Waste Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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No organism, no matter how simple, is 100% efficient. As it consumes resources, there is inevitably a certain amount of wastage. On occasions, even the dinosaurs probably left the odd stegosaurus leg or half-eaten fern to rot. Without the waste of our ancestors, we would not know nearly so much about how they lived and what they ate - any archaeologist worth his salt will be happy to come across an historic midden1 pit!

Moving on a bit, historians recount that when the walled cities of old came under attack, one of the first jobs to do before the pillaging hordes arrived would be to empty the defensive ditches that would have been filled with the refuse of the population in peacetime. Fairly obviously, this was a job for any prisoners or oppressed minorities that the town had hanging around.

As human society has developed, the waste produced by Homo sapiens has changed both in nature and in quantity - and not for the better. Despite their willingness to tuck into mouldy meat and manky vegetables, due to modern production, packaging and refrigeration techniques we probably waste less food than our ancestors. Nevertheless, we still throw away an incredible amount (and of course the packaging has to go somewhere), and the products we waste now are often not biodegradable2. It should be noted that in developed countries, biodegradable products are not always a good thing: it depends what is happening to the substance as it decomposes - what gases are coming off, etc. They can be hazardous if not treated properly.

What is the Problem with Waste?

The EU produces 1.3 billion tonnes of waste each year. In other words, 3.5 tonnes of refuse and liquid or solid waste per European citizen. It is estimated that 40 - 45 million tonnes of this are classed as hazardous, or particularly dangerous. Among other things it can be:

  • Ecotoxic, which causes damage to the environment.

  • Carcinogenic, which causes cancer.

  • Persistent, which remains dangerous for a long time.

  • Bio-accumulative, which accumulates as it makes its way up the food chain.

Of the 3.5 tonnes of total waste per person per year, 535kg is domestic waste, ie, what individuals put in their bins. This has increased from around 325kg twenty years ago, and is still on the way up in many countries. This figure is much less in any developing country, and is significantly higher for the US.

However, the amount of waste is not the problem in itself. If we had unlimited resources, a waste management system that emitted no pollution and plenty of room to store waste for final disposal then we could produce as much waste as we wanted without any consequences. Currently, however, the environmental, economic and social impacts of the waste we produce are significant, and this is not likely to change in the immediate future. It is possible to argue that there are two main problems with waste:

  1. The generation of so much waste means we are using resources inefficiently. Every plastic bottle recycled saves the amount of oil that would have otherwise been necessary to make it from virgin material. Recycling demolition waste into aggregrates means we need fewer quarries. Making paper from recovered paper saves energy in the pulp and paper production process, and thus reduces the amount of energy needed and the CO2 produced from energy generation, in comparison to making it from trees. Conversely, every bit of excess packaging, industrial waste, or damaged goods costs resources.
  2. The management and disposal of waste is not efficient or clean. Even though standards are improving, waste management facilities are still significant polluters. Aside from the problem of illegal dumping, badly-run landfills still put methane into our atmosphere. (Methane from landfills constitutes 4% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions; it has a greater climate-warming potential than CO2, per molecule, but fortunately the amounts involved are not as large.) In addition, some incinerators still contribute to air pollution, and recycling and composting plants can also pollute if badly run.

Waste does not just create an environmental impact: it also costs money. This is why industrial waste has been significantly reduced over the last 30 years, since a financial incentive is a very efficient driver for business action. It has a social cost too. The plastic bag blowing in the wind, or the Coke can thrown in the street is not really a long-term threat to the survival of our planet, but it degrades our quality of life, and contributes to how people perceive the area in which they live.

On the other side, dealing with waste is big business: the recycling business alone has an annual turnover of $US 160billion3 and employs 1.5 million people worldwide. The disposal business is similarly huge. Recycling and re-use also has an important social role: it creates a number of jobs for people trying to get back into the economy and in sheltered workshops. The 'bin man' or refuse technician still exemplifies the kind of rufty-tufty job of which there are fewer and fewer, even if he (and it generally is still a he) now sometimes has the heavy lifting reduced by new wheelie bin technology. The job (as it used to be) is aptly described by Lonnie Donegan's now legendary, 1960 hit song, 'My Old Man's a Dustman'.

One of the reasons why waste has such a bad reputation is undoubtedly due to some of the illegitimate businesses that have been involved in this sector. The situation has been improving slowly, but it would be over-optimistic to say that the last cowboy has ridden out of Wastetown. Some waste disposal businesses operate(d) on the principle of getting rid of the waste at the lowest possible cost, regardless of what actually happened to it. They were aided and abetted by regular stream of companies and individuals who were only too happy to find a cheap outlet for their waste.

