The problem of waste in Britain is overstated - we should be more concerned with a modern outlook that treats humanity itself as disposable.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Rob Lyons argues that the problem of waste in Britain is overstated – we should be more concerned with a modern outlook that treats humanity itself as disposable.

Rubbish is big news in Britain these days. We are drowning in the stuff, or so we’re told. According to one oft-quoted statistic, the UK produces enough waste to fill London’s premier concert venue, the Royal Albert Hall (audience capacity: 5,500) every hour. From taxing plastic bags to fining householders who don’t separate their waste for recycling, the heavy hand of the state is being employed increasingly to ensure that this state of affairs doesn’t continue.

Everyone seems to agree that we need to change our ways. A survey published by the Local Government Association last week suggests that two-thirds of us would accept a ‘pay-as-you-throw’ system for dealing with rubbish – as long as our council tax was reduced to compensate for this. Instead of the current system, where a portion of our council tax pays for a waste collection service which we can use as much or as little as we like, the amount we pay would depend on how much we bin. As it happens, such a system is bound to be more expensive than the current arrangement, with individualised billing and the need to chase up late payers, but the survey implies that we’re not against pay-as-you-throw in principle.

Hardly anyone seems to doubt that we need to recycle more. To suggest that recycling might be a waste of time would generally be viewed as rather anti-social in just the same way that drink-driving is seen as beyond the pale. Yet we are still constantly exhorted to recycle more, backed up by cute animations about how your can of Coca-Cola might make a comeback as another can or a car or whatever. It’s not just that we are told that recycling is the right thing to do; on the face of it, there’s a symmetry to recycling that is appealing. Why dig up more resources from the ground when you can just use existing ones again?

But is the problem of waste really so big? Let’s go back to that Royal Albert Hall statistic. It sounds scary because we are multiplying quite small amounts of waste by a big number – the 60million people who live in the UK. The Royal Albert Hall apparently has an internal volume of 3.5million cubic feet, so that pile of rubbish actually amounts to only 0.06 cubic feet per person per hour, which is equivalent to a small box. To put it another way, it would take about two years for each person to fill a bog-standard room 10 feet x 10 feet x 10 feet with their share of Britain’s waste.

However, that Royal Albert Hall factoid would appear to refer to total waste, the vast majority of which comes from mining, quarrying, demolition and construction. Just nine per cent comes from municipal sources, including households (1). If that’s correct, then it would take around 20 years for an individual to fill that bog-standard room with the waste they themselves have produced at home. Not so scary after all.

What that statistic demonstrates is not that we produce lots of waste but that we’re all useless at comprehending the scale on which society works today. For example, if we all ate our five items of fruit and vegetables every day (as the government tells us we should), that would mean we’d consume 24,000 tonnes of fruit and veg everyday. It sounds like an incredible figure, but we really do produce (or import) that much food and a hell of a lot more besides. You could just as easily turn the waste statistic around to demonstrate something positive: our society is so productive that just the leftovers would fill the Royal Albert Hall every hour. How great is that?

Waste is a problem in much the same way that growing food, dealing with sewage or getting about are problems – they are all part of modern life and we deal with them perfectly adequately. We should always try to find better solutions to these problems, but the volume of waste is by no means a particularly pressing concern. We have a highly developed industry for dealing with it already, using a variety of methods. Britain uses landfill more heavily than other countries, but we already recycle a lot of waste where it is economic to do so. This is particularly true with waste from commerical or industrial sources where you get a lot of the same kind of material in one place, making collection and recycling financially viable. We also have other methods of dealing with waste, including burning it (which generates energy and can produce a residue of re-usable metals) and other forms of mechanical processing that allow us to get a ‘second bite of the cherry’ from the minimal value contained within it.

While a lot of Britain’s waste ends up in holes in the ground, a balance needs to be struck between the cost of dumping and the cost of trying to claw back some of the resources contained within. Sometimes that makes sense – but for mixed household waste, recycling and recovery for the most part seems expensive and irrational. And with a history of quarrying and mining, Britain actually has quite a lot of holes in the ground that need filling in. Filling them with rubbish, putting a lid on the whole lot and turning it into a golf course/meadow/playing field isn’t actually that bad a solution.

In fact, the idea of ‘waste’ needs a bit more interrogation. It is interesting to note that the word ‘waste’ seems to be preferred to ‘rubbish’ these days. ‘Waste’ has a double-edged meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘waste’ as both ‘unusable or unwanted material’ and ‘an act or instance of wasting’. For example, are potato peelings ‘waste’? Some people like to compost them but if you don’t happen to have a garden, what use are they? For most people, ‘waste’ is simply something that must be removed from our living space to avoid odour, disease or clutter. Waste does not contain precious resources or represent some kind of missed opportunity; it is simply mess.

Rubbish has been with us since time immemorial. If we have more of it today it is because we are wealthier than ever before – we literally have more stuff. That means we can make some kinds of choices that weren’t possible in the past because we can afford to be, relatively speaking, wasteful. We have things we didn’t have in the past like refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, televisions, computers… the list goes on. When these breakdown, it’s often cheaper to replace them than to repair them. Some of this new waste is pretty mundane. We might even feel a little guilty about it, like throwing food away because we didn’t get round to eating it or buying a Sunday newspaper with nine different sections when you’re only interested in the news and the travel supplement.

Other times, ‘waste’ is a real boon: think of all those disposable syringes, gloves, bandages et al that produce so much waste at hospitals. Disposable means germ-free – to hell with the waste. Then there’s the packaging which has become an obsession of some green campaigners. It looks extraneous but it is usually there to protect the contents which are much more valuable. A world without packaging would be even more wasteful with spoiled food and broken goods.

Our relationship with rubbish is not a static one. What would have been valuable in one era can become trash in another. Waste which could not be economically recycled in the past could become a little gold mine in the future.

The fact that we produce a lot of rubbish is not new. What is new is a bleak view of human activity of which ‘waste’ is a visible reminder. Devoid of a sense of purpose for society, many are now wondering if there is any point to human life. To return to the Oxford English Dictionary, there is another definition of ‘waste’ that might sum up the hopes of some commentators about humanity: ‘eliminated or discarded as no longer useful or required’. It is that outlook, not the bin bags full of rubbish, that we really need to worry about.

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Topics Politics


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