Closing the circle

We’re only beginning to understand where waste actually comes from, and how to go about reducing it

In 1858, the year that became known as the Great Stink, the untreated sewage that flowed down the Thames had become so unbearably smelly that the House of Commons hung sacking drenched in chloride of lime at the windows, and members of parliament were eventually forced to abandon their sessions altogether.

As sure as night follows day, regulations were passed to cope with Britain's increasing sewage problem. The Victorians were famous for getting to grips with the drainage problems of large cities that were entering the modern, toilet-flushing world. But the regulatory framework they brought in didn't take waste into account - at that time, it was just something burned in grates, behind factories or in power stations. It wasn't for another hundred years or more that we began to think that we were really going to have to do something about our waste.

In 1999, the EU brought in the Landfill Directive, which attacked our motley approach to waste management and would see off the first generation of inefficient and polluting incinerators installed in the 1970s. While the UK signed up, however, we retained a quirky approach to the philosophy that now, ten years on, has come back to haunt us.

At the time, the foundation of our Anglo-Saxon approach was different from the rest of Europe in two important ways. First, we chose a regulatory framework based on where waste originated rather than what it was - leading to a dog's breakfast of exceptions and exemptions that became a lawyer's paradise.

And second, with our government unwilling to interfere in an efficient, low-cost regime, landfill carried on being the preferred exit route. By 1996, it had at least been recognised that the cheapness of landfill was a brake on innovation, so taxes were introduced to level the field to meet 2010 diversion targets. Unfortunately, at £7 per tonne, the tax was woefully unsuccessful until swingeing annual increases - eight years late (in 2005) - began to redress the balance in favour of innovation. Politically, this timorous approach was probably grounded in the uncertainty of the new, particularly when the latter was presented as the European model of community-based incinerators delivering combined heat and power at subsidised cost. Such models were seen as being, at best, unworkable in the urban UK arena and at worst a form of political suicide, given our disastrous first foray into incineration in the 1970s, when incinerators were found to be spewing worrying quantities of dioxins - which many people considered a grave health hazard - into the atmosphere.

Global warming awareness charged the debate with a new urgency, along with the realisation that our species was reaching an upper limit of capacity to live off one "Spaceship Earth". At the Wuppertal Institute, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Stockholm Environment Institute, innovative minds were coming to the idea of circular material flows within the earth's system - the "closed loop", as it has become known.

The great difficulty was, and is, the absence of coherent systems of measurement. In 1996, while at Biffa we were embarking on research into the UK's waste, it became obvious to me that putting together an integrated data capture network on material flows was going to be essential if we wanted sound policymaking, diverting around (then) 110 million tonnes of "stuff" from geological to operational use. We used the money from the landfill tax for a £10m programme to analyse material flows by region, industry sector and material type culminating in the publication in 2006 of The Mass Balance Movement, which began the huge work of collating this information.

And what our studies demonstrated is that, in order to produce the 60 million tonnes of food and drink, clothes, road fuel, furniture, electrical goods, cars and all the other stuff that we consume, we take around 1,200 million tonnes from the global commons. Which means that it has taken 20 tonnes to produce every tonne of consumer goods we buy. The waste is quite extraordinary.

Worse still, as we consume, we dispose - obvious in the case of food, but implicit in the case of all else. The suspicion is that the net accumulated mass of physical "wealth" - the things we buy that we actually keep, such as books, furniture and houses - is less than 3 per cent each year. Parallels with the financial economy are striking, with 3 per cent growth rates, and inflation that equates to the growing rate of atmospheric and physical outputs failing to be absorbed by the natural system.

Does the legislative executive in Westminster really understand what is going on here? And what needs to be done about it? Only partly. On the upside is the growing realisation that delivering improved resource efficiency means less in for the same out. That comes from innovation
in terms of engineered products (developing economies will not need to go through technology stages now seen as resource-inefficient, such as fixed-wire communications networks), engineered consumption (car shares, leasing systems rather than purchasing) and engineered systems - which is where waste comes in.

In the 21st-century, resource-efficient nations will have an advantage: being able to make more with less in a resource-constrained world. Whole-systems thinking is the only way forward - and waste is the best place to start. The entry point for different companies into this concept may differ; it may come through producer responsibility - where manufacturers find it cheaper to recover raw materials from last year's sales rather than buying them in a global market. It might come from the waste companies converting what they collect into materials (recyclate), such as electricity, gas or synthetic road fuel, and so on, in a world where fossil carbon prices will prove bullish.

But market investment in this process in the UK is being fatally slowed down because there is still no integrated database showing these material flows. And there is still no single framework for modelling alternative solutions in terms of avoided fossil carbon emissions - which would
be a good way of linking our waste to the wider climate-change imperative.

Also missing are two links in political understanding. First, the countries that buy in early to this concept of resource utilisation are buying in to a global competitiveness ticket for jobs and wealth creation in the next Industrial Revolution. Second, in a UK where taxes on employment and consumption are reactive and limited, taxes on resource use and carbon could be proactive and fruitful.

So, next time you are stuck behind that dustcart or your recycling man whinges about your quality of waste, just remember the bigger picture! Waste need not be waste at all.

Peter Jones OBE was a director of Biffa and now represents Boris Johnson on the London Waste and Recycling Board

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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