It is this kind of mentality that has led to significant Mafia involvement in the waste disposal business, systematic dumping, and a number of environmental scandals4. Of course, along with these major disgraces come everyday minor offences, where the most primitive form of human life drives out to a country lane and surreptitiously offloads an old fridge or a sofa on to the side of the road. Needless to say, we all have to pay for this deplorable behaviour, both through our taxes and damage to our rural environment.

What Can We Do with Waste?

People sometimes talk about a waste hierarchy: in other words, the best way to deal with waste, in order of preference. Fairly obviously, the best way to tackle the problems associated with waste is to:

Prevent It

In an industrial sense, this can be looking at the way that the product is designed, manufactured, transported or the way that a service is provided - every stage can offer waste prevention potential. Large companies are getting quite good at this kind of process waste prevention, but at the small business level, the picture is much more mixed. Waste prevention can also include reducing its hazardousness. Removing a heavy metal - such as cadmium or lead - from a piece of electronic equipment, for example, reduces the environmental impact of the waste by preventing it being dispersed into the environment when the equipment becomes waste, and also often makes the the latter easier to recycle.

For individuals, waste prevention can involve reducing food waste, buying better quality products, or looking after them better. Some practical tips are set out below.

Re-use It

There are two main types of organisations that specialise in re-use activities. Firstly the charity shop, that takes clothes or books that are still good for use 'as is', and resells them to the public. Strictly speaking, these products never become waste at all in the legal sense. Otherwise, there are places that take mainly unwanted electronic goods, repair them or get the useful parts and then sell them back on - often at a very reasonable price. For the latter type of re-use, it's very important that they check the quality of what they are repairing: putting a dodgy old fridge with low energy efficiency back into service does no one any favours. All the main organisations involved with this work undertake this kind of inspection.

Recycle It

Some materials have been recycled for a very long time: the scrap steel industry has a couple of centuries behind it, for example. Additionally, other metals, paper, glass, some types of plastic and construction/demolition waste are now more or less systematically recycled.

Some materials can be recycled almost indefinitely - aluminium is a good example. Others become more difficult to free from contaminants, or in the case of paper, require an addition of virgin material as the fibres of the recycled material shorten. The economics of recycling vary a lot - metal scrap has been at a very high price for a couple of years now, driven by demand from China in particular. Even if we had no environmental legislation, these materials would still be recycled where they are accessible. Other materials have become economic after some public sector research or investment: paper has had a stable, profitable price for more than three years. PET, the plastic out of which soft drink bottles are made, is getting there and other materials will follow.

As well as material recycling - shredding plastic, pulping paper and melting metal - there are various forms of chemical recycling, some of which are environmentally interesting and others that are a bit doubtful. On the same level as recycling, we can also put composting of biodegradable waste.

Most countries that have achieved a high level of recycling of post-consumer waste have done so because they have been able to create a culture of doing so. For example, in Germany, children are taught at school about the importance of properly separating their waste, and separate bins are provided and weighed5. The less mixed waste you have, the less you pay. In Vienna airport, all the public bins have four different-sized compartments: paper, glass, metal and 'other'. Of course this only works where people respect the categories - back to recycling culture again.

Incinerate It and Use the Energy and Heat

In the past, there were some very badly-managed incinerators around and this led to a series of scandals. Typically, the fumes that belched from the top of the stack polluted the local population with dioxins and furans. The former are cancer-causing impurities6, while the latter are another type of volatile organic compound - also very bad for you. In Albertville in France, for example, after a small municipal incinerator contaminated an entire suburb and the land around it, all the local mothers were banned from breast-feeding and all the area's dairy producers had to close down for a number of years. Nearly all such incinerators in the EU have since been closed down, and the new ones must meet strict standards.

Incineration with energy recovery can be very efficient in environmental terms, particularly in Nordic countries where, as well as the electricity produced, the incinerators produce heat for the local district's heating plant. It could be argued that some of the campaigns against new incinerators might be better off focusing their energy on the final option in the hierarchy, landfill, as nearly all the studies done demonstrate that a well-run incinerator with energy recovery is better than a landfill.

Landfill It

In the developed world, this has moved on a bit from filling the nearest available hole in the ground. Landfills in the EU must now be designed to take one of three categories of waste (hazardous, inert, or other), must be separated from the water table and must have equipment to collect the methane coming off the biodegradable waste. That's the theory at least - there are still thousands of illegal or poorly-performing landfills in the EU. As for developing countries, the sight of the poorest strata of society picking over the piles of open-air rubbish is unfortunately a reality, as well as a favourite subject for documentaries.

What Can the Individual Do?

Unfortunately, there is not always a simple answer to this. However, here are some possible options:

  • Don't buy in a bottle what comes out of a tap. Most people in a developed country benefit from a fantastic innovation - clean drinking water, delivered right to your house via a pipe! You just open your tap and away you go, so why would you stretch your arms and your pockets, to pay money for a heavy product and some plastic packaging? If you don't like the taste of your tap water, a filter is a more economic, efficient and greener option than bottled water7.

