Throw­away econ­omy is not cost-free

The Guardian Weekly - - The Guardian Weekly -

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.

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