Sunday, 7 March 2010

How green is my alley? Reduce, reuse & recycle

British artist Richard Hamilton's 1957 definition of pop art included the terms 'transient', 'expendable', 'mass-produced', and 'Big Business'. We've come a long way since similar contemporary cultural attitudes led to throwaway clothing and disposable furniture, but there's still plenty that needs to be done before we achieve anything approaching sustainable development. The recent news articles showing that like the Pacific, the North Atlantic Ocean has its own enormous patch of floating plastic waste, clearly define a multinational problem: but what can the average Briton do to help the environment?

The three green 'R's of reduce, reuse and recycle involve a lot of statistics published by a variety of concerns, ranging from manufacturers to environmental groups. Going with the old saying that there are lies, damn lies and you-know-what, how can the public find a way through the minefield? As an example, estimates for the UK's annual waste total vary from 100 million to 400 million tonnes - although even the lower figure is more than enough! In recent years there have been several scandals involving potentially dangerous waste collected by local councils for recycling, only to be sent to developing countries where it is picked over by scavengers. Clearly, in some cases, out of sight is also out of mind.

Perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising considering how quickly we've had to adopt ecologically-motivated measures, but another concern is the enormous regional variation in recycling collection, waste processing and recovery. Lack of processing plants and a deficiency of recycling knowledge within councils supply yet another example of the postcode lottery. In response to this some local communities are taking matters into their own hands, such as the Somerset village of Chew Magna, where the inhabitants are attempting to gain zero waste status.

In addition to the lack of processing facilities another issue is sorting, although the use of high-tech approaches such as x-ray fluorescence and infra-red spectroscopy may increase efficiency, especially of plastics where recycling can create enormous savings in everything from oil to water. It isn't just the percentage that is recycled that counts, but how effective the processing and recovery methods are and whether as a nation we can reduce the amount of waste in the first place. Britain is an intensely consumerist nation and as if we need further proof, our household waste continues to grow by about 3% each year.

One of the most astonishing statistics (you see, they keep on cropping up), is the estimated 17.5 billion plastic bags given away in British shops every year. This amounts to over 130,000 tonnes of plastic, very few of which are composed of biodegradable material. An example of how quickly habits could change is shown by Ireland's introduction of a tax on plastic bags in 2002, which lead to an almost immediate reduction of over 90%. What's the difference to the UK? As far as I can tell, it boils down to the simple fact that unlike in Ireland, we have companies who make plastic bags: far be it from the Government to inhibit sales within our increasingly pitiful manufacturing base.

Despite the popularity of city allotments we are so divorced from food sources as to blindly follow use-by dates without actually checking the food itself. Recent evidence, including personal experiments by yours truly, show that in many cases the dates are wildly pessimistic (fingers crossed, I haven't been poisoned yet.) Again the figures vary widely, but estimates for food wastage in Britain range from 2.5 million to 8 million tonnes per year, which even for the lower figure equates to 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Food safety scares have a lot to answer for, but surely effective food science education of adults as well as children is the obvious solution? After all, it would save us at least £10 billion per year on our shopping bills.

Of course it isn't just the consumer who is at fault: British industry must bear much of the blame. Every year we each spend up to one-sixth of our food budget on packaging, much of which uses standard sizes to cut manufacturing costs at the expense of material wastage. We could do worse than look at South Korea, where over the past decade legislation has reduced both the size and materials that can be used for packaging processed foods.

Another issue is planned obsolescence. Both the Trading Standards Institute and the Office of Fair Trading investigate consumer claims of items ceasing to work shortly after the initial warranty expires, but there are plenty of less obvious instances of products deliberately built to limits short of their potential working life, such as printer cartridges and rechargeable batteries. More insidious still is the use of advertising and clever marketing, combined with long-term release cycles, to promote a more rapid replacement of items than is really necessary. This 'obsolescence of desirability' is particularly obvious with mobile phones, which rapidly outstripped manufacturer's sales estimates in the early 1990s and are now updated on the basis of a fashionable new function or user interface rather than improvements to their core purpose. There can be no better illustration of the needlessly short life span of electronic goods than the seven metre tall WEEE Man sculpture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, which is composed of the consumer goods the average British citizen gets through in a lifetime - including no less than 35 mobile phones!

One irony is that the rapid development of storage formats over the past few decades has created a cycle of obsolescence from floppy disks to laser discs at a time we most need to counter expendability. Perhaps the current generation of 'virtual' devices such as Ipods and Ipads will help offset this, as long as their material and energy costs don't outweigh the savings in paper and packaging.

We cannot be in any doubt that things are changing for the better, but the big question is whether it is fast enough. The world's third largest retailer, Tesco, plans to be carbon neutral…in about forty years time. Many office buildings are already zero carbon and the Government plans for all new homes to be built to this standard from 2016. Meanwhile the Welsh firm Affresol has developed TPR, a wholly-recyclable substance stronger than concrete yet made mostly of waste and intended to provide load-bearing walls for buildings; fingers crossed for their pilot project!

Obviously just cutting back on domestic waste and power consumption will not do as much as reducing fossil fuel usage, but every little bit helps. A final shocking statistic: every Christmas this nation uses 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper. Do we really need that amount? And as for carbon-trading - that's a whole other issue...