29 April 2006

Waste not, waste zero

By Jacqui McCarney

David Cameron's well publicised and well spun commitment to the environment is all very well, but at local government level there is the more mundane task of making the sums add up. Take waste - forget about the environment; forget about intense public feeling; forget about sustainability. Think instead about cost, business opportunities, market economics, and local jobs.

Norfolk paid £4.24 million on landfill taxes in 2004/05. From 2010, hefty (EU) landfill fines could cost the county £17.3 million a year. Landfill presents a health hazard with the leaking of highly toxic chemicals, and we are simply running out of space.

Not just a problem for Norfolk, it is a problem faced by the rest of the UK, and the rest of the developed and developing world. We are not alone, and there is a great deal to be learned from the experience of others.

The buzz word circling the globe is Zero Waste - welcomed by local communities, this waste method also makes handsome profits. It has been adopted in North America, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South India, and much closer to home in Bath and North East Somerset, Colchester and Braintree in Essex. Recently trials have begun for a pioneering Resource and Recovery Centre next door in Lowestoft.

Exponents of Zero Waste no longer see waste as a problem, but as valuable resources - often expensive and time consuming to extract from the earth, and in short supply.

Business and community leaders around the world are pointing to our waste and recycling as areas of new business and employment potential that can add great value to local economies. Indeed, profitability is a key factor in New Zealand where Zero Waste is seen as a driver of local economic development rather than a matter of environmental conscience. Kaikoura Innovative Waste Ltd facilitate sustainable employment with markets for cardboard, newsprint, plastic, metal, glass copper, and businesses developing around furniture and clothing renovation, crafts reusing metal and glass. This story is familiar and a survey in the US shows high recycling programmes show savings in 13 out of 14 cases.

Zero Waste projects need not be daunting. Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) say it is relatively easy to reach 50% recovery and recycling rates. The bulk of all waste is organic matter that can be composted domestically or centrally. The resulting compost will find a local market in nurseries, farms, amenity centres.

High achieving areas have 'source separation' - three streams of collection, separating organic, dry recyclables and tricky residuals such as batteries. Robin Murray, a leading zero waste economist, says as soon as this is done "they find suddenly that they are recycling more than 50%". Why do some areas of Norwich not even have recycling collections yet?

Add to this Resource and Recovery Centres that are open to the public and encourage small scale businesses repairing goods to be sold back to the public, and there is very little left to be burned in an incinerator.

Not needing to build an incinerator amounts to a huge savings capital investment and running costs.

Can do authorities are reducing waste beyond the 50 % mark by innovation. BANES plan annual increases in recycling rate between 2 to 5% for the next 5 years, making their intention clear cut with a detailed Action Plan.

Zero Waste builds this innovation on the 5 R’s.; Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle and, if products can not be dealt with by these means, they should be Redesigned.

Before developing Zero Waste many countries had, or been threatened with incinerators or Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT), as the people of Norfolk are now.

Incineration has lead to widespread protests - forcing the closure of plants and the abandonment of plans for new ones. People are deeply concerned about the possible carcinogenic toxins produced by burning, to which children and older people are especially vulnerable. The record of safety of incinerators such as the one in Nottingham does little to engender confidence. MBT produces a highly toxic sludge which has to be transported and disposed of.

Norwich City Council and South Norfolk have signed up to Zero Waste. So far they have achieved a recycling rate of 15% and 30% respectively, and are now sitting on the fence when it comes to the Conservative County Council plan to build an incinerator. If we manage to escape that, we will have the second choice MBT. It is not surprising that the public are disillusioned with politicians. David Cameron is impotent if his colleagues in local government defy his intentions, when there is neither economic, environmental nor popular reason to do so.