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.

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile