Thursday, 5 September 2013

Re-structure the economy don’t just re-cycle

I’ve experienced Bristol’s fairly good recycling/composting system with its brown, black and green containers in addition to the smaller ‘rubbish’ bins that are meant to be just for residual waste for several years now. It’s not perfect but it has helped me to make a pretty good (approximately 10%) reduction in my household eco-footprint from an already lowish level.

Bristol’s recycling, composting and recovery of household waste has increased sharply since 2004 (see table below) but the better option of reuse is still at a very low level and the rate of increase in recycling/composting has slowed greatly, currently standing at a rate just over 50% when some, such as the Zero Waste Alliance say that 70%, 80% or even 90% are achievable in the right conditions. Many UK cities who have in the last decade focussed much more on recycling and composting are in a similar position (some figures compared here).  
However, recycling is far from the top of the waste management list as far as creating sustainable cities is concerned: if we didn’t produce the waste to begin with then there would be no waste sustainability problems to solve. The different options for dealing with waste are considered as a waste management hierarchy. Top priorities are waste avoidance, reduction or minimisation. After reduction is the reuse of objects so that they do not enter the waste stream at all: for example the refilling of bottles, or trade in refurbished furniture and appliances.

It's not until one gets lower in the hierarchy that one gets to materials recycling and composting and then the recovery of energy from waste by a whole range of methods, some much more eco-friendly than others, such as pyrolysis and gasification compared with the - all too often proposed - mass incineration with electricity generation. Many fear that increasing mass incineration with electricity generation reduces the incentive to reduce, reuse and recycle given that one needs to retain high levels of rubbish to feed the beast that burns it, an issue recently explored here in The Guardian.

Waste disposal is at the bottom of the hierarchy and includes final disposal to landfill and the incineration of waste without recovering any energy. Society is sort of upside down as far as what we do with our waste is concerned because the options we use most are at or towards the bottom of the list of waste sustainability priorities! Thus campaigners are working hard to emphasise the need for waste avoidance, for reduction, for reuse and indeed for restructuring our economy as our top priorities.
There does of course also need to be a shift to high levels of recycling and composting but there are certainly dangers in thinking that these alone are the complete solution to all our waste sustainability problems - they are not, as their position in the waste management hierarchy illustrates.

Without very significant reductions in waste we still have to deal with very large amounts of material in a fuel and money intensive way. This often includes sending recyclable and compostable materials over large distances on trains, in lorries and on ships because recycling and composting facilities don’t exist locally and the infrastructure is not in place to use the products of recycling and composting. Bristol is at least seeking to add to locally available recycling centres (see here) but only once funds become or are made available. 
The further you go down the waste management hierarchy the lower is the tendency to avoid, eliminate or prevent waste problems and higher the impact of the waste management options themselves. Recycling itself can have sizeable impacts though on balance the gains of recycling outweigh the impacts (though this situation might not stay this way).  
Moving to more recycling is a relatively 'easy' step to take, despite all the teething problems, claimed inconvenience and the initial costs of new systems. It’s the relatively ‘low hanging fruit’ of more sustainable waste management. Just as sometimes happens with public transport improvements (which alone do not constitute sustainable transport) some politicians have loudly blown their own trumpet about their recycling achievements and helped to create the false impression that recycling alone contributes more to sustainability than it can in reality. 

What would really help to tackle our waste sustainability problems is a very significant shift to producing minimal waste and designing for reuse, repair and long life products. This is a much more difficult step to take in the sense of the scale and type of change because it means restructuring our economy so that: re-use, recycling and composting facilities are operating locally; the infrastructure is in place to use the products of recycling and composting; and instead of being geared to mass consumption the economy works in a cyclic fashion geared to conserving our real wealth (see here and here). Thus building sustainable cities is as much about a new economics as it is about the biophysical environment.

More on: recycling here; Bristol's waste management system here.

1 comment:

  1. Hey this is the common misconception in most parts of the world that instead of restructuring people simply do recycling just to avoid huge jerk in the entire system. People actually are afraid of change and like to remain in status quo in fear of any big loss if they change the things.


Genuine, constructive, relevant comments are most welcome.