up out of view in a landfill site in the middle of the countryside. Shakespeare’s “Green and Sceptred Isle” dumps more household waste into landfill than any other EU state. That’s more than 27 million tons of waste hidden in this way each year – 7 million more than any other EU country. Germany, which has a population 25% bigger than the UK, puts just 10m tons into rubbish tips each year – 63% LESS than the UK.

An area of 109 square miles of the UK countryside is now landfill and landfill space could run out in just nine years time. If nothing is done very soon, 2016 will see the biggest pile of rubbish on British streets since the 1970s. A pile that would never stop growing.

The problem isn’t just one of how to deal with the waste that is collected. Britain also produces more waste per head of population than many of its European neighbours, with an average of 592 Kg per person per year, above the EU average of 577 Kg.

The UK also lags behind in the amount of waste recycled, with an average figure of 18%, half the EU average of 36.4%. Only Greece and Portugal recycle a smaller proportion of their rubbish than does the UK – but then they create about 33% less waste in total to start with and are in the Top 5 least waste-producing EU Nations.
EU Stats for Household Waste Collected and Recycled

You might say that the British have the worst waste disposal strategy of any EU country. You might think that someone would have cottoned on to the fact that something needs to be done. Well yes, but the first ones to do something were the, err, oft maligned EU…

EU laws commit Britain to reducing the waste the country creates, to recycle more, and to bury less in landfill sites. Greenhouse gases emitted by these creeping eyesores that stink and sweat as they feed vermin and bacteria on our rotting throwaways add up to 3% of UK total emissions.

And as I said, they stink.

So, what are British politicians doing about it? Gordon’s goodies have decreed that it should be possible for local councils to charge per bag collected, rather than as part of the overall local council tax bill. Cameron’s crazies are against it, mostly because they didn’t think of it first, one suspects, and anyway, they are against everything that comes from the Labour Party these days, even the good ideas such as the ‘Pay as you throw‘ call for waste disposal.

British local councils are begining to tackle the problem, many of them because their landfill areas will be full long before the year 2016. So let’s have a look at a typical one, one that is doing better than many others, and compare it with a town of similar size in a country that manages to have NO landfill sites at all.

First off, look at the example of Basel in Switzerland. In 1993 the city collected over 65,000 tonnes of household waste. The next year, after the law introducing charging per bag was introduced, the rubbish collection city wide added up to barely 40,000 tonnes, a reduction of 38%. Nearly every year since then has resulted in a further reduction in waste.

What happens is that people become very annoyed at any items in shops with needless packaging – and let’s face it, most consumer related items do have way too much packaging. Even if you don’t agree with per bag collection charges, you probably dislike superfluous cardboard, plastic and foam inserts as much as the next person: it’s such a faff to have to dispose of.

Now the Tories complain that charging per bag will lead to more fly tipping, which is probably true. When the city of Basel introduced it, public bins suddenly became much fuller, bags of rubbish were left in strange places, some out of the way places did become eyesores. But an overnight 40% drop in rubbish collection must leave a lot of money in the refuse collection budget to tidy up such messes.

Most people are law abiding and do comply though. For those who are not, the Swiss decided to introduce a “garbage police” who can search through rubbish for personal details such as envelopes, letters, anything that can identify the individual household that filled the unauthorised bag. You would be surprised at what people throw away. These people are then taken to court and fined.

So, what’s happening in the UK? Peterborough has about the same population as the Swiss town described above, and is actually good at recycling – for the UK. Defra have produced a table of how well different parts of the UK are doing on waste and recycling. It makes for interesting reading (HTML, XLS).

Peterborough City Council (pop. 163,300) collected 89,277 tonnes total household waste in 2005/06 of which 31,717 tonnes was recycled, one of the highest rates in the UK. Practically all of the not-recycled waste collected ended up in landfill sites, but available landfill space in Peterborough is due to run out by about 2010. Besides these two methods of waste handling, just a bare 17 tonnes was incinerated, and none of the energy released from this burning was reclaimed. These figures are not uncommon across the UK.

The EU Landfill Directive has set decreasing annual landfill targets for local authorities and will impose fines of £150 for each tonne of waste that is landfilled above those limits plus its share of a £500,000 daily fine imposed by the EU if the nation collectively exceeds its total target.

“Peterborough must drastically reduce the waste it sends to landfill to meet EU targets. Landfill should be 24,000 tonnes less than today by 2013 and 40,000 tonnes less than today by 2020…. Around a third of all councils in England operate alternate weekly collections as they are proven to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill by increasing recycling.”
– Peterborough City Council

This can’t be too healthy in my opinion. Basel takes an alternative tack and collects normal household rubbish twice a week. The majority of this is then incinerated with the energy released being used to heat thousands of homes and provide other energy in the town.

Peterborough are moving towards incineration as a means of disposal, although they call it euphemistically an “Energy Resource Recovery Facility” which is described thus:

“An Energy Resource Recovery Facility combusts mixed waste and recovers energy by making steam. This can be used directly for heat as well as to generate electricity. Materials are also recovered: metals for recycling are removed at the end of the process, and the leftover ash can be used as a raw material, for example in road making.”
– Peterborough City Council

Incineration must be a hot topic in the UK politically, but I don’t know why. In Basel the plant has been operating for years without environmental problems, and actually turning waste into heat and energy is a pretty well received process locally, in an area in which the Green party has real, elected power.

I am not saying that the Swiss example should be followed to the letter, but I am saying that there are others in the world who are solving the problem of waste effectively. You should ask your local authority what they are doing on this issue. And next time you’re out shopping, why not consider how much packaging the product has. All things being equal, buy the product with less waste.

If you don’t like the idea of making a fuss or doing anything positive, just look at the streets of Naples and remember that’s the future for the UK if nothing is done. The rats in the street won’t then be the politicians at election time, it’ll be real rats, scampering across your town, your estate, your neighbourhood, and into your kids’ playgrounds and dens.

Do you really want that?


2 comments on “Politics is all rubbish these days

  1. A very comprehensive post.The Naples situation does make our ’79 winter of discontent look almost amateurish in comparison waste wise.The local authority incentive here is to avoid the fines which would inevitably end up cutting into services or added to council tax bills if targets aren’t met though my worry is that target culture will just cut corners to hit the targets.If we can’t hit the producers of wasteful packaging then I can’t see how we can avoid the deployment of incineration somewhere in the chain (the Swiss are obviously good at joined up thinking). Hopefully the public will take the message on board though the UK does have a belligerent core that just hates being told what to do.

  2. Why would you want to avoid incineration? It recycles energy tied up in the manufactured products and packaging that otherwise would be buried in landfills. It also protects the environment from rubbish multiplication, rats and other vermin.

    When suitably filtered (as happens in Switzerland, but not in Italian incinerators which release 1,000 times the amount of dioxins because of the lack of appropriate controls) noxious fumes and greenhouse gas emissions are also reduced – no methane release from rotting rubbish.

    The energy released can be used to heat greenhouses for agriculture along the lines of the waste heat from Dutch power stations used to heat adjacent greenhouses used to grow early tomatoes and the like; low cost heating of houses in areas of social deprivation; or simply to make profits.

    In Switzerland such incineration is both profitable and socially beneficial. So much so in fact that the Swiss import rubbish from Germany which is then burned here for a profit!

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