Is rubbish the next front in the war to save our planet? Frances Cowell asks if some simple measures might make rubbish disposal fairer.

As children, we used to earn extra pocket money by reselling old newspapers. Every few weeks, my brother and I laid in a neat pile each accumulated page of the daily tabloid, then rolled and tied them with string in a bundle as big as our small arms could carry. The green grocer would weigh them and pay us a few pennies, which added materially to our weekly pocket money. Some pages would later return to us, wrapped around spinach or a pound of peas. Those pages, my mother would flatten and use as lining for our garbage bin. Paper bags, in which the grocer sold us grapes and tomatoes, later held our school lunch sandwiches.

A single 50-litre galvanised steel garbage bin served our family of four for a week. A typical single-family wheely bin today has a capacity of five to seven times that.

But today, where does this extra rubbish we seem to have come from? Where does it go afterward?

The volumes are impressive: in 2017 municipal councils in the UK collected 27 million tonnes of household waste. That’s just under half a tonne per person each year, nearly ten kilograms a week for each Briton, adult and child – four times what it used to be. No wonder your bin needs wheels.

Much of what fills your bin is due to packaging: the increasingly voluminous and elaborate packaging itself, and the fact that pre-packaged items often oblige you to buy more than you need or want.

Where does it go? Some is recycled. The European Union, for example, sets a target of 50% recycling of municipal waste, typically through dedicated recycling bins for glass, aluminium, plastic, paper, small appliances, batteries and light bulbs. Households with gardens are discovering the benefits of composting. Some municipal waste is incinerated, even productively, for example to generate electricity or for urban heating systems. Refundable drink bottles help reduce the total, while India’s famous rag-pickers render a crucial, if often under-appreciated service.

If the volumes of household waste are impressive, the amount of total waste, including industrial, commercial, construction and packaging is truly eye-watering, at 223 million tons in 2016 for the UK alone, nearly three and a half tons per Briton! Much is recycled or recovered, but that leaves large volumes that aren’t.

A distressing amount of the rubbish we generate is simply put into containers and sent to developing countries, who are paid to receive it, usually dumping it in landfill or burning it. Their citizens pay the price through contaminated water and toxic air. Those governments may be glad of the extra cash, but we cannot pretend that we are doing them a favour: the compensation is puny compared to the long-term cost of deteriorating health and associated lost productivity and the poverty that leads to. We are exporting a toxic problem to people who are least able to deal with it.

Funnily enough, many countries no longer what to be treated as the rich world’s rubbish tip. China called time in 2018; Malaysia is just the latest to follow suit. Not only is it not going to take any more of our rubbish, but it is sending some of it back. 260 containers-worth to go to the US, the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and other places. Who can blame them?

And that’s just the stuff that gets put into those wheely bins. Rubbish not disposed of responsibly must be cleaned from streets, parks, beaches and other public areas. Some is recovered, while lots of muck makes its way into water ways, contaminating them as it makes its way to the sea, collecting in continent-sized masses. Unlike in previous decades, much modern waste is plastics, which decomposes slowly and poisonously. Left lying around, it emits gasses, both toxic and greenhouse. In landfill it pollutes groundwater. In rivers and oceans it strangles and drowns marine animals, adding to the perils they already face with illegal- and over-fishing practices. It also reduces the oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, contributing further to global climate change, and starving marine flora. In poorer countries, products are often made more affordable by packaging them in smaller quantities, such a single-portion shampoo. But combined with poor waste collection and disposal, millions of tiny plastic sachets find their way into water-ways and the oceans, with incalculable cost to health, wealth and the environment. Their governments could do with help improving their waste collection and disposal capabilities.

Possibly the simplest solution is just to generate less waste in the first place. How much of what you carry home from the supermarket is packaging that you then throw straight in the bin? Some good news is that people are waking up to what we are doing to our planet and many are mobilising. A number of campaigns have begun worldwide to aim for “zero waste” and many people are finding that not only do they reduce the volume of rubbish they need to take out every week, but they save money too. Popular pressure is beginning to weigh on policymakers too. For example through campaigns such as “the right to repair”, to make spare parts more easily available so that appliances can be repaired, extending their useful life rather than sending them off to landfill in Africa.

The EU took a lead in March 2019, when it banned single-use plastics, and other countries, notably China, have followed suit. Welcome as it is, the ban on plastics might make less of a difference than we’d like it to. Take-away and home-delivered food is simply far too popular, so is probably with us to stay: plastic will simply give way to other materials. The same amount of waste will be generated and left to litter streets. At present taxpayers bear the cost of disposing of the excess packaging. Surely it would be fairer for the retailers to pay the true cost, including the cost of disposal, of the containers, often unrecyclable plastic-coated cardboard, in which they sell their pizza, hamburgers and fries?

Governments have agonised over the cost of waste collection and disposal – unsurprising, when you consider the volumes. Ideally you should be charged for the amount of stuff you throw away, but it is hard to make this stick, as people will respond simply by leaving their rubbish anywhere where it cannot be attributed to them, which would make the problem much worse. Yet it is unfair that you should pay for people who make no effort to reduce the amount of rubbish they generate, or to dispose of it responsibly.

Is there a case for imposing a tax on the production and sale of packaging and other sources of waste, household, commercial and industrial? Put another way, if the price paid to manufacture and distribute packaging and other materials reflected its true cost to society – including the pollution it causes and the cost of disposing of it afterward, those who make heavy use of it might find it worth their while to try and reduce the volumes or seek less toxic solutions. This would certainly raise the price of take-away food and make internet shopping less appealing, but isn’t this a price well worth paying so our children are not buried in rubbish? It’s a thought.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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