Britain could be a rubbish-free society says ground-breaking study

Last edited 18 March 2002 at 9:00am
18 March, 2002

Landfill: UK could be waste free

Greenpeace publishes the first ever Zero Waste plan for the UK

The UK could be a rubbish-free zone according to a revolutionary new report. 'Zero Waste' by leading waste expert Robin Murray, explains how Britain could maximise recycling levels, change product design to eliminate waste and find innovative new uses for the rubbish we generate. The study also details the government policies and finance needed to make Zero Waste a reality.

Zero Waste is not only achievable but is already catching on in both multinational companies and cities around the world. Toyota says it is aiming for Zero Waste by 2003. The Australian capital Canberra has become the first city to adopt a Zero Waste target (for 2010) and has inspired Zero Waste movements in New Zealand and California. Bath and North East Somerset Council is the first UK local authority to aim for Zero Waste.

The author of 'Zero Waste,' Robin Murray said, "Instead of accepting what our waste is and looking for ways to get rid of it, we should be asking why waste is produced and what it could become. As a source of pollution, rubbish needs to be controlled and hidden away. But treated as a resource it becomes a valuable material. This report outlines for policy makers the practical measures that are needed to make the idea of a zero waste Britain into a commercial reality and an engine of green industrial change."

Greenpeace campaigner Mark Strutt said, "Britain's waste policy has changed little since the dark ages but, as this report shows, we can break away from the medieval solutions of digging holes for our rubbish or setting it on fire. Burying or burning our household rubbish not only releases chemicals that are linked to horrific health problems but is a massive waste of energy and resources. The government should start to implement the findings of this study and commit the UK to a goal of Zero Waste."

In the chapter a 'Zero Waste policy for Britain', the report calls for a three bin doorstep collection system for Britain's households:

  1. One bin for all dry recyclables (paper, cardboard, glass, metals, plastics and textiles) which account for a third of the average bin. A second bin for kitchen and garden waste, which makes up as much as 45% of household waste. This organic waste should then be taken to a network of sealed industrial composting units. Weekly separate collection of the decomposable fraction of our rubbish makes it possible to save money by collecting dry recyclables fortnightly. A third bin is for the remainder, the proportion of which will become increasingly smaller as the goal of zero waste gets closer. This residual waste can be dealt with using mechanical and biological treatment (MBT) which uses filters, magnets and electrical currents to remove the maximum amount of recyclable material. The remainder is treated biologically to make it inactive so it can be safely landfilled without leaching into soil or water or causing global warming gas emissions.


The new report also shows how new uses for seemingly useless waste can be found. In Asia, rice husks, which are incombustible, have been used as a replacement for polystyrene packaging for electrical goods and then after that as fireproof building materials. In the US rubber crumb from old tyres has been used as springy surfacing for basketball courts reducing player injury.

'Zero Waste' explores how producer responsibility legislation - making producers financially responsible for materials that cannot be recycled or reused - will force industry to find new uses for materials and redesign products that generate waste. For example, Volkswagen is now making doors out of biodegradable plant-based plastics and Ford have been in discussion with suppliers over designing cars so that they can be disassembled and the parts used elsewhere at the end their working lives.

Using some of the waste schemes described in the report some countries have achieved considerable progress in just a few years. In the Canadian city of Edmonton, they now prevent 70% of household waste going to landfill and in Halifax, Nova Scotia, they recycle 60%. Canberra (Australia) went from 22% to 66% in just six years and many US regions now recycle over 50% of their waste. In contrast Britain is the worst recycler in Europe with a national average rate of just 11%, with some London boroughs recycling as little as 4% of rubbish.

Incineration combined with recycling cannot work as a part of the transition to Zero Waste. It is an expensive and polluting technology, which needs guaranteed large amounts of waste to pay back huge financial investments and so would commit us to at least 25-30 years of incinerators, with all the negative health and environmental consequences.

Mark Strutt added
"Britain seems destined to remain the waste slob of Europe. The government's latest plan has a pathetic recycling target of 33% by 2015 and allows councils to build scores of dangerous incinerators to burn the rest. This will mean not only a plague of incinerators with their cancer-causing emissions but also a missed opportunity for this country to take advantage of valuable markets in recycled materials and eco-design."

Notes to editors:
1. 'Zero Waste' is available from the Greenpeace Press Office
2. Robin Murray is an industrial economist and Visiting Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, at the London School of Economics
3. Short media briefing notes on Zero Waste, including examples from around the world is also available from the Greenpeace Press Office.

Further information:
Greenpeace press office on 020 7865 8255

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