Throwaway economy is not cost-free
Take-out coffee and bottled water symbolise both the luxury and the waste of the early 21st century. They represent the throwaway world, the always-on culture, the low-pay, low-skill jobs. They reflect our catastrophic disregard of the consequences of our choices for the world around us.
China recently implemented tight new controls on the kind of waste it will take for recycling. Although the UK is not the worst offender, it will have a big impact on recycling rates in the UK, where plastics are often not properly separated. Greenpeace estimates that as much as half of the plastics Britain sends to China will be unacceptable.
Last Friday, MPs on the environmental audit committee – which last month called for a deposit scheme for plastic bottles – produced another shocking report about the impact of take-out coffee cups. They want a 25p (34 cent) levy applied to the 2.5bn cups used each year to pay for the recycling. And if that fails, then the MPs suggest throwaway cups should be banned altogether. Coffee cups look innocent. But in between the cardboard is a tightly bonded polyethylene liner, which is difficult to remove and not accepted by paper mills. Like the fashion for carrying around fresh water, it seems the faster we talk about the need to be green, the quicker we invent materials that may outlast the human race.
Britain is better at rubbish than it was: the amount of waste that goes into landfill has been cut from 80% to 20% since 2000, partly by a huge increase in recycling – but also partly by sending hundreds of millions of tonnes out of the UK each year, much of it to China, which is no longer prepared to be the developed world’s offshore dump.
Dropping a bottle on the street or putting it in the rubbish rather than in recycling need to acquire the same kind of social stigma as smoking in front of children. But the fight should start before recycling, and before reuse. It should begin with the producer: use less plastic packaging. Make the polluter pay.