A zero waste Britain?

Greenpeace has published a report urging the Government to adopt a zero waste policy, claiming that integrated waste management has failed and that a lack of Government interest has left Britain at the bottom of the European recycling league.


The Zero Waste report, by waste expert Robin Murray, is highly critical of the use of incineration as a disposal option. The zero waste concept is based on the growing Japanese corporate practice of total quality management, taken into the environmental arena. Although not literally achievable, the approach has already been taken up by the Australian capital, Canberra, which has a zero waste target of 2010, and by individual companies such as Japanese car manufacturers Toyota and Honda.

In the UK, only Bath and North East Somerset Council has a zero waste policy.

The report explains that zero waste “encompasses producer responsibility, eco-design, waste reduction, re-use and recycling, all within a single framework”. It adds that the concept “offers a new policy framework capable of transforming current linear production and disposal processes into ‘smart systems’ that utilise the resources in municipal waste and generate jobs and wealth for local economies”. Using this approach, Greenpeace claims the country “can smash barriers to solving the waste crisis”.

A zero waste policy requires a three-bin approach:

  • One bin for dry recyclables (paper, cardboard, glass, metals, plastics and textiles), which account for a third of average waste production.
  • A second bin for kitchen and garden waste, which can be up to 45% of household waste. Organic waste should then be taken to industrial composting units. A weekly separate collection of compostable waste would make it possible to collect dry recyclables fortnightly.
  • A third bin for the remaining residual waste, which the report claims would diminish as the goal of zero waste was approached. This would be processed using mechanical and biological treatment (MBT), removing as much recyclable material as possible. The remainder would be treated biologically to make it inert, so it could be safely landfilled.

The report gives instances of new uses for waste, such as the practice in Asia of utilising non-flammable rice husks to replace polystyrene packaging around electrical goods and in place of fireproof building materials.

The concept also requires producer responsibility legislation, which would make manufacturers financially responsible for materials that could not be recycled or re-used. The report urges Government to instigate a new strategic white paper to clarify the scope and purpose of intensive recycling and goals for zero waste, and to set waste recovery targets at 67% by 2015.

Incineration is dubbed “an expensive and polluting technology”, with negative health and environmental consequences. The primary goals of Zero Waste are zero discharge – preventing toxic releases; zero atmospheric damage and zero material waste.

“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,” said Robin Murray, author of the report. “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,” he added.

Greenpeace campaigner Mark Strutt noted: “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,” he continued.

He 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.”

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