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Prevention is better than cure
The easiest way to deal with waste is not to produce it.
Women's Environmental Network
a national charity and membership organisation that campaigns on environmental and health issues from a woman's perspective
The simple answer to the question is not to produce so much waste in the first place. Women's Environmental Network (WEN) has been campaigning for a number of years on waste prevention. Our aim is to inform women and men of the choices they can make to minimise actively the waste that needs to be collected for disposal.

It is forecast that, without intervention, municipal waste will continue to grow between two and four percent each year. In London, if waste grows at a rate of three percent per year from now until 2020 then there will be twice as much waste for disposal. Over the same period of time the tonnage of waste that can be sent to landfill, as determined by the EU Landfill Directive on biodegradable waste, will decrease, leaving a shortfall in disposal options.

To recycle this ever-increasing proportion of the waste stream would require considerable investment in recycling collections and, in particular, composting, to deal with the biodegradable fraction which can be as much as 40 percent of the waste stream.

Alternatively, wide-scale waste prevention measures could be implemented to reduce the tonnages that have to be dealt with. A recent modelling exercise completed by the Greater London Authority concludes that if government recycling and recovery targets and Landfill Directive targets are to be adhered to, waste prevention initiatives must be factored into the equation in order to deal with the quantities of waste in need of disposal.

There are a number of ways that waste prevention can be encouraged and legislated for. There is a bewildering array of choice when it comes to products for consumers in the supermarkets and high street stores. But when considering waste prevention there are very few alternatives to the mainstream.

For example, at the local supermarket one can buy full-fat, semi-skimmed, skimmed, organic, soya, banana-flavoured or pasteurised milk. And yet with all this apparent choice, every one of these products comes in plastic bottles or at best tetra pack. Not a refillable glass bottle in sight. This may seem like a small-scale example, but it is these very cartons and bottles in each of our small-scale kitchen bins that are pushing the landfill sites to bursting point.

Consumers should be given the choice to buy goods with minimal packaging if they wish to do so, and many people do. WEN's recent work on the real nappy campaign has proved that, when given the option and provided with information, people vote with their wallets. In the case of nappies the alternatives can also be cheaper, with local authorities in some areas of the country subsidising local laundry services to encourage uptake. With nappies currently making up four percent of the waste stream this investment often works out cheaper than disposal costs.

The government's waste strategy may be moving in the direction of minimisation and prevention - but the targets are set with low horizons, and ambitions of actually achieving them often seem to be ethereal and distant. The point, most now agree, is to change the current trend. How quickly this is done is not only up to industry and government, but also up to each one of us and our habits as consumers, and how we use that power.

WEN is a national charity and membership organisation that campaigns on environmental and health issues from a woman's perspective. It educates, informs and empowers women and men who care about the environment.

Archived list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
Julie Hill
programmes adviser, Green Alliance
Julian Morris
director, International Policy Network
Commissioned responses
Mark Strutt
Rob Lyons
Women's Environmental Network
Jonathan Davies
William Powrie
Elisabeth Ribbans
Martin Angel
Reader responses
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