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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    Construction and industrial waste will be used to build ecohouse in Brighton city centre



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    Reducing waste and reusing resources is critical to economic competitiveness and resilience, waste chief tells conference

    Reducing waste and reusing resources could help drive the UK's economic recovery as well as benefit the environment, a conference was told on Tuesday.

    The chief executive of the government's waste advisory body, Wrap, told senior business leaders, policymakers and local authority managers that efficient use of resources is critical to the UK's future economic competitiveness and resilience.

    Opening a debate on the economic benefits of what has been dubbed the "circular economy", Liz Goodwin said: "Realising the full value of materials through resource management could drive sustainable growth, with a recent McKinsey report showing 30% of global demand for resources in 2030 could be met through improved management. Resulting global economic benefits could be as high as $3.7 trillion a year."

    Recent research from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) showed that UK businesses consume 600m tonnes of materials a year. Around one-third of this ends up as waste, and much of it could have been used productively with benefits of up to £18bn.

    A major part of Wrap's role is to help business achieve these benefits which, if re-invested, would help drive economic growth, Goodwin said, pointing to further factors currently holding back investment: "In a recent survey 80% of CEOs of manufacturing companies said raw material shortage was a risk to their business. A 147% surge in real commodity prices since 2000, and the uncertainty being caused by historically high levels of price volatility are hampering investment and economic growth."

    Examples of the circular economy include the "closed loop" system now used for turning old plastic bottles into new ones. But there remain many challenges, Goodwin admitted, not least in the electricals and electronics supply chain.

    Other speakers at the conference were Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer – which earlier this year claimed to have become the first UK retailer to become "carbon neutral" and Lord de Mauley from Defra, the is resource management minister.


    guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    There are more than 1,000 illegal waste sites in Britain, causing huge pollution and ruining people's lives. Are the authorities doing enough about the problem?

    It was, Jan Bowdler says, one of the most miserable and upsetting experiences she has ever lived through. Only last year, when the man who had been operating an illegal waste site at the bottom of her garden finally pleaded guilty and was ordered to repay more than £800,000 of criminal profits, could she be sure it was over.

    "It was a living nightmare," Bowdler says from her home in Colnbrook, near Slough. "Sometimes they'd start at 5.45am, on a Sunday. Massive arc lights shining into the windows, a crane towering over the house. Huge steel shipping containers being dropped onto concrete, and dragged from one part of the yard to another."

    The noise, she says, was "indescribable. Cars being torn apart, crushed, dropped onto this mountain of metal, maybe 10 metres high, far higher than the house. Rottweilers prowling. A small river of used engine oil. And burning, burning all the time, heavy smoke ... We lived in fear of what they were burning. The smell was awful."

    For Bowdler and her ageing father, who had come to stay with her after major surgery, as well as her neighbours, it was an all but unbearable ordeal. "We held meeting after meeting, lobbied the council, campaigned in the local press ," she says. "The trees in the lane got knocked down. Wildlife vanished. Five years, it lasted. Just horrific, for everyone." It's a relatively recent but decidedly nasty business, waste crime: nasty for the environment, for the people affected, and for legitimate businesses that pay for waste-disposal licences, permits and tipping fees. It ranges from small, individual operations to large, complex networks involving multiple sites, companies and sometimes countries.

    And it is a big, and growing business: according to the Environment Agency's first national report on waste crime, published recently, there were 1,175 illegal waste sites in England and Wales as of March this year.

    Most deal in construction and demolition waste, the biggest single category; others take household and commercial, and end-of-life vehicles (what with the oil, the battery, the brake fluid and the air-con, depolluting a dead car is expensive. Far cheaper, as the gang at the end of Bowdler's garden knew, to just reclaim the metal and dump the rest).

    Until quite late in the last century, of course, we barely cared about this at all. But a succession of laws – the Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act in 1972, the Control of Pollution Act two years later, and most significantly the Environment Protection Act in 1990– have raised awareness and imposed increasingly tough restrictions on what we may dispose of, and how. These days, we devote £17m of public money a year to tackling waste crime. Those who commit it are united mostly by the prospect of quick, easy money and a frequently breathtaking disregard for the the law, the natural environment and their neighbours.

    "One time," says Environmental Agency intelligence manager Peter Rutherford, picking his way gingerly across a muddy Derbyshire farmyard strewn with half-filled skips and trailers of fresh builder's rubble, assorted electricals and a large number of empty bottles, "we came down here, he was burning stuff. Big bonfire behind him."

    The "he" in question, a farmer with a long history in the illegal waste business, looks askance as Rutherford and a colleague, in protective boots and high-visibility jackets, poke through the mountains of rubbish and take pictures.

