Page last updated at 15:18 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 16:18 UK

It is time to start talking rubbish

Stuart Wardlaw
Stuart Wardlaw

Burying our rubbish in huge pits in the ground is no longer an option in the 21st Century, says Stuart Wardlaw. In this week's Green Room, he argues that a range of measures - some more popular than others - is needed if the UK is going to get on top of its waste problem.

Bags of rubbish (Getty Images)
Our consumer culture does nothing to help our overflowing landfills

Research reveals that Britain is still considered the "dustbin of Europe" because it is still dumping more household waste into landfill than any other EU nation.

It threw away a staggering 22.6 million tonnes of rubbish in 2004/5; in fact, Britain sent the same amount to landfill as the 18 EU countries with the lowest landfill rates combined, despite these places having twice the population of the UK.

Britain's failure to invest in the more sustainable waste management practices based on the three Rs - re-use, recycle and recovery - has lead to an excessive dependence on landfill.

But these days are fast disappearing.

Planning and environmental permitting of landfills has been made significantly tougher with the aim of better controlling their environmental impacts.

However, this has substantially reduced the availability of suitable sites. If you compare this to our disproportionately large population to land mass ratio then, put simply, we are running out of space to dump our waste.

As a result, we may face a landfill shortage within the decade, according to the Local Government Association.

Packing it in

Our consumer culture does nothing to help our overflowing landfills.

Rapid obsolescence of goods created a buoyant sales market, as people were encouraged to spend and buy, replacing anything at the first sign of wear and tear, improved functionality or passing fashions.

Many of these products have also been heavily packaged, which is resulting in larger quantities of waste, despite legislation to encourage recycling and recovery of packaging.

One possible solution, incineration, is not welcomed by all

Recognising the problem, the EU in 1999 introduced the Landfill Directive, which stated that levels of waste going to landfill across Europe had to be reduced to 35% of 1995 levels by 2020.

The UK government has devised several strategies to address the targets, each with a common theme: it is local authorities and householders who are expected to do most.

With the concentrated efforts local authorities have made with recycling initiatives, such as rolling out collection services for dry recyclables (glass, plastic, paper, cardboard) and green waste (garden waste and, in some instances, food waste), and reducing rubbish collections to once a fortnight, we have made a significant impact on landfill levels.

Some more controversial initiatives, such as "pay as you throw" schemes and penalties for failure to recycle, have proved unpopular to the extent that most councils have steered clear of them.

Despite the significant efforts of councils and households, there are serious doubts whether Britain can achieve an interim target of halving the amount of waste ending up in landfills by 2013.

The money of waste

The Audit Commission, the UK's public spending watchdog, reported that councils could be liable for fines up to £2m if their landfill diversion targets are not met.

Recycling rubbish (Getty Images)
Should more be done to reduce the amount of waste that needs recycling?

These costs are likely to be passed on to council taxpayers.

The report also advises on the need to invest in incinerators, in order to have the maximum impact on landfill levels.

This method of disposal often meets resistance from campaign groups who would prefer not to incinerate on their own doorstep, despite a new generation of safer, cleaner incinerators.

Moreover, when taking into account the complex logistics surrounding the planning and development of incinerators, these facilities involve significant capital expenditure and lengthy roll-out times.

Out of home

It is not just householders who need to consider the amount of waste they produce.

The refuse generated by the business sector adds significant volume to landfills and must be addressed in order to improve Britain's waste management performance.

Failure to significantly reduce the level of waste being sent to landfill at a corporate level will also affect council taxpayers, as the Audit Commission clearly states.

So councils are making huge strides, but in order to take landfill diversion to the next level though, it is clear that this will require a significant investment in energy-from-waste and other technologies, such as mechanical and biological treatment.

Last year, the Isle of Wight unveiled a £16m gasification plant - one of the few in existence - with a view to transforming 30,000 tonnes of rubbish into electricity for 3,000 homes.

Rubbish on the streets of Naples
Naples knows the consequences of running out of landfill sites

The island already boasts an impressive 50% recycling rate and the plant will process the residual waste.

This not only proves that such solutions can work, but also that they can be accepted by the community.

So, what will happen if Britain does not stem the flow of rubbish?

