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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 16 July, 2002, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Six Forum: Waste disposal

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  • Click here to read the transcript

    Waste management expert Keith Collins answered your questions in a LIVE forum for the BBC's Six O'clock news, presented by Manisha Tank.

    Britain produces 435 million tonnes of rubbish every year, and disposing of it is an increasingly large problem.

    The EU Landfill Directive says that the amount of waste dumped in landfills has to be cut by two-thirds by 2015.

    Waste incinerators are the cheapest alternative, but environmental groups and residents fear that these pose huge health risks.

    Recycling is another possibility, but local councils say that the cost could run into billions of pounds.

    What are the arguments for and against incinerators? How should Britain's rubbish problem be dealt with?


    Transcript


    Manisha Tank:

    We are talking about waste management. Rubbish is a big problem in the UK and an EU Landfill Directive is asking for the amount of waste being sent to landfills to be reduced by two-thirds by the year 2015. So what to do with all this waste? Incinerate it? Recycle it, perhaps but we certainly can't keep putting it in the landfills and so the problem just gets bigger. Here to address your questions and comments is Keith Collins, he is an expert in waste management.

    Lets start with an e-mail we received from Rod in Newhaven who asks: Why are local councils so eager to burn all of our waste? They only seem to pay recycling lip service.


    Keith Collins:

    To date there hasn't been much government funding for recycling whereas there's been hundreds of millions in subsidies for the incinerators in the UK and so the natural tendency was to drift over towards the subsidised option. Starting about a year go, there became more money available for recycling, so they'll begin to plan to bring that forward and across the country now we're seeing it come out step by step.


    Manisha Tank:

    So should that be encouragement to people like Karen Jarvis who written in from Dundonald in Northern Ireland, asking: Is it true that you can get cancer if you live next to an incinerator?


    Keith Collins:

    Incinerators, next to nuclear plants, they're the most hated kind of industrial facility you can get in the western world and so they don't build new ones any more in the United States, or in Canada, or in Australia or in New Zealand. I think what we're seeing in the UK and Northern Ireland is the last gasp attempt by the incinerator companies to get some facilities built. But most of them won't get built - our local citizens won't allow it and then everyone will just get on with more recycling, composting and so on.


    Manisha Tank:

    Text message from Sue in the UK: I think that incinerators are the last option before the whole country turns into one big landfill site. If more people could be bothered to recycle, then there would not be so much rubbish around anyway. But if people don't want incinerators on the doorsteps then I suggest they stop being so wasteful.

    With that we have another e-mail from Angela, Shrewsbury, UK: Are incinerators less safe than landfills? Surely both of them pose health risks and surely knowing about the health risks would push us perhaps to recycle more.


    Keith Collins:

    With the first question and people not being bothered to recycle. Right now when you put out your rubbish once a week someone comes by and picks it up basically at the end of your garden or at the front of your property. Recycling is often harder - you have to go and find a bottle bank and so. The experience all across the UK is showing, if you make recycling as easy as putting out your rubbish - just through a kerbside box scheme - lots of people will recycle. So if you give people a good service, they'll use it - all over England that's being shown today.

    As for the health risks of landfills and incinerators - landfills are no joy, I grew up near one. Incinerators are no joy. Why end up with a choice of pick your poison? If you are worried about your lungs, incinerators will put out the fumes out for miles all around. If you live next to a landfill, it can get into your water supply. So our emphasis is just build up recycling composting as quickly as possible. But once you build incinerators they are for 25 years. So once you put the money in, you own it, you bought and you get the health risk for 25 years. So we would say - let's not build those for a while, let's concentrate on recycling compositing.


    Manisha Tank:

    KCG, York, UK: Countries like Belgium and Norway have excellent recycling facilities which they seem to find perfectly affordable so why doesn't that happen in the UK? Yes, it will cost money to put it in place but surely once it is up and running, the cost would equate that of any other method.

    Also a text message from Axel: Councils should provide more doorstep recycling collections for example. That would get people to do something.

    A further e-mail from John Wilkinson in Pennsylvania in the USA: Why does Britain not recycle newspapers, grass, metal cans and plastic containers as is done in the US? If there were economic disadvantages surely they would have found them out in the US so why don't we take heed?


    Keith Collins:

    I'm an economist - the reason most countries went into recycling originally is because of the jobs in recycled paper mills, aluminium mills, glass plants - the United States right now employs more people in recycling than in the auto industry.

    The UK has historically been the worst country in the western world for recycling and it was for two reasons: There was very cheap landfill out there - a lot of old quarries to be filled. Now that that has been blocked off, there were huge subsidies for incinerators and that kept the councils from looking at recycling. People will recycle, it will recreate lots of jobs and it's much better for the environment and for people's health. So we just say, concentrate on that and the councils should not be running into the arms of the incinerators.


    Manisha Tank:

    So should the councils be thinking more about incentives in getting people to recycle? Mark Eccles, Monterey, USA asks: Why not reintroduce a system of giving cash for returning bottles to supermarkets? It worked when I was a kid.


    Keith Collins:

    Returnable bottle schemes work but the supermarkets are very big, very powerful and they do not want to devote very much floor space to taking back people's bottles. They are quite happy if that goes out the door, goes home and then goes off in a council dustcart. So they want to find every other way possible around it. And through a recycling box scheme, you can probably get around it and we can probably do just about as well through that means. So I think everyone is going to start there and then look a few years down the line at paying for putting your bottles back.


