Who puts out the rubbish?

When Britain signed the EC Landfill Directive in 1999, we should have entered an era in which waste-

At the start of the 1990s, the UK's recycling rates were languishing at around 5 per cent. While West Germany passed laws committing its citizens to recycling 50 per cent of its packaging waste by 1995, the UK continued to pile the plastic on to landfill sites for another decade.

The catalyst for change came in 1999, when the Labour government signed up to the EU Landfill Directive - a legal agreement to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill in European Union member states. Scotland published a waste policy the same year; Wales's strategy was ready in 2002, Northern Ireland's in 2006, and after much toing and froing, in 2007 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) finally published its plan for reducing the amount of waste England creates.

Waste Strategy for England, as it was called, targeted five stakeholder groups that needed to change their behaviour to minimise the waste the country produced, as well as claw back energy by treating the residual rubbish: government, industry, retailers, consumers and the waste industry. Each stakeholder was allocated responsibilities and market-based incentives and goals were established which, if met, would ensure that, by 2020, 50 per cent of England's waste would be reused, recycled and composted.

Government

In 2006 the European Union established a Waste Framework Directive relating to the management of waste across the EU, and committed member states and their local authorities to reducing the amount of waste they produced. The UK government took this to mean tighter regulation of waste activity and delegated a much greater task to the ­Environment Agency - whose core role is to enforce environmental standards. It was now expected to take a role in setting these regulations, particularly in industry, while also monitoring targets and standards.

Paying for the green revolution was going to be an issue. A hike in the landfill tax - now at £48 per tonne of waste going to landfill, compared to £7 per tonne in 1996 - was introduced, and the universal charge to every authority, business and household that takes a tonne of waste to landfill has been the most effective fiscal measure brought in to divert waste.

The government gave local authorities the duty of delivering landfill reduction targets by increasing the municipal waste recycled or reused from 27 per cent in 2005 to 53 per cent in 2010. This involved diverting waste from landfill, helped by PFI credits to stimulate investment in waste infrastructure schemes. The councils also had to give businesses and households advice on how to minimise waste. As an incentive, the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme fined local authorities £150 per tonne of waste that was above their target figures which went to landfill.

Over the past three years, the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill has reduced to beneath 2010 targets, using 78 per cent of its allocated amount. But, as long as landfill reduction remains the only way that our government passes on responsibilities and incentives to local authorities and councils, waste continues to be produced.

Industry

Could this be the year that the government finally holds industry accountable for its environmental impact? Historically, levels of waste have risen as the economy has grown, and the fear has been that, if the biggest polluters were made to reduce waste, this would force the economy to contract.

Moreover, while monitoring household waste (collected by local authorities) is fairly straightforward, central government is still struggling to find an effective way to monitor commercial and industrial waste, which is collected by hundreds of private companies.

But it is waste minimisation that is really becoming a buzzword for industry at the moment, particularly given the current economic climate. The obligations of "producer responsibility", both statutory and voluntary, oblige industry to make products using more recycled materials and fewer newly extracted raw materials, and to design products that are less wasteful in their production and use. Producers should manage the cost of these changes, not simply by handing the costs of eco design over to the consumer, but by addressing their supply chain and establishing links with different stakeholders in the strategy.

It is at the bottom of the priority list for most business - the commercial benefit in producing less waste is not immediately obvious - but slowly, as businesses begin to see the cost benefits of introducing upstream waste minimisation policies, the idea is catching on.

Retailers

Most of the UK's commercial waste comes from the retail sector, and in 2003 5.1 million tonnes out of the 6.1 million tonnes of waste produced by retail went to landfill. Retailers create waste in two areas - on their own property and by passing packaging on to consumers. The former is tackled economically, and retailers opt for the cheapest disposal method available. As in industry, private waste companies are employed to take the waste, then sift through it before taking it to landfill.

Retailers could avoid passing on waste to consumers if they reduced the amount of packaging. This responsibility includes cutting the number of carrier bags that consumers use, and the waste strategy gives retailers the chance to sign up to the voluntary Courtauld Commitment, which encourages them to source and market products that are less wasteful and more sustainable as well as help their consumers be less wasteful themselves.