Imagine a major European city where the streets are strewn with rotting waste, and where another European country has to step in and manage the rubbish through a vastly superior disposal system.

This "doomsday scenario" might sound extreme; but it has already happened.

The streets of Naples, Italy's second largest city, were buried beneath piles of rubbish after its landfill sites were closed.

As a result, 700 tonnes of refuse was transported to Hamburg, Germany, each day as an emergency measure.

The cost of developing and implementing large-scale sustainable waste policies may seem a daunting prospect, but with rapidly diminishing landfill space and the political imperative to "green" our waste management services, we no longer have a choice.

Stuart Wardlaw is head of the environment and safety team at Dickinson Dees, a UK law firm

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Stuart Wardlaw? Are landfills a complete waste? Can recycling help deliver the waste reduction targets? Or do we need to focus on ways to cut the amount of rubbish that we generate in the first place?

I have no disagreement with the idea that we as consumers should recycle more, it is an intelligent behavior. Of the three 'R's, however, the first one is re-use, an ability that has been designed out of the process by large companies wishing to sell more and more product. The government should encourage, perhaps, or enforce this ideal in the design process for companies selling all hard goods. But the idea that household waste accounts for most garbage seems odd. In the United States, for instance, municipal waste accounts for less than 3% of the total - the rest is commercial, industrial, and government waste. We can re-use as much as we can, but unless the government deals with the people who make most of the waste, it seems pretty useless.
John Revell, Kingston, Canada

It´s absolutely unbelievable that G8 member state and one of the wealthiest countries int the world like UK performs in such a prehistoric manner when the waste management is concerned. For example my country, the post communist Czech republic has been lately on the first place among the EU members in the plastic waste recycling. I´m really surprised ´cause I know that there is still a lot to improve in the Czech republic (even though I see even very old people recycling waste despite hardly being able to cover the distance between their homes and the containers) so i can? understand the way some of so called developed nations behave. They should be ashamed.
Tomas, Prague

Andrew from Milton Keynes states thatincineration 'takes away any incentive to invest in recycling / re-use of plastics, paper and other things that can be conveniently burnt'.

The 5 EU member states who rely the most on incineration are also the 5 states which recycle the most. It's not a disincentive to recycling.

Besides, your favoured approach for plastic of landfilling it as a form of carbon sequestration effectively means that you have made a material at great carbon cost only to landfill it. Modern combustion technologies (ie. pyrolysis) allow you to reclaim that carbon, and may permit the manufacture of new hydrocarbon products from these co-mingled plastic streams.
Ade Jones, Lydney, Glos

Forget about EfW Incineration, the real answer is to promote Zero Waste in all areas as a move to sustaianbility.

The packaging industry has to be challenged to produce only easily recyclable/ reusable/ refillable options which reduce waste to a minimum. WRAP/ASDA will roll out a refillable system later this year. That should start the sustainable ball rolling.
John Costigane, Johnstone

There is another solution for waste that cannot be recycled - there will always be waste from food - and from humans - for example. Anaerobic fermentation, fermenting the material away from air, provides a useful supply of methane. The methane can supplement and so reduce imports of natural gas. The process can include farmyard animal waste and most organic materials apart from wood (so far, that is). The solid and liquid materials that remain can safely be used as fertilisers thus saving more energy and other resources. It's being done in other countries and is planned for the Olympics site, probably after the Olympics has finished.
Roy Tindle, London, UK

Why are we not making the manufacturers of packaging recycle what they produce ?

If they had to recycle it, they would make it more recyclable and less of it.

Why not make people pay that little bit more for any product they purchase in packaging so that they can claim a refund for the packaging if they return it ?

