Trans-national movement of waste: are we living sustainably?
In 2003 the UK produced 330 million tonnes of waste.
The amount grows by 1.5% every year.
New EU laws are putting pressure on councils to reduce the volume of waste destined for landfill.
In order to meet these new requirements, can we increase the amount we recycle within the UK or must we increase our overseas exports of recyclables?
The Royal Geographical Society with IBG recently organised a conference where representatives of business and government met with geographers – all under the eyes of the national media - to debate these controversial issues.
Why do we send our rubbish abroad?
When is rubbish a resource?
Are we living sustainably?
The main theme of the conference was the “trans-national movement of waste”.
This is an aspect of globalisation that is often not fully appreciated by the general public, nor by geography students.
According to one speaker, the UK currently ships 40 million tons of waste to China for recycling each year.
The need to export waste arises because of legislation such as the Landfill Directive. By 2019, local councils in the UK will only be allowed to bury in the ground around 35% of what was allowed in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, we are not building recycling facilities quickly enough to cope with the changes.
Specially-built facilities for the recycling of wastes will cost between £5bn and £8bn to build if national demands are to be met.
The Institute of Civil Engineers likens it to the level of investment that was needed in the 1950s to set up the motorway network and the electricity grid (The Guardian, 05 January 2006).
Conference speakers repeatedly pointed out that UK recycling plants will be too expensive to run, in common with other sorts of manufacturing operations.
In fact, some of the UK’s existing paper mills have recently shut down, further reducing the capacity to recycle paper at home. As usual, LEDCs offer cheaper land and labour costs.
They can offer to recycle our rubbish far more cheaply than we can do ourselves.
Waste is officially defined as “discarded material”. But several of the speakers argued that it is time to re-define what we mean as a society by “waste” or “rubbish”.
For many LEDCs, especially China, used plastics and metals are seen as a vital resource for new industries.
Currently, 58.3% of plastics and 51.6% of steel waste is exported for re-processing overseas where it is often then used to create new products.
However, for this model of co-operation to work, it is vital that the UK public make sure that their rubbish is uncontaminated (for instance, if food waste is mixed in with paper, then it cannot be recycled).
If our waste is going to serve as the raw material for other peoples’ industries, then we all have what the conference speakers called a “duty of care” to make sure that we recycle carefully.
Of all the speakers, Peter Jones (Biffa) came closest to actually grasping the nettle of sustainability.
While excellent presentations about ‘best practice’ for waste management were given during the day, most of the speakers quite rightly took it as a given that the amount of manufactured products in circulation in the world can only increase.
However, if an item is recycled, that does not actually undo the damage done to the environment in producing, transporting and finally recycling it.
All stages of its life-cycle require the operation of machinery which requires energy inputs.
As rates of global manufacturing rise, so too will carbon emissions. Greater recycling cannot actually prevent this, although it can slow down the rate of change.
It has been estimated that if the entire world population consumed as much as the US does per capita, then five planets would be needed to support our collective needs.
The human race’s ecological footprint grows daily, in line with rising consumption, both here in the UK and in emerging consumer nations such as China, which will be the world’s second largest consumer of goods within a decade.
Recycling strategies can help reduce the rate at which our ecological footprint expands in size. But their adoption cannot, in any sense, allow us to make the claim that as a species we are actually living sustainably yet.
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