    "So we say," continues Rutherford, "'What are you burning there, Tim?' And he says, 'What do you mean?' We say: 'The bonfire, Tim.' And he says: 'What bonfire?' And we say: 'The one behind you.' And he turns round and says, 'Blimey, who lit that?' That's the thing with these guys: they have a whole different attitude. They don't think the law applies to them."

    Rutherford's job boils down to making sure the law does apply. He and Tim are old friends: the farmer has several previous convictions, has been banned from handling waste, and is currently serving a 51-week suspended prison sentence.

    Rutherford likes to drop in on him, accompanied by a couple of uniformed police officers, "to show him we're still on his case. Disrupt his activities". The police are more than happy to come along; they want a quiet word with Tim about something else. "If you're into waste crime," as Rutherford says, "it's rarely just waste crime you're into."

    It is all, obviously, about the money: saving it, for the waste producer; making it, for the illegal operator. "Broadly speaking, it's at least 50% cheaper to get rid of stuff illegally," says Rutherford. "Here, a legitimate company will charge £180-£200 per skip. The bad boys will be asking £100-120, cash. You can see the temptation for the producer."

    Meanwhile, of course, people like Tim will be "pocketing the £100; avoiding the costs of all the various permits, licences and taxes; burning the waste; pulling out any valuable scrap metal, and selling it. You rent the corner of a farmyard or a field or an industrial unit, buy a few skips, and you start dumping. It's really very easy money."

    Tim counts as a "small but persistent" operator; there are plenty bigger.

    Earlier this year, four waste bosses operating six illegal waste sites in Lancashire were sentenced to jail terms of up to 18 months. Agency staff and emergency workers had to wear protective suits and breathing apparatus to tackle chemical drums filled with acids, pharmaceutical vials, oil sludge, waste inks and crushed tablets, as well as 1,000- litre containers marked "carcinogenic contents". One large container marked, "explosive on contact with water" had been stored under a leaking roof.

    Equally barefaced was Carl Steele, the so-called "million-tyre man", jailed for 15 months last year for dumping more than a million used tyres at sites across five counties. Tyres are hard to recycle because they contain steel, but dumping them is dangerous: stockpiles can burn for years, and putting the fire out entails massive water pollution.

    Some waste crimes are just gruesome. Rutherford last year helped convict a Derbyshire woman who had been illegally disposing of clinical waste and dead pets. She was collecting animal bodies from local vets, burning them en masse, and in some cases presenting families with ashes they believed were from their dogs. The remains were buried, badly, on land she was renting.

    On the evidence of today's visit, it doesn't look much like Tim's suspended sentence – and costs of £23,000 that he is, Rutherford admits, unlikely ever to pay – have induced him to stop (although at least he hasn't been seen this year, as he was last, driving his tractor untaxed tractor up the main road to Manchester at 5mph, filling a trailer with rubbish, and burning or burying it on his farm.

    At time of writing, Rutherford's Midlands region alone has 87 known illegal waste disposal sites, including 36 classified as "high risk" because of their location, the toxic nature and quantity of the waste being dumped there, or the number and kind of complaints being received about it.

    Progress is being made. Following a concerted, £17m campaign to target the problem launched last last year – and the formation of a special task force, of which Rutherford is a member – some 760 illegal waste disposal sites have been dealt with in the past 12 months, either by shutting them down or bringing them into legal operation.

    The agency has also brought 335 successful prosecutions, including 16 in which large-scale waste criminals were handed prison sentences, and the number and size of the financial penalties imposed have multiplied: £1.7m in fines last year, over twice as much as in 2010, while the biggest single fine trebled to £170,000.

    More than £2m of assets were also seized, often under the Proceeds of Crime Act: the £800,000 order handed down to Amrik Johal, who ran the site at the bottom of Bowdler's garden, is the largest so far.

    This is part, says Mat Crocker, head of illegals and waste at the agency, of a new intelligence-led approach that is starting to pay dividends: working closely with police and other government agencies such as the tax office, trading standards, vehicle licensing, border control and work and pensions both to keep abreast of the criminals' activities and make it "increasingly uncomfortable for them, on several different fronts, to keep operating illegally".

    But despite recent success, the overall number of illegal waste sites in Britain is barely falling. Partly, the task force is identifying more, but partly, Crocker says: "New sites, up 'til now, have been opening almost as fast as we've been closing existing ones down. Waste crime remains a significant and constantly evolving problem."