  • Look in the fridge before you go to the shops. Food waste is one of the biggest sources of household waste. The infamous 'soggy lettuce' is a regular part of the developed world's dustbin. You can reduce the amount of food you throw away by checking what you have before you shop, and thinking about what you bin. If you throw away half a lettuce every week, perhaps you would be better off with some pre-packed shredded lettuce?

  • If you have the option to separate recyclable waste, use it. Frankly, if the bin men are going to pick it up from your door, the least you can do is separate your waste. If you are short of space, you shouldn't need more than two bins - one for recyclable waste, clean and dry, and one for everything else. You then separate out the recyclable waste into the appropriate bag as you're getting ready to get rid of it. Even if you couldn't give a hoot about the environment, you can think of it as reducing your local tax - you are paying for the separate collection, and if they are not getting good separation rates, they will not be making back the money from selling on the recovered paper, glass and metal.

  • It might be worth noting at this stage that the fact it appears to be going in the same lorry as your usual rubbish does not mean the whole thing is a giant fraud. The recyclable waste is 'lightly compressed' and then separated out at the sorting plant.

  • If you can walk or drive a short distance to a bottle bank, use that as well. Bottle banks give good quality separated waste fractions, which take less time to process and sell for higher prices. Often they are near shops, so maybe you can combine your trip and kill two birds with one stone. However, if you are driving ten minutes to drop off half a dozen bottles, the chances are that the CO2 and air pollutant from your car is outweighing the environmental benefit of recycling the bottles, as opposed to simply putting them in the bin.

  • If you have a garden, think about home composting. It's fairly simple - you just need an appropriate container so that it gets aired effectively, otherwise you'll just end up with a stinking mess. It may be worth pointing out that if you don't use the end product, there is no point in collecting the compost.

  • Dispose of hazardous waste properly. For example, when you change the oil on your car, don't tip it down the drain. This also covers properly disposing of old paints and chemical products. Your local authority will almost certainly have a place where you can take them.

  • Types of products to avoid? Tricky. In terms of packaging, it's virtually impossible to consume on the basis of whether something is appropriately packaged or not. Some products are obviously wasteful - throw away cleaning cloths that replaced the idea of a cloth that you wash, for example. Another possibility is looking for an eco-label or organic label, which are often more sensibly packaged. Other items, such as nappies, are not so simple. Does the increased water and energy use of washing a nappy outweigh the bulky and difficult to handle waste stream that one-off nappies create? Several life-cycle analyses have been done and none have been conclusive so far.

And the Developing World?

Countries where there is not much money to go around can be incredibly good at avoiding and re-using some types of waste. In East Africa, old tyres are turned into sandals, for example. In Nepal, coffee tins become prayer wheels. In many developing world communities, organic waste can still be given to the pig, dog or goat, or can be used as fertiliser.

In addition, they often take goods that have reached the end of their life in the west, and keep them going for another decade. It's difficult to say whether this is a good thing: every year, thousands of UK white goods and cars are exported to West Africa. This trade, although it does allow access to such goods at a low price, means that the pollution being belched out of these old bangers is exported with them, and when they finally do reach the end of the dirt track, they are often simply left to rot. It is illegal to export hazardous waste to developing countries, but this ban8 is badly enforced. One of the difficulties with it is deciding when something is a viable product, and when it has become a waste.

Finally, there are some types of waste that have arrived well in advance of any facilities to deal with them. Plastic bottles on trekking trails in the Himalayas are a good example - either they pile up round the back of houses, or they are incinerated in unsafe conditions. Neither option is sustainable.

More Information and Resources on Waste

The US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada.

Three different EU sites: the European Commission, the European Environment Agency and its specialised centre, the European Topic Centre. There is also an industry-based site, the International Waste Association, which contains lots of waste management information.

A well written and clear discussion of the waste problem worldwide is available on the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) website.

Two independent UK organisations: Waste Watch and the Resources and Recovery Forum, as well as Race Against Waste.

Finally, there are loads more links to be found at Let's Recycle.

1'A dunghill or refuse heap' - Concise Oxford Dictionary.2Capable of being decomposed by living matter, especially bacteria.3This probably includes a certain amount of government subsidy for some materials, but that is true for a lot of businesses.4As in 1984, when barrels of very dangerous contaminated waste from the Seveso plant explosion turned up in an abandoned abattoir in France.5In technical circles, this is known as PAYT, or Pay As You Throw.6Also one of the ingredients of Agent Orange, a herbicide developed for military use (most notoriously in Vietnam).7In some areas of the world where it is unpleasant to drink the tap water but there are decent water purification facilities available, it may be more efficient to have the water filtered at the bottle plant rather than in individual homes.8Under the Basel Convention on hazardous waste.

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