Give people/companies an incentive so that they think that they're making money or saving it and they're more likely to work for it rather than being lazy and throwing it away...
Nick W, North Yorkshire

Disposal should be designed in at the beginning and we get what we design (or fail to). If we stipulated that nappies had to be biodegradable, then they would be and we would not necessarily have to landfill them. Similarly with packaging being easily recyclable or biodegradable. However if free reign is given to use almost any material however difficult it is to recycle it, then we should not be surprised we have a problem. It is unfair to expect the consumer to be able to sort out the mess at the end, when it should never have been there in the first place.
Marcus Swann, Lymm

I am an educated man but not on environmental issues in detail other than what I see in the press and on the street. I see the waste that is generated by all households - much of which is there because there is little no clarity or comonality on what can be recycled nor legislation to force companies to reduce waste. How many different types of plastics are there exactly and why can we recycle plastic bottle's but not bottle tops and certainly not tubs. We all know the issues and why recycling is good - lets get on an do it, and that includes supermarkets selling it in plastic containrs that have been and can be recycled. I think that woudl at a stroke massivley decrease landfill - but there are other targets - are tissues with nose gunk or food spillage to be placed in the paper recycling or landfill, does paper recycling incllude shredding of documents so that we can place sensitive documents or financial statements in their or should this be shredded and recycled. In my v!

iew there is a lack of information about the bits onthe edge and a whole lack of action by those that could do the most to support recycling. Minimise landfill, maximise recycling. It is the only way forward.
Dave, Hebden Bridge, West Yorks

Most worrying is that the Gov't wants to replace Landfill with Incineration... or "Energy from Waste" as their spin doctors have renamed it.

This totally takes away any incentive to invest in recycling / re-use of plastics, paper and other things that can be conveniently burnt.

What I find ludicrous is that these systems are claimed by their proponents (and the government) to be "green" energy solutions, when in fact collecting and burning plastic releases more CO2 than even the dirtiest Coal-fired power station.

If we were serious about wanting to develop "Carbon Capture" - that is locking up the CO2 from fossil fuels away from the atmosphere - we would look on plastics as the perfect way forward. They are the ideal form of Carbon sequestration as they will never decay....

If it can't be reused / recycled, Plastics should be treasured and carefully buried as a way of permanently locking in Carbon. The LAST thing we should do is burn them....
Andrew Smith, Milton Keynes

I live in a small town in Germany. We have a recycling depot in our town, as well as extra collection points around the town for paper, glass and tins. Every week, we take plastic bottles, crinkly plastics and tetra paks to the recycling depot. We can also take other things there, eg old paint, bicycles, batteries, expanded polystyrene etc.

I recently bought a DVD player, all the packaging was cardboard or paper, and all was recycled.

Overall, we recycle at least 80% of our waste.
Isabella Jackman, Germany

Thank you to the people who point out that the landfill shortage is caused by political decisions rather than any actual shortage of space. Of course we don't dig as many holes as we used to as we import so much gravel and other mined material, due both to a decrease in manufacturing and to planning constraints in this country. So please lets not keep blaming our island for being too small, instead just remember that nobody wants a gravel pit next door any more than they want an incinerator.
Ian Nartowicz, Stockport, England

Manufacturers and producers of food and other goods should reduce their packaging. Supermarkets should offer the option of leaving unwanted packaging instore. As for real nappies they're nothing new, most people don't need to be educated, I'm sure they must have family members who used real nappies in the past. Disposables have only gradually become the norm over the past 25 years, anyone can use a real nappy, it's getting people to use them that's the problem because our quickfix society doesn't want to go, what seems to them, backwards even if it means helping the planet.
Guto T Evans, Cardigan

I think companies that pack food are more to blame than the householder - they use unnecessary packaging for food - clingfilm for fruit and veg and plastic for sauce bottles - all of which mainly go into landfill sites.
Peggy Watkins, Yate England

Landfills may appear to be a waste of space at the moment but a time may come, as we run out of basic materials, when landfills can be dug up to provide a source of valuable metals, etc. Assuming of course that we do not forget where they are!
John Tarry, Stevenage, England

We should be doing everything we can to reduce the amount of waste to landfill. Other technologies are out there! On another note, There is always a emphasis on recycling, but there is only so much you can recycle. Even if the population did everything they could to recycle waste packaging we still would have a problem. We need to reduce with the emphasis put on combatting the problem at source. The UK has become a lazy nation, who doesn't care as long as it is more convenient for them!. For example: Is there really a need to wrap a cucumber in plastic? or put your tomatoes on a plastic tray? There are so many other vegetables that are wrapped that could be loose. How much longer does it actually take a shopper to pick loose veg rather than pick up a tray, or a bag of ready prepared stuff. If we halt this process we will already see a significant reduction on waste to landfill.

