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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
What a waste of good rubbish
bulldozer on landfill site
Landfill . . . out of sight, but not out of mind
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

We throw things away in the UK on an epic scale - 27 million tonnes of household rubbish annually, and far more from business and industry.

We are the very model of the throwaway society. The problem lies in deciding where the waste goes.

The UK Government waste strategy is intended to make us more frugal, and more thoughtful.

But it is likely to take years to alter the habits of a generation with no time for yesterday's products.

There are four main options for disposing of waste:

  • Putting it in holes in the ground, known as landfill sites, or informally as dumps. They should be carefully engineered to ensure the contents degrade safely, without leaking poisons into water, or methane into the air
  • Burning it - which reduces huge volumes to small quantities of ash, and generates electricity at the same time
  • Recycling it - it seems obvious to recover resources in this way, but the UK's record is very poor
  • Minimising waste by designing and producing what we need in a way that leaves the barest minimum for disposal.

Traditionally, the UK has opted for landfill, because we are geologically luckier than many other countries. We have had plenty of holes to take the rubbish.

But that is changing, and the volume of waste is set to overtake the remaining available space.

rubbishstrewn alley
The throwaway society is not choosy
Besides, the European Union plans to reduce the use of landfill drastically over the next 15 years.

Burning waste is widely distrusted by many people who fear that having an incinerator in their neighbourhood would bring problems.

Unless the waste comes in by rail, there will inevitably be a big increase in heavy vehicles delivering it to the plant.

The ash that is left over can be a problem. Samples from paths in part of Newcastle upon Tyne have shown 800 times the safety level of substances thought to cause cancer. Incinerator ash was used to make the paths.

Government backed

But the main fear of those against incinerators is that they will pour carcinogens like dioxins out of their chimneys.

A recent US Environmental Protection Agency report suggested that dioxins could account for up to 10% of global cancers.

The UK Government's denial that there is a significant health risk from incinerators has been backed by a respected environment group, the National Society for Clean Air.

Tim Brown, the society's deputy secretary, said: "The new breed of incinerator plants are designed to be extremely clean.

"People are right to be concerned about dioxins, but wrong to see incinerators as the major source."

rubbish bags in central london
The amount of waste is rising fast
If recycling waste is to work, there must be a market for the recovered material. Sometimes the economics do not add up.

And there may be little point in burning fuel to drive 20 miles to a bottle bank, say, to recycle glass, which is made of abundant materials in the first place.

Policy makers talk of choosing "the best practicable environmental option" when they face dilemmas like these.

The best options, finally, will probably be to produce the minimum of waste (packaging is an obvious offender), and to recycle wherever possible.

Walk round a market in almost any developing country, and see recycling in action.

Poor people know the value of waste. Only the rich can afford to treat it as rubbish.

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See also:

25 May 00 | UK
It's a dirty job...
18 Aug 99 | Scotland
1m boost for recycling industry
25 May 00 | UK Politics
Recycling levels 'pathetic' - Meacher
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