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

Tags:Waste