Waste management - Sorting the rubbish out
Each year, Britain produces in excess of 100 million tonnes of waste. That is the equivalent weight of almost 10 million double-decker buses, a queue of which would stretch around the world eight times. Yet the country's infrastructure is simply not equipped to process such vast quantities of rubbish. So, what happens to it? Where does it all go?
Until recently, a huge volume of the nation’s waste was being shipped off to China, under a very vague understanding that it would be ‘recycled’. Reality was that most of it ended up in landfill. Still, the waste kept flowing, the UK couldn’t manage it and so off it went to the other side of the world to become somebody else’s problem.
That all came to an end in 2018 when the Chinese government imposed a ban on British waste exports to the country following an influx of potentially hazardous waste contaminating shipments - and it in turn became a growing headache for China to handle.
Following the ban, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and Poland have all seen massive increases in the huge amounts of UK waste they are importing, with Vietnam now the most popular destination for British waste exports. What is deeply concerning is that these countries have some of the worst track records for marine pollution; Vietnam is the fourth worst market globally for offloading plastic waste into the ocean.
Despite imposing limits on the amounts of waste they will take from overseas, Turkey, Poland and many southern Asian markets are still very much relied upon by developed countries with less than effective waste management infrastructure; the UK being one of them. It is thought that much of the waste, particularly plastic waste, currently circulating in the world’s oceans originates from such ineffective markets.
Burdening nations that have questionable records in marine pollution with UK waste is not only unethical and environmentally damaging, but it’s not a long-term solution either. The time will come where these markets struggle under the mounting pressures of sorting through and offloading vast amounts of rubbish that they follow suit with the Chinese and stop taking it from us.
Though the UK government has been very vocal in its support of measures to reduce waste shipped abroad, and most critically to reduce plastic usage generally as a huge contributor to the problem, it has yet to establish any longer-term solutions to the critical issues it is faced, with sorting through the UK’s waste problems.
The National Audit Office recently said that Michael Gove’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had not done enough to assess the wider effectiveness of the current waste management systems in the UK and “has not been sufficiently proactive” in managing the risks associated with the rise in exports of waste.
A spokesperson for the DEFRA has commented that the government’s ambition “was to handle more of our waste in the UK” and that “in the short term, alternative markets have been found in response to the China restrictions including Malaysia, Turkey and India”.
Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association believes the Chinese-imposed ban will be a “game-changer’ for the UK government as they sit on a ticking timebomb with the current systems in place. That action must now be taken to establish effective waste management infrastructure in the UK and stop offshoring our rubbish to deal with the problem at home.
With the average household across the country producing more than a tonne of waste every year, it is not difficult to understand that society must work to reduce this. The nation’s overconsumption has led to the production and use of twenty times more plastic today than fifty years ago, a trend that simply cannot continue.
Barely a week goes by when we are not presented with reports of household waste flowing into our city streets due to poor waste management systems in place, and our polluted oceans killing off masses of marine inhabitants. It has to stop.
Businesses are waking up to their responsibility of reducing waste, increasing recycling and having more effective waste management systems in place, from take-back schemes to recycle programmes, naked stores and consumer incentives, but it has to go much further, wider and faster to have the impact our nation needs.
Changing behaviours, investment in infrastructure and cutting waste are all factors that need to happen simultaneously to allow the county to sort its rubbish out properly. Until then, we will keep making it somebody else’s problem - until we can’t.
edie Live 2019
Taking place on 21-22 May at the NEC Birmingham, edie Live is the only UK event connecting energy, sustainability and resource professionals with the information, ideas and suppliers they need to make their business more sustainable, including what effective waste management looks like.
edie Live attracts thousands of visitors to meet hundreds of innovative exhibitors and take part in hours of information-packed seminars, interactive products trials, one-to-one advice clinics and great networking. For more information, see here.