Why capitalism creates a throwaway society

How to deal with waste is the great policy failure of our age

Within living memory, Britain was a country where recycling was a way of life and waste was abhorred. Milk was delivered in glass bottles and the empties were left on the doorstep for collection the next morning.

The silver tops were kept to buy guide dogs for the blind. A beer or soft-drink bottle carried a deposit that was recoverable on its return. Rag-and-bone men toured the streets seeking waste material.

Children who failed to eat up their food were sternly told the Chinese would be grateful for it. Shops would charge for bags (which became a subject of growing consumer indignation) and so you took your own bag instead. Socks were darned, elbows patched and small pieces of string kept in the cupboard under the stairs.

Most of these things were commonplace, at least until the 1960s. But no sooner had we created our new, more convenient world than we started worrying about it. Friends of the Earth launched its first waste campaign - returning thousands of empty bottles to Schweppes - in 1971, and the first bottle banks appeared in 1977. A 25 per cent target for recycling of household waste was set in 1990; even though we've reached the target, the amount we consume has risen so steeply that unrecycled waste has fallen only slightly.

The whole issue of waste is surely one of the great policy failures of the past 50 years. With global warming, politicians can at least argue that the science was inconclusive until about 20 years ago. But it was always obvious that our capacity to dispose of waste wasn't infinite.

Even now, governments do little more than nag consumers, with local authorities mandated to threaten fines or unemptied dustbins (the prospect of the latter always terrifies the British) for those who put their cans in the wrong receptacle. However, as the House of Lords science committee observes in a report published on 20 August (HL Paper 163), that isn't really the problem: only 9 per cent of total waste is domestic. And, as usual, the government is reluctant to confront powerful business interests. Regulations exist - usually thanks to Brussels - but they are opaque, fitfully enforced and disjointed. For example, a European directive makes each individual electrical manufacturer responsible for taking back, reusing and disposing of its own products. No EU member has implemented the directive and, in the UK, it isn't even on the statute book.

I don't deny that regulation is difficult. Quite often laws, introduced for entirely laudable purposes, exacerbate other problems. The Lords committee explains how regulations to make vehicles safer also create more materials to be disposed of and, by increasing weight, further add to carbon emissions. Hygiene regulations, combined with retailers' mortal fear of being accused of poisoning their customers, are responsible for a high proportion of food waste. Nor would I pretend consumers can always be let off the hook. As a Unilever representative rather irritably pointed out to the Lords committee, people who complain about excessive packaging for shampoos would do more for the environment if they turned off the shower while they lathered their hair.

Nevertheless, waste is integral to what Robert Reich, in his most recent book, calls "supercapitalism". Unchecked supercapitalism produces waste as inevitably as it produces inequality, job insecurity, loss of community and so on. We are rapidly reaching the point, long promised by futurologists, where we throw away clothes after wearing them once, and we already dispose of many electrical goods as soon as they go wrong.

The average British household currently spends a mere 60p a week on repairs. The economic logic is impeccable: the goods are made in countries where labour costs are low, while repairs have to be carried out here, where costs are high. But even when goods don't need repairing, we still throw them away. Supercapitalism's brilliant answer to increasing durability is to elaborate and refine so that goods feel obsolete almost as soon as you buy them. Even environmentalism has been turned to supercapitalism's advantage: always buy a new machine, you are told, because it will be more energy-efficient than the old one.

Business talks of "consumer demand". But nobody ever marched to demand an end to recyclable milk bottles, more upgrades for mobile phones, more cheap Chinese imports. (People usually march to protect something they have, perhaps a job or a nice view, not to gain something they don't have.) Greengrocers got by for years telling their customers there was "no demand, madam" for anything more exotic than a cabbage.

People buy what is made available to them, provided it delivers gratification at a reasonable price. As Reich points out, supercapitalism gives us great deals as consumers and investors, without our even troubling to ask for them. Unfortunately, it gives us bad deals as citizens. Drowning us in waste is just one of them.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food