    Manisha Tank:

    Julian in Cambridge, UK: At the supermarket it has recently become much more difficult to find an empty cardboard box to take your groceries home in. Is this because the supermarket is sending them elsewhere to meet recycling targets? If so, could the rules perhaps be changed so that they are reused by customers and it's considered still to be recycling?


    Keith Collins:

    The supermarkets right now have laws placed on them which they're trying to meet by getting rid of cardboard boxes and recycling them and so on rather than make any larger structural changes - certainly to the packaging of items. We would really very strongly encourage them to begin changing the packaging of items and then perhaps they could leave a few spare cardboard boxes around for people.


    Manisha Tank:

    David Walker, Bridgenorth, UK: In the past I've been told that door-to-door collection of glass is difficult because of safety issues. Is there any innovation in this area that would make glass collection easier and safer?


    Keith Collins:

    It's not a problem. People collect glass and everything in black plastic sacks right now. Collecting glass for recycling - I've worked on recycling trucks - it's really not a big problem. There are billions of bottles recycled every year all over the world - it's really not a major constraint right now.


    Manisha Tank:

    Frank L, London: Is there a service for recycling or disposing correctly of televisions?


    Keith Collins:

    I don't know. There's a new directive coming in from Europe - it's for electronics, including televisions. Soon they are going to have to start being sent back to reclaim and reuse as much material as possible because you get a lot of metals and other things that you really don't want either going up into the air from an incinerator stack or down into your water from your landfill. So that will start but it will be over the next three years or so.


    Manisha Tank:

    Text message from Phil: Should we adopt the same policy as in Germany where you're actually fined if you don't sort the products that you have for recycling properly?


    Keith Collins:

    We've done projects in inner London, across Essex, through Lancashire and the Midlands. In England people will recycle - they're better recyclers culturally and at heart and in terms of their attitudes than Americans are certainly. People will recycle - you don't really need to charge them. What you need to do is give them a good service and 80% - 90% will use it. If you want to put a charge in then, just to make that last 10% who don't want to do anything with anybody else in the world, then that's a good tool if they know they are going to be charged then they'll probably shift over as well. But start by getting a good low cost weekly service in and most of the population will take to it.


    Manisha Tank:

    Mas G, in Coventry: Should people be charged for the safe disposal of certain items such as fridges and computers similar to how car drivers are now charged to dispose of their old tyres?


    Keith Collins:

    Some places do where you're charged - they make you pay up front and then when you bring it back at the end of its life, you can get your money back - that's one way to do it. If you just tell people, it is 10 if you want to get rid of your TV - well you are going to start finding them dumped in alleys and vacant lots etc. So it has to be brought in very sensibly and sanely or otherwise you will end up with fridge and TV mountains all around Britain.


    Manisha Tank:

    Tom, Bristol: I live in Bristol there were good recycling facilities however they've become very unreliable with their collection. Why should we both if there are no proper incentives?

    This brings us back to what you say that in Britain we are good recyclers, so does it mean that there's a problem between what the government is giving local councils and what the local councils are actually doing with that money?


    Keith Collins:

    Yes, the population are very good - the citizens of Great Britain are very good recyclers - the councils stink. The central government has had no funding until the last year when Labour brought it in really in the last year to start money moving through. England's recycling rate on the whole is worse than any other country in the western world. London's recycling rate was about the same as Beirut's to give you a comparison - that's pretty dismal. That's not the fault of the citizens - it is the fault of the local councils and the councils in many cases to be on a waste committee for your local council is a pretty dreadful place to be - and they just want to do more of the same old thing or have a big incinerator built. Getting out there and mixing with the public and having to deal with them on the doorstep and getting them engaged in recycling is not their natural thing, so it is going to take some time to turn over those local councillors and officers.


    Manisha Tank:

    Tina, Edinburgh: In Germany may dispose of unnecessary packaging in the shop. This is sent back to the producers who may rethink their packing strategy. Do you think a system like this could work in Britain?

    Helen, Bournemouth: One famous brand of biscuits now comes wrapped in three layers of plastic no less. Why can't we start taxing companies that use over the top packaging?

    Keith Power, Winchester, Hampshire: Could we cut the number of different types of plastic used in packaging so that it can be more easily recycled? Could manufacturers be pressured to use recycled plastics?


    Keith Collins:

    They should - there's laws that have been brought in to introduce laws of responsibility and make the supermarkets and the packing companies change. What they're doing is try to change everything behind the scenes without changing anything that hits the consumer. It's a dismal scheme right now frankly - its performance is dismal no matter what the numbers may say as they play with them.

    The Government really does need to turn the screws on at the central level and begin to get this changed. When I get chocolate bars wrapped in cardboard, plastic then more plastic - you do begin to think this is a bit daft really and who cares about recycling - let's change it at the front end and not put the packing on. The only way to do that is either to have a consumer revolt where people do as in Germany - and the citizens did it themselves - they just pulled off the packaging and dumped it on the floor.

  • See also:

    18 Jun 02 | Wales
    18 Jun 02 | England
    30 Mar 02 | Wales
    08 May 02 | Wales
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