A rub­bish rev­o­lu­tion is re­quired

Vicky Richard­son calls for new ways to tackle Lon­don’s waste — without lit­ter­ing our streets with over­flow­ing wheelie bins

Evening Standard - West End Final Extra - ES Homes and Property - - Save The Planet -

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.


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.


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.


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.

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