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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 11:56 GMT
A world drowning in litter
UK landfill site
Overpackaging is adding to the rubbish mountain
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By David Chazan
BBC News Online
As industrialised countries run short of sites for dumping waste, the need to recycle more rubbish grows increasingly urgent.

If every human alive today consumed natural resources and emitted carbon dioxide at the same rate as the average person in the developed world, then we would need at least another two Planet Earths, if not three

Waste disposal is also a headache in developing countries with fewer resources to devote to collection and recycling.

Ireland is the latest country to declare war on the ubiquitous plastic bag. In Ireland and other industrialised countries, the aim is to reduce the number of polythene or plastic grocery bags dumped in landfill sites.

In countries such as South Africa or Bangladesh, however, plastic bags are a major eyesore. Easily carried by the wind, they hang in bushes, float on rivers, flap from fences, clog drains, choke animals and blight landscapes.

Plastic bags full of rubbish in London's Oxford Street
Bags of rubbish in a London street
In South Africa, they have been dubbed the "national flower".

Ireland introduced a 15% government levy on plastic bags this week to discourage their use - a move that may soon be followed by a number of other countries.

Traditional remedy

Bangladesh has gone further, passing new regulations aimed at banning polythene bags completely and re-introducing the more traditional - and eco-friendly - jute bag, thereby giving the country's ailing jute mills a much-needed boost.

South Africa's Environment Ministry wants to phase out thin, throwaway plastic grocery bags and introduce thicker, re-useable ones.

Some shops in Ireland are replacing plastic bags with paper ones.

In Britain and many other countries, new measures are being considered to increase the recycling of waste.

Running out of land to fill

Britain, France, Italy and Ireland are among Europe's "dirtiest" countries, with most municipal rubbish dumped in landfill sites.

Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Canada and some parts of the United States, on the other hand, find ways to use a much higher proportion of their waste.

In some cases about half of municipal rubbish is re-used, recycled or composted.

Unsurprisingly, countries that achieve high recycling rates generally force or encourage households to sort their rubbish into different categories - such as glass, metals, paper, organic and food waste and plastic packaging.

Commercial and industrial waste amounts to far higher quantities - but environmentalists say more of it is recycled.

Britain, for example, produces about 77 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste a year, compared with 29 million tonnes of household waste, according to Paul Frith of the Institute of Wastes Management.

Your weight in waste

But Mr Frith says that some 27.7% of commercial and industrial waste is recycled, compared with only 11% for household waste.

If you imagine collecting together everything you use in a normal day, the result might be a hill of rubbish.

It would include plastic from shopping bags and the wrapping from the sandwich you might have eaten at lunch, the fertilisers, chemicals and pesticides used to grow your food and the wood from your newspaper.

It might also include the day's share of the metals and plastics in your car and household appliances, not to mention the pollution they cause.

"Every day, the average American uses 101 kilograms of stuff - that's approximately the weight of a large man," said Payal Sampat of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based environmental group.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) says recycling is only one approach to reducing the waste mountain.

"Overpackaging is a big problem, as is the fact that so many of the products we buy are short-life products and made of synthetic materials which are difficult to recycle," WWF's Diana Brown told BBC News Online.

"Consumers must make a link between buying and waste," she urges. "Everything you buy will end up as waste. Buy less and demand less packaging; buy products that can be re-used and recycled."

wastepaper basket
It just keeps piling up
Ms Sampat of Worldwatch would like to see more schemes that encourage manufacturers to recycle waste from their products.

In Germany, carmakers barcode the different components so that scrap metal recyclers can easily identify the materials used in a given part.

Ms Sampat says recycling can even boost profits, pointing out that you need 95% less energy to produce aluminium from recycled sources.

But she stresses that "an ideal scenario is that we use less and consume less".

Two more planets

WWF says that if everyone in the world consumed as much as the average person in an industrialised country - and emitted carbon dioxide at the same rate - we would need at least another two planets.

And waste is multiplying - more people in the developing world are consuming products and packaging once reserved for developed nations, while developed countries are generating larger quantities of waste each year.

Add to that the increase in global population, and there can be little doubt that waste recycling has to be a top priority.

If, that is, we are to avoid drowning in a sea of our own garbage.

See also:

04 Mar 02 | Europe
Shoppers face plastic bag tax
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