    Back in a rubbish-strewn Derbyshire farmyard, Rutherford agrees the multi-agency strategy works well: "It's like, 'Oh, that's interesting. We've been looking at that guy for years but never really had enough on him to do anything. Let's see what we can do together.' Remember, Al Capone wasn't done for liquor, he was done for tax evasion."

    But bringing a case to court is expensive, and time-consuming. Prosecuting Tim last year cost the Agency £22,000 for the investigation alone, regardless of legal fees: hundreds of hours of surveillance and covert, long-lens photography of the site, 12 discs of pictures, great fat ring binders filled with evidence.

    And in the meantime, in the absence of a hard-to-obtain high court injunction or stop order (or even if one is granted), many illegal sites simply continue to function. A complex investigation and prosecution can run to three or four years, Rutherford says, as legally aware operators spin it out as long as possible.

    Even after a conviction, there's no guarantee they won't simply start all over again. Tim did, days after he was released from prison. So these days, Rutherford says, he puts almost as much effort into education – making sure waste producers know they are obliged to ensure the firm they hire to dispose of their waste is operating legally – as he does into investigation.

    "The criminals," he says, "will keep going; it's what they do. We'll keep trying to stop them; that's what we do. But cutting off the supply may in the end be the most effective way of dealing with this."


    guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    A process for recycling scrap metal into ingots lies behind French minister's hounding of the ArcelorMittal steelmaker

    The capitalists want to close down a historical steel plant, the French government is making nationalisation noises, and the unions are on the warpath: all because the hippies have won. I refer to the case of ArcelorMittal, owned by the richest resident of England, the steel plant at Florange in Lorraine and the French minister, Arnaud Montebourg. As the Guardian reports:

    France's industry minister has accused the world's largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal, of "lying" and urged it to leave the country. In an extraordinary attack, Montebourg also threatened the company with temporary nationalisation. "We no longer want Mittal in France because they don't respect France," the minister said in an interview with the financial newspaper, Les Echos.

    The plant needs to be closed because we all do more recycling now, just as we have been urged to do by the hippies for decades.

    My apologies but I will make a small technical detour into the details of iron- and steel-making. There are two parts to the process. Making the iron and steel from iron ore, coke and limestone. Then taking the large resulting ingots and turning them into something useful: in this case, sheet steel for the car industry. For the first we use a blast furnace, the second a rolling mill. There is no possible technological substitution for a rolling mill but there is for a blast furnace. We could, instead of making "virgin" iron, recycle old scrap in an electric arc furnace to make our ingots to feed our rolling mill.

    Ever since Teddy Goldsmith's book Blueprint for Survival we've been told we must move the metals industry from a "flow" system into a "stock" one. Instead of continually digging up more ore to make new metals, we should instead think of how much we already have above ground, of ways to recycle what we have, as environmentalists have been telling us in the decades since that publication.

    In the steel industry the biggest problem has always been that we've had scrap metal dealers for millennia but no one could quite make auto steel out of that scrap. We only knew how to make that out of virgin steel. Then a US company, Nucor, cracked that problem a couple of decades back and what with the slowness of the industry, patents and trade secrets, the technique is only now fanning out across the industry.

    This is what is killing the Florange plant. That plant comes in two parts: there's a rolling mill making auto steel for the German car industry. No one wants to close that: not Arcelor, not any of the companies circling if there is a "temporary nationalisation". Because we've no substitute for a rolling mill in making auto steel.

    However, no one wants the two blast furnaces there which make up the other part of the plant, as we can now make our ingots of steel out of scrap. It's a standard assumption in the metals world that no one will ever again build a new blast furnace in the rich, industrialised countries. Not only do we not need them, we don't need all the ones we've already got.

    So, as I say, that half of the Florange plant is closing because the hippies have won – as they should indeed have done on this one particular point.


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    The Guardian Northerner is sinking into festive torpor for the next few days, but that doesn't mean you have to. Take a leaf of out of Sue Carter's book, and you may be a Christmas star

    Sue Carter is a Yorkshire milliner with a handy line in 'reclamation hats' which have all the virtues appropriate to a time of recession. She knows how to make delightful confections out of felt, gauze and other conventional materials, and has the qualifications to prove it. But just now, she prefers a different approach.

    The Guardian's Saturday listings Guide, for instance. Anyone working with fabric has a natural eye for dimensions and measurements and Carter saw the potential of the Guide's size straight away. She says:

    I wanted to make some gift boxes out of something cheap and the magazine looked just right. I started folding - first halfway and then making a square - and, hey presto, it was just right.


