The issue of waste and recycling is a high priority for many people in Hampshire. We all want to tackle climate change and we all want to live in a green County. I am asked about recycling a lot at Parish Council meetings, at street stalls and in emails from residents. People want to know why they cannot recycle more stuff. They want to know what Hampshire is doing to increase the tonnage of waste being recycled. I have written this blog to respond to that widespread concern. It is not a short blog, but please stay with me. It is important that we increase public awareness and understanding of the issues. We need to work together to tackle this problem.
I have been interested in the issue of waste since I ran a retail business 15 years ago and was determined to minimise waste for customers. For the last three years I have Chaired the Transport and Environment Committee at Hampshire County Council; under my chairmanship the Committee has scrutinised the waste issue regularly and in depth. Through these experiences I have learned a lot, but I am conscious that I still have a lot to learn. I will keep reading and investigating and I am happy to be challenged or corrected. This blog summarises my views today, in April 2021.
There are three possible solutions for dealing with waste: it can be recycled, incinerated or sent to landfill. All three options are problematic and create dangerous greenhouse gases. I will explain in detail why that is. Before I do, I want to come to the key message: we must all produce less waste in the first place. That means changing our shopping habits: we can buy from markets, greengrocers and farm shops so that we go totally plastic free. We can go back to getting our milk from the milkman, like we all used to in the 1970s when I grew up. We can avoid excess food waste by only buying and cooking the food we need. We can compost as much as possible; it only costs £20 to buy a compost bin online (link below). We can generally avoid buying products which have plastic packaging. Instead of disposable presents, we can instead buy trees for our children at Christmas and plant them together, then enjoy watching them grow.
We can also reuse and repair more. It gives me great joy to fix a seemingly broken item, thus extending its life. Maybe you can take similar pleasure from this activity? You can find YouTube videos showing you how to repair almost anything. There are repair cafes springing up across Hampshire and they are a great resource. Sometimes we can “repurpose” things which we thought were obsolete, like making a garden bench from an old cupboard or a swing from a tyre. It is also worth remembering the freecycle community: you may be able to find a local home for your unwanted stuff. I have put a link to the Petersfield Pulse free giving page below.
Being more mindful of the waste you are generating is a helpful way to motivate yourself to reduce it. If your wheelie bin is overflowing every fortnight, ask yourself why? Through changing your habits, you can reduce the amount of rubbish you are putting out. And when you achieve that, you will know that you are doing a great thing for the climate. Especially after you read the below!
Of the three options for dealing with waste, I will start with the worst: landfill. The very idea of burying our waste is inherently disgusting. I find it amazing that humans ever thought this was a sensible thing to do. Landfill damages the local environment by leaching dangerous chemicals into the earth and groundwater. Landfill damages the planetary environment by slowly releasing methane and other greenhouse gases as it decomposes. The legacy of landfill is widespread land contamination which there is no process for decontaminating. Landfill therefore leaves a toxic legacy for our descendants who will rightly curse their ancestors for their stupidity. I note that the Committee on Climate Change has called for a ban on landfill by 2025. If it were up to me, the UK would ban landfill tomorrow.
Second, we come to incineration, also known as “energy recovery”. On the plus side, you get rid of all the waste! You also get some electricity; in Hampshire 50,000 homes a year are powered by this method. On the downside, I cannot call it “green” or renewable electricity because you are effectively burning a fossil fuel. Most of the particles are captured, but there is no getting away from the fact that incinerators release some emissions which are harmful to the environment including carbon gases, nitrous oxide and dioxins. These emissions do not help local air quality either. This is why I call this option problematic.
Finally, we come to recycling. The carbon emissions involved in collecting, sorting, washing, bundling and transporting recycled products cannot be ignored. Around a quarter of material sent by households for recycling is contaminated and is rejected. This contaminated material then has to undergo another journey to the incinerator, creating more carbon emissions. A 2016 landmark study by our very own Southampton University highlighted the fact that some products, such as aluminium cans, deliver a net carbon benefit when recycled. Other products, including most plastics, do not deliver a carbon benefit. I have put a link to the study below.