By 2008, 94 per cent of the UK's food retail sector had signed up to the Courtauld Commitment and 61 per cent of the country's packaging waste was being recycled. On the face of it, the substantial increase from 28 per cent in 1997 meant that the scheme was working. But beneath the perceived success lies the reality of these achievements. While this was a success for recycling targets and landfill avoidance, the commitment avoids waste reduction and continues to tie the retail industry to the hungry incineration industry, leaving consumers to wonder what to do with their packaging.

In 2009 Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, reviewed packaging policy and laid out a new set of priorities for the period 2010-2015. Nonetheless, he missed the opportunity to enforce packaging reductions, and again recycling pipped reduction to become the government's first priority. As far as the waste industry is concerned, the responsibility for dealing with waste remains with consumers.

Consumers

Consumers certainly have a powerful role to play in waste reduction. As the customers of consumerism and the darlings of democracy, consumers have in theory the chance to influence the behaviour of these other stakeholders. However, one symptom of being a lowly member of the stakeholder hierarchy is that environmental negligence is hidden behind a screen of covert costs and consumers are led to believe that government, industry and retailers are doing the job for them.

Defra claims that the consumer's job will be made easy if other stakeholders meet their duties to the waste strategy. The strategy states that consumers - business and individual households alike - simply need to reduce the environmental impact of their behaviour by taking a variety of simple measures. These include such habits as purchasing products and services that generate less waste and separating their waste for recycling.

As consumers are made to believe that minimisation is an upstream issue and beyond their reach, their focus is on ­recycling and composting. So far, it appears that consumers have done a good job of meeting the demands that borough councils make of them. By November 2009, the proportion of municipal waste disposed in landfill decreased from 54.4 per cent in 2007/2008 to 50.3 per cent in 2008/2009. These successes were a result of an increase in the amount of recycling that households and businesses were doing, which went up from 34.5 per cent in 2007/2008 to 37.6 per cent in 2008/2009.

Yet, while Defra's targets are being met, environmental NGOs argue more needs to be done, citing the rate set in Flanders in Belgium of 74 per cent municipal waste being recycled as the sort of levels for which the UK should be aiming.

However, it could be consumers who ask for more. They must assert their power and take advantage of their status as "partners" in the process of policy development. They must demand greener products and drive eco-design and they must be willing to negotiate the transparent cost of doing all this, rather than accepting the one they currently pay as part of council taxes and product prices.

The industry

Defra's strategy expects the largely pri­vatised waste industry to work with local authorities and deliver policy demands. Local authorities have to encourage their communities to separate their rubbish and attract investment to the waste industry using PFI credits, and the waste industry has a role to deliver a reduction in the use of landfill. A lot of their success relies on the landfill tax escalator - inflating the charge by £8 each year - taking the cost of landfilling from £40 per tonne to economically inefficient levels. Until then, industry, business and households will revert to this option while the recycling will continue to be undercut.

Nevertheless, in order to meet the EU Landfill Directive, local authorities need to develop waste infrastructure. By entering into a contract with private waste companies, local authorities are given PFI credits to pay for the use of the waste industry's service. Essentially, this is a subsidy for the industry and was aimed at encouraging the development of techno­logies that would cope with the diversion of waste from landfill in an environmentally friendly way.

In actual fact, and unsurprisingly, local authorities spend PFI credits, as they understand it, "responsibly". Credits are used to fund long-term schemes that investors know will pay off. Experimental technologies such as composting and anaerobic digestion or recycling, which have relatively low value, rarely receive any money. As a result, funding is aimed at conventional incineration - the pro-cess of mass-burn in which municipal waste is treated and turned into heat and electrical energy.

Environmental campaigners argue that, while our governments continue to ignore the highest rungs of the waste hierarchy, the private interests of the waste industry will carry on ignoring the environment and more sustainable methods of energy recovery.

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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