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

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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