Of course, the carbon emissions issue is not the only consideration. We might want to recycle plastic products in order to avoid burning them or disposing of them in landfill. Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking. There is no market for most types of recycled plastic in the UK. For two decades, our plastic was shipped to China. This shipping created substantial carbon emissions in itself, contributing to global warming. When it arrived in China, much of the plastic was burned in the open air or dumped in rivers, often finding its way into the ocean. Many conscientious UK citizens will be shocked and horrified to learn that the plastic which they diligently placed in their recycling ended up this way. Unwittingly, we may all have contributed to micro-plastics in the ocean. Fortunately, in 2018 China realised how damaging this practice was to their environment and they banned the import of plastic. If you want to know what happened next, I recommend the 2019 Guardian article: ‘Plastic recycling is a myth’. Link below.
By the way, another thing we should ban is the export of waste products. Surely we should be able to deal with all of our own stuff here in the UK? Exporting waste is totally irresponsible – we are just exporting our carbon emissions and our problems elsewhere. Perhaps a ban on the export of waste would deliver the reality check that we need as a society?
In the UK, the only viable plastic market is for plastic bottles, and this is why Hampshire collects and processes them. I am aware that West Sussex and other councils collect other types of plastic, such as trays and tubs. People ask me why Hampshire does not collect these types of plastic too. The answer is that in West Sussex and other places, these plastics are still being exported or are just sitting around, vexingly taking up warehouse space and using more energy. Given the carbon emissions involved in this process, this does not feel like an especially helpful thing to do if we want to tackle the climate change caused by carbon emissions. The atmosphere does not care if it makes us feel better to send our plastic to recycling; the atmosphere only cares how much carbon we generate through our human activities. If we believe that there is a genuine climate emergency, then we all have to get real and consider the facts. Energy-intensive activities must be stopped unless they deliver a net carbon benefit. Collecting, sorting, washing and bundling plastic products so that they can sit around or be shipped elsewhere is highly energy intensive and delivers no net carbon benefit.
We cannot avoid waste altogether and so we urgently need to recycle more effectively. We must force producers to pay for the cost of dealing with their plastic products. We must force producers to use more recycled plastics in their packaging so that we create a functional market for recycled plastic. We must reduce the number of types of plastic in circulation to facilitate those recycled plastic product markets. We must sort our waste at home so that we reduce the cost of sorting waste and eliminate contamination (this is known as “kerbside sorting”). We must standardise recycling systems across the UK to eliminate confusion amongst the population. We must improve labelling so that consumers know which products to avoid. I am pleased to say that this is exactly what the Government Waste Strategy published in December 2018 envisages. I have put a link below – it is really worth a read. At Hampshire County Council we have supported and responded positively to the Government consultations on the strategy and we continue to engage on the details. Many key measures are included in the current Environment Bill, so things are moving forward. I am optimistic that the UK’s new recycling system will form a cornerstone of the overall “Build Back Better” commitment.
As soon as we know the full details, Hampshire County Council is ready to invest in making a new system work. In Hampshire, we have a two-tier system of local government. Districts and Boroughs collect the waste, and the County disposes of it. Hampshire County Council is currently leading a dialogue with our partners to ensure that we work together to design the new, improved system for Hampshire.
Although I am optimistic about the future, I am conscious that it might take years to implement the new recycling system. The legislation needs to be passed and enacted. Enabling regulations need to be prepared and laid in Parliament. That process might take another two years. Existing waste management contracts will then need to run their course. New collection vehicles will need to be designed, procured and manufactured. Frustrating as this is, I’m afraid there are no shortcuts. We just have to be determined and keep pushing forward.
This does mean we are stuck with the current imperfect system for the near future. Hence I am pleading with people to generate less waste by changing their habits now. As well as doing your bit to tackle climate change, you will also be supporting your local economy and your local community by shopping locally and reusing locally. Buying local produce also reduces “food miles”, so there is an additional climate benefit. I think it is worth discussing this issue over the dinner table. Some families, including mine, have resolved to consume less generally and spend their time and money on experiences instead of more stuff. “Retail therapy” does not work anyway!
It always helps to join forces: by doing that, we can encourage each other and leverage our knowledge and skills. If you have read this article to the end (thankyou), I hope you might consider joining a local group or working with your Parish Council on a community project aimed at reducing waste. Some good examples are a mobile furniture repair service, a community compost scheme or a regular monthly donation picnic where people can bring food, toys, books and clothes to gift or swap; kind of like a free jumble sale. If you ever need funding to get such a scheme off the ground, I would be delighted to hear from you.
Link to buy a compost bin
2016 Southampton research paper: Greenhouse gas emission factors for recycling of source-segregated waste materials
2019 Guardian article 'Plastic recycling is a myth': what really happens to your rubbish?
2018 Government Waste Strategy
Petersfield Pulse Free Giving page