This can only be instigated at the top through government. Lets stop debating it and get on with it! I have been recycling for years and get frustrated, Ban needless packaging!
Nick, Orkney

A lot of people complain about too much packaging. How about removing as much packaging as possible, after you have made your purchases at the supermarket, and putting it straight into the appropriate bins in the supermarket car park. It then saves carting it back home, removing it there, and taking it back on your next trip. No extra time is wasted. Just a suggestion....
David Clarke, St. Albans UK

We definitely need to reduce the amount of rubbish we produce but this requires a change in mindset for a seemingly large proportion of the public. As a volunteer ranger in the Peak District, weekend after weekend I and my colleagues pick up "disposable" barbecues (often from places of high fire risk), piles of bottles and cans, and even tents which have become so cheap that they are obviously seen as disposable by some.

Even worse are the doggy bags. For goodness sake, either take the bags home with you and dispose of them properly (best) or let the dog poo away from the beaten track where it will eventually break down and be dispersed by the elements and the insect life - don't bag it up and leave it for someone else to clear up or leave it to fester until someone treads on the bag or it gets washed into a watercourse.

This is only a small contribution to the piles of waste but reflects an attitude prevailing in our society. All rubbish seems to be seen as someone else's problem.
Nick, Sheffield

Roger Rabbit is quite right. Landfill is only bad because someone decided one day that it was - it's for no other real reason than that. We can still effectively landfill and then reform the landfills to constructs of native habitat when they are full.

But their emmissions and leachates must be carefully monitored and controlled.

Either we have landfill or we have incinerators lining our countryside. Which would you prefer? In reality a combination of both these appropriate solutions will be necessary but they must be regionally specific. Incineration seems the best urban solution while landfill seems the best rural solution to me. There is no one size fits all.
CDR, South West

By the way, it wasn't the fact that Germany's waste disposal systems are so much better, the reason Naples had rubbish strewn across its streets was a strike/waste mafia. In Germany there has been a rush to build waste disposal plants as councillors in local authorities have dollar signs appearing in the eyes and despite local taxpayers often having paid to build (or subsidise them) the sites, still have to pay over the odds (as indirect taxation) to fill local govt coffers. There's a lot of money to be made from rubbish (and scrap)a lot of local communes have recognised this, which has meant that there are too many sites running under economic capacity and having to be propped up by the taxpayer (by charging more for waste disposal) so the Germans were really happy to take the Italian money and run.

Not only this but local authorities have turned a blind eye to companies dumping hazardous waste at landfill sites just to get their hands on the taxes the companies pay.
Jamie, Berlin, Germany

The swiss have much higher recycling rates - the reasons are simple. In large towns, regular waste is sorted by the householder and collected separately by the council, with regular local collections for bigger household items - e.g. old beds, TVs etc - note that the council don't charge you extra for this - unlike in the UK. Every town/village also has multiple collection points around the town, clearly sign posted. The village I live in has a population of 6,000, and has 3 collection points for recycling, with the main one dealing with garden waste, paper, plastics, coffee capsules, wood, electrical items, toys etc. This is managed by the local council - the solution appears to be simple - make recycling accessible, and don't ask people to pay for the privilege.
Robert, switzerland

Hi I think that we should get all these un bio gradable plastics etc the one that can't be broken down for thousands of years and melt them down into water defence systems for land erosion and water management to route water away from flooded places if we have a problem getting rid of these products then put them to use. It does not take brain science to work out that water can be diverted and will always find its lowest point so we should be using these un-bio gradable plastics which are waterproof and not porous to divert the water to where we wish it to go. On another point I feel this so called global warming is a lot of crap. They say the waters are all rising through the ice caps melting! I have a different theory if you think of how much land the world is reclaiming by land filling the edges of rivers sea's and it is happening the world over then that in turn makes the area for all this water less so it has to get deeper as it can't go anywhere else and the politicians use this as an excuse to make more money out of us. They don't shout think of the environment when the deliberately set traffic lights up all over the place to keep us halted with nothing going apart from our exhaust fumes do they?....
Bob Martin, Inverarity Scotland Angus

I would suggest that a goverment offical comes to Sweden and studies the handling of waste. The city is is known in Europe for its handling of house hold waste. The waste is recycled, and reused in many ways. What cannot be recycled is burnt to give domestic hot water and heating to the houses. Bottles news paper re-used Vegitation waste put back into the soil.It all starts with the people who make the rubbish do the sorting as they make it. Having the correct cotainers for the types of rubbish supplied by the state. Take note UK! Michael
Michael Bangay, Växjö Sweden.