    Here's the result, but boxes were only the start. Hats and fascinators are Carter's main business in her studio at the encouragingly-named Radiant Works in Huddersfield, an engineering factory now used by artists. She started looking at her daily paper with original but cheap party headgear in mind.

    An eight-point star created from interlocking Guide pages became a theme, attached with split-pins and other devices to an ever-increasing range of bowl shapes, discs and cones.

    A bit dunce-y, this one on the left maybe; or does it put you in mind of Harry Potter and wizardry? Carter's different takes led to 1920s angled hats with a slender spire of folded Guardian standing in for the traditional feather. And a whole cluster of stars on either a simple head-shaped base or a delicate support for a fascinator. The sort of thing that Minerva McGonagall might wear to enliven staff meetings at Hogwart's.

    Carter reckons that turning Guardians into hats is something that everyone can have a go at - though bear in mind that she has two gold medals from City and Guilds. She went to Buckingham Palace for the award ceremony in one of her button berets, which attracted approving comments from the Duke of Edinburgh. She's also spread the message through initiatives such as North Yorkshire county council's Chose 2 Reuse show in Harrogate last year.

    Letting your imagination rip is the key, she says. Her classes at Leeds College of Art and Kirklees College in Huddersfield encourage students to think of all manner of hat-making materials, and a similarly infinite range of patterns and shapes to go with them. One of her own recent collections, shown at Stockport's hat museum the Hat Works, was entirely based on chocolates and other sweeties.

    Carter's work can next be see at the the Hat Works' Redesigning Fashion exhibition, whose theme - 'make do and mend' hats from the 1940s - chimes nicely with re-using the Guardian and anything else in current austere times. This final picture is of a hat she'll be showing there.

    As for us, and you; here's what to do. If you've time over the holiday, take up the Carter challenge and make your own Guardian Christmas hat. Then email the Northerner a picture of the finished masterpiece - to northerner @guardian.co.uk. We'll ask Sue to judge the best for us to use in a picture gallery in the New Year.

    She can be contacted for commissions or other info on suej.carter@virgin.net

    Merry Christmas!


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    Women are doing more than their fair share of recycling, while single people living alone are less likely to recycle

    Men who live alone are the least likely to recycle in the UK, according to a study. As many homes come to terms with a backlog of discarded wrapping paper and empty packaging after Christmas, women will take on the most responsibility for disposing of it in an environmentally friendly way, according to new research.

    Results showed that single people living alone are less likely to recycle – only 65% did so, compared with 79% of mixed-sex couples. Of those living alone, 69% of women recycled some of their waste or unwanted items, whereas 58% of men were found to do the same.

    The study forms part of Understanding Society – the UK's biggest panel survey – and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted by Essex University. More than 2,000 single men and women and 3,000 couples were asked about their housework routines, including whether they separated their waste for recycling.

    Although households are doing much less housework in general than they were 20 years ago, on average women still take on the bulk of domestic chores – especially when they live with a male partner.

    "Women are probably doing more than their share," says Hazel Pettifor, who led the study. "In the same way that housework tasks are often split with the woman of the house taking on the daily, routine activities, it is likely that women are emptying and rinsing out containers, removing lids and labels and sorting waste, while their menfolk make the fortnightly trip to the bottle bank or put the bins out."

    Men who are active in sharing housework were found to be just as likely to share in recycling when in a mixed-sex couple. But sharing did not guarantee an equal workload: women are the most committed recyclers, and more willing than men to expend time and energy on recycling.

    As local councils offer better recycling facilities, people are increasingly viewing it as an essential part of their household routine, rather than a voluntary green act. The UK's governments have set ambitious targets to increase domestic recycling of all waste to 50% by 2020 – currently standing at 41.5% in England and Wales, 37.2% in Scotland and 39.7% in Northern Ireland. The study shows that making men the focus for green messages could be the best way forward.


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    In January charities benefit from Britons discarding 73,000 tonnes of clothes and 60,000 tonnes of electrical goods

    After a possibly indulgent Christmas, a clear-out in January of old clothes, books and gadgets comes as a timely tidy-up – but people's new year purges are also feeding a growing market in secondhand goods.

    About 73,000 tonnes of clothing, worth about £70m, are ditched in the UK in the first month of the year. At this time textile processors experience a 20% to 30% rise in the volume of goods they collect following the December lull.

    Age UK, a charity with 440 shops around Britain, last week received 66,000 bags of donated goods, nearly double the average amount donated per week in 2012.

    The British Heart Foundation said it had had an influx of toiletries, pyjamas and socks (many still bearing a gift tag), as shoppers ditched unpopular Christmas presents.

