Just as Britain tops the European league for marriage breakdowns, so it also now tops the league for falling in love with consumer products and then throwing them away when newer models come out.
This social trend, which product designers have termed “adulterous consumption”, has given us the biggest methane-producing rubbish tip in Europe – and the biggest headache in deciding what to do with our waste.
Last month, Britain narrowly escaped a huge and embarrassing fine from the European Union by finally implementing the Brussels-inspired Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. The directive seeks to prevent us from tossing any more of these products with highly toxic, non-degradable components into holes in the ground. From now on, manufacturers of everything from electric toothbrushes and hairdryers to kettles, lighting equipment and washing machines will be forced to take back their products for recycling.
While other European states – notably Germany and the Scandinavian countries – have seen the writing on the wall and have been recycling for more than two decades, Britain’s binge borrowers have remained obstinately wedded to their credit cards and have gone on consuming and discarding with abandon.
We were the very last country in Europe to adopt the new law, and the problems with compliance seem insurmountable unless we return to a more conventional loyalty to consumer products.
British women discard their hairdryers after three years, usually in favour of another one that simply looks different. The average ownership of a mobile phone lasts 18 months. And manufacturers of DIY tools have calculated that most power drills are lost or abandoned after a single weekend.
“We don’t throw things away because they are broken – it’s usually because we have fallen out of love with them,” says Jonathan Chapman, a senior lecturer in design at the University of Brighton, who is trying to promote what he calls “emotionally durable” design as a way of reducing the generation of toxic waste.
Researchers in the United States have calculated that only 1 per cent of all the materials flowing through their domestic economy goes into products which are still being used six months later. Chapman believes that, without a big shift in our attitude to the things we live with, the UK will soon catch up. “At the beginning of a relationship with a product, we consume it rampantly,” he says. “Then consumption becomes routine, and then we stop thinking about it altogether and start noticing newer models. Often the relationship ends because the product is not doing something we want it to do, or it has started doing something we didn’t think it would do, but not because it doesn’t work. Unless we return to more sustainable relationships with these possessions we are going to have a really huge problem.”
How to square this reckless attitude with the demands of the WEEE directive is a crisis of such proportions that no one has dared look at it.
All manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of electrical equipment have until 15 March to register for WEEE compliance. They are required to provide precise information on the weight of the products on the market. They will then have to demonstrate that they are taking back and recycling an agreed quantity.
In practice, they will pay local authorities to provide “designated collection facilities” (DCFs), which will perform the laborious function of recovering, sorting and returning their products.
The British Retail Consortium has agreed to provide £10m to upgrade local-authority tips to DCFs, but this works out at roughly £6,000 per site – hardly enough to cover the purchase of the separate containers required, let alone wages for the vast armies of additional staff who will be needed to sort copper wire from cadmium and computer screens from lead components.
The only way the directive is likely to work is by somehow engendering a sense of collective social responsibility for waste management, yet there has been no public education campaign, and most consumers are unaware of the existence of the WEEE requirement.
Last month, a county council waste manager in West Sussex admitted that it is not clear where the facilities are to deal with the anticipated WEEE mountains. “We’re not telling the public about this because we don’t want them asking questions when we don’t know the answers,” she said.
This, coupled with our fragmented waste- disposal industry, and our usual hostility to any anonymous edict handed down from Brussels, is a recipe for chaos.
Others are exasperated at the lack of preparation. “Britain has known this electrical equipment directive was coming for a good ten to 15 years, but instead of getting properly prepared for it, the general response has been for people to stick their heads in the sand,” says Cerys Ponting, whose work at Cardiff business school on the effects of the WEEE rules is to be published shortly.
Although she has found that most British consumers are oblivious to the implications of our throwaway culture, she does think attitudes will change. “It is like the early days of seat-belt laws, when people still didn’t really see the point of them,” she says. “Until now there has been little pressure from the government to recycle.
“People somehow regard electronics as a clean industry and they don’t understand how much of a problem it actually is. That is slowly changing and there is more and more public understanding of the need to be responsible. We are going to run out of landfill sites and many raw materials fairly soon. Local authorities recognise that, but they are still at the stage of experimenting with different methods of tackling the recycling issue.”
Meanwhile the situation is becoming critical. We are producing one million tonnes of electrical wreckage annually, a volume that is rising by 5 per cent year on year – much faster than the generation of other types of waste.
The average British household contains 25 electrical products, of which at least five are thrown away every year. Two million personal computers are discarded annually. This voracious consumption is being fuelled by plummeting prices. According to the Office for National Statistics, the price of a personal computer has fallen by 93 per cent, in real terms, in the past decade. Prices of televisions, DVD players and vacuum cleaners have fallen by 45 per cent over the same timescale.
Because of an old, and somewhat irrational, resistance in this country to incinerating rubbish, the vast majority of our electronic junk is simply tipped into the disused quarries that conveniently pepper most of Britain’s shire counties. Items that may have been used for just a few hours during their working lives are being left to sit underground for thousands of years, giving off copious amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that is 23 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
The proliferating volume of “large WEEE”, as it is known in the industry, presents even more of a problem. Most people find it physically impossible to conceal washing machines and cookers in their dustbins, and there has been a slow move towards recycling the raw materials from such items – or at least not dumping them in holes in the ground.
Government waste advisers fear, however, that the new directive may simply lead to increasing quantities of such discarded goods being exported illegally to countries such as India or Nigeria, where desperate workforces will do just about anything for money, including stripping out heavy metals and other toxic materials from appliances by hand. A 2005 report from the European Commission described an enforcement operation, carried out in 17 European seaports, during which 140 waste shipments were found. Although almost half of these cargoes turned out to be totally illegal, there is no evidence of any major prosecutions. A 15-year-old UN convention, designed to prevent the export of hazardous waste from developed to developing nations, has been similarly ineffective.
Other academics have contrasted the growth of adulterous consumption with our paradoxical attachment to ancient jeans, old teddy bears and worn-out wooden spoons.
Tim Cooper, head of the Centre for Sustainable Consumption at Sheffield Hallam University, says harnessing this desire for connection to our possessions is the key to preventing disaster. He says that the WEEE directive and other legislation restricting the use of hazardous substances in manufactured items should eventually lead to a generation of more durable and repairable items that are not encased in the sealed units which prevent a long life anyway.
“People do like the idea of developing long-term relationships with their possessions; it is just that they have been prevented from doing so by industry, which is geared around stimulating a continuous sense of need for change in order to sell more and more,” he says.
“It is true, though, that there has been no evidence so far of any trend to make things which last longer or which are even more recyclable, and it does look as if things will get considerably worse before they get better.”
Five ways to dispose ethically
The Bristol-based recycling charity Sofa sells on donated furniture and electrical appliances. Anyone can buy from the charity, but if you are on a low income you get a 25 per cent discount
Collects and recycles fridges, freezers, cookers and washing machines. Items suitable for reuse are separated and passed on to refurbishment operations
Computer and software disposal. Good for the security-conscious: Seek-it wipes hard drives. The items it collects are resold or reused as donations to projects in the UK and Africa through www.it-exchange.org
A website that provides information on recommended companies throughout the UK that recycle and reuse electrical goods – from computers to lighting – as well as others specialising in industrial plastics and food
Collects ink and toner cartridges, mobile phones and PDAs. All are recycled in order to help fund ActionAid’s charitable projects in the third world
Research by Lucy Knight