What is the national plan for handling millions of portable televisions that will be made obscolesent as a result of the digital switchover?
Terence Woolley, Newark, Nottinghamshire

In France supermarkets do not provide plastic bags - we take our own bags. Most fruits and vegetables are sold loose, and very thin bags provided for the customers. Every supermarket has a collection point for used batteries. Every commune has a dechetterie for disposal of glass and paper. In addition in our area we are provided with recycling bags for tins and plastic and these are collected monthly. It all seems to work very well!
Kate Adams, Busserolles, France

Some recycling schemes such as green waste collections only help increase tonnages collected and do not decrease landfill. Councils are drawn into perverse schemes to increase government performance figures rather than reduce landfill. Increasing material collected, transported and processed also increases cost and carbon footprint.
Venk Shenoi, Blaisdon Gloucestershire

It is wrong to suggest that land constraints are the reason for declining landfill space in the UK. Policy drivers are clearly designed to remove landfill from being a significant part of the UK's waste infrastructure and, as such, makes it rather pointless for operators to invest in new landfill void space. It is also misleading to use Naples as an example of what happens when things go wrong, as my understanding is that the problem in Italy was due to worker strike action, which could happen regardless of the waste disposal option used. There will always be waste which ultimately has to be either burned or buried and landfill plays an appropriate part of that mix. It should also be noted that according to the government the UK's waste management sector has reduced its emissions by 58% during 1990-2006.
JH, London

I live outside a village that's three miles off the main road. The village itself has a weekly recycling collection but my location doesn't. The village has no local recycling point so I have to drive. There used to be a small drop-off point three miles up the road, but that shut. I now have to make an 18-mile round trip to a local superstore. When I get there, there's a 50 percent chance that the superstore's automated machine will be broken. (And it has no place to dispose of paper.) If the supersotre's machine is working, I have to drive another two or three miles to throw the paper away. Then it's a 30-mile round trip in the *opposite* direction if I want to throw away batteries and electronics! Frankly, I'm putting everything in plastic bags again as I just can't face the driving, and I am not sure about the eco-goodness of all the miles I'm putting-in to play my part. On my experience, this country has a long, long way to go before recycling will operate satisfactorily. Still, at least I don't have a chip in my wheelie bin - it's just on my shoulder!
Perplexed, Cirencester

My name is Collette Keenan and I work as a real nappy advisor in Northern Ireland and I really feel that disposable nappies are simply not feasible for the future. 8 Million disposable nappies are sent to landfill every day and they will never properly decompose! I think more help needs to be provided by the Government to educate parents about alternatives. If parents used real nappies 50% of the time it would significantly reduce the waste sent to landfill. Furthermore there are other alternatives such as biodegradable nappies. These nappies work and look just like disposable nappies but when you through them away they actually decompose. I would love to have the opportunity to communicate to parents on BBC about the different options available to parents and the benefits of decomposable and reusable nappies.
Collette Keenan, Newry, Northern Ireland

Waste could be cut down significantly by reducing packaging. Do we really need our cucumbers shrink wrapped? Is it really necessary to have pears and apples in trays covered with shrink wrap? There are many more examples of items like this with the majority of the packaging being non recyclable or reusable.
Justin, Ilford

1) There is no shortage of landfill space - Europe has simply decided we are not allowed to do it anymore- which is probably the right thing for the environment - but let us not confuse the laws of physics with European Politics. 2) As usual "do nothing" Government in the UK has done nothing to stop - eg Supermarkets filling our homes with packaging. NOR Slavish addiction to free market economics over the last decade - which does not seem to have worked so why the reluctance to actually do what the British people want and GOVERN things. It would be lovely to live in a democracy where we could actaully get these kinds of issues sorted out.....
Roger Rabbit, Bedfordshire

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