A rubbish revolution is required
Vicky Richardson calls for new ways to tackle London’s waste — without littering our streets with overflowing wheelie bins
WE LONDONERS are getting quite used to being badgered to separate our rubbish and simultaneously ticked off for our throwaway lifestyles. But while individual awareness of environmental issues has increased greatly, the same can’t be said about our institutions and public services, or for new housing schemes.
In consequence, the streets of London are littered with uncollected waste overflowing from wheelie bins, plastic recycling containers and binbags. Yet largely thanks to public pressure, the amount of waste being recycled in the capital has gone up from five per cent in 1996 to at least 22 per cent today.
However, there is huge disparity in effective waste management across the city, leading to confusion about the facts regarding waste, and a lack of consistency in public services between London boroughs. Reduced collections appear in some cases to be dressed up as “incentives” to recycle.
THE GROT IS PILING UP
China’s decision last month to restrict the recycled waste it takes from the UK highlighted the fact that waste recycling is a huge global business, worth £1 billion in exports of paper and plastic.
A side effect of China’s new restrictions is an oversupply of paper and plastic to remaining UK recycling plants, with the result that the price of waste has fallen dramatically. Ministers have expressed concern that large quantities of paper and plastic are building up at waste centres as suppliers wait for the price to rise again.
The situation highlights the need for a revolution in the way we deal with waste, and new incentives for manufacturers and retailers to produce less waste in the first place.
Mayor Sadiq Khan has outlined ambitious targets in the draft London Plan. He aspires for 100 per cent of waste to be managed within London by 2026 and aims to send zero-biodegradable or recyclable waste to landfill.
Across the UK we recycle 42 per cent of our waste, but some London boroughs have the lowest recycling rates in the country, as little as 18-22 per cent. The worst offenders include Newham, Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Lewisham. While the EU’s 2020 target is to recycle 50 per cent of waste, We have a long way to go.
CAUSING A STINK
The “Great Stink” of 1858 was a waste crisis that forced the government of the day to act. Faced with a series of cholera epidemics and the stench of sewage in the Thames, it immediately took up an ambitious proposal from civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette to create a network of sewers running below London. That was probably the last time London’s waste infrastructure was so radically overhauled.
One reason we have such a low rate of recycling in the UK is that there is no overall blueprint for how it should be done, but hundreds of different systems across the country. Waste management is complex — as the Chinese restrictions have revealed. It’s a business affected by economics, culture and geopolitics, with recycling models dictated more by the price of oil than by what we do in our homes. The main thing preventing householders from recycling is not their attitude, but convenience and economics. Recycling takes up space and very few homes are designed with waste separation in mind.
The most recent human-centred innovation was probably the rubbish chute, still a common feature of post-war blocks of flats, but it does not cater for recyclables. Apartment dwellers must take their waste to communal bins on the street, as they are penalised by local authorities that will not collect recyclables from their doorsteps.
WE NEED CLEVER IDEAS
While the digital age allows us to understand the bigger issues, it hasn’t improved our day-to-day experience of dealing with rubbish. We buy, eat, sort, throw away — and then someone else deals with it.
What if the final step was brought closer to home, for example, by having a waste-to-energy plant that heats the local lido or community crèche? Many countries are forging ahead with such ideas. Like the Great Stink, the recycling crisis has been known about for years. The way a society deals with its waste says much about its attitude to the future. To take London into the 22nd century, we need an ambitious approach worthy of Bazalgette, whose sewers allowed for more than a century of urban growth.