    Jack Chandler, manager of Oxfam's book and music store in Marlborough, said that donations had risen by about 15% last week, compared with a typical week. He said there had been big donations of books, perhaps due to some readers clearing their shelves after receiving an e-reader for Christmas.

    The biggest January clearout is of electrical goods. About 60,000 tonnes of TVs, washing machines, fridges and other home gadgets, worth about £20m, are dumped in January – a quantity that is about double that in a typical month.

    Almost half of those items are suitable for resale by charity shops or on online sites such as eBay, while the remainder are broken up for recycling.

    The electricals reuse market is thought to be growing by more than 40% a year as an increasing number of charity shops, local authorities, retailers and reprocessors work together to put unwanted goods back on the shelves.

    Sean Feeney, chief executive of Environcom, an electrical recycling company, said that more charity shops were now prepared to sell refurbished electrical goods.

    He said: "There is huge demand for these goods. The only thing holding us back is supply. We are encouraging people to hand unwanted but functioning electrical goods to charity shops in the same way they do clothing."

    Charity shops, meanwhile, can struggle to secure sufficient stock to supply the public demand.

    Age UK said its strong start to January followed a dip in donations in the last quarter of 2012 compared with the year before. The number of bags donated slid 10% as shoppers made goods last longer and spent less on new items during the economic downturn. The charity said that sales at its stores remained steady as it had been able to command better prices for quality goods.

    Helena King, from Age UK, said: "We always get a good response after Christmas, with an influx of people bringing in unwanted goods.

    "But the long-term prognosis is that it is getting increasingly harder to find donations. When people have got less disposable income they don't give as much. The flooding also prevented people from leaving out bags for collection.

    "Bogus collectors, cash for clothes companies – all those things weren't around five years ago, and now they are fighting in the same space."

    As people hold on to their possessions for longer to avoid having to buy anew, auction sites, businesses willing to pay for secondhand goods and doorstep collections by companies posing as charities are all competing for castoffs.

    The Charity Retail Association warned that the sector was losing more than £50m a year to bogus collectors. And competition for clothing could step up as local authorities experiment with collecting textiles as part of doorstep recycling programmes.

    Suffolk began a trial collecting clothing along with other recyclable goods last summer, and three more as yet unnamed councils are to take part in a similar scheme supported by the government-backed Waste Resources Action Programme this spring.

    Councils say they are not competing with charity shops but trying to capture the estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing that ends up in rubbish tips each year.

    But charity shops are now looking at new ways to attract donations in the face of rising competition.

    Traid, the international development charity, has partnered with the London borough of Kensington & Chelsea to organise doorstep collections and allows potential donors from anywhere in Britain to request a pick-up online.

    Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer's tie-up with Oxfam, which gives shopping vouchers in exchange for bags of clothing, has encouraged more than 10m donations so far.

    King said Age UK was considering a similar partnership to help attract donations and shoppers, and also encouraging those handing in goods to register for Gift Aid. The government-backed scheme means the charity can earn an additional 25p a pound of goods sold.

    One note of good news for clothing recyclers is that a slowdown in donations of British clothing this autumn helped keep prices high.

    Ross Barry, manager of the LMB clothing recycling firm, said prices were holding up despite a slowdown in world market demand amid global economic troubles and a surge in donations in the UK at the end of the summer.

    Where does it all go?

    Much of Britain's secondhand clothing goes abroad – an estimated 540,000 tonnes a year, or about 70%, according to the government-backed Waste Resources Action Programme (Wrap). Just 14% is reused in the UK.

    Figures collated by HM Revenue & Customs indicate that the bulk of secondhand clothing exported from the UK goes to sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly £115m worth of old clothes were sent there in 2011, up from £70m in 2007. The biggest destination in Africa is Ghana, followed by Benin and Kenya. The second largest overall market is Ukraine, which accepted £30.9m of secondhand clothing from the UK last year, up from £18.7m in 2008. Total exports of secondhand clothing from the UK to countries outside the EU rose from £112.1m in 2007 to £179.7m in 2011.


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    I'd like to know more about planned obsolescence in the computer industry. How long should a laptop or PC last? Mine has just died after five years…

    Commiserations on your laptop, although I'm afraid to say five years could be considered a good innings. It's at the outer edge of what is considered the lifespan of a desktop computer (three to five years). Meanwhile it's difficult to specify the lifespan of laptops, as they are so often junked before they are broken. This is in part due to planned obsolescence– a devious ploy by manufacturers bolstered by marketing strategies to make us fall out of love with a product hastily. In IT planned obsolescence has been turbocharged by must-have software which is only upwardly compatible. Want better software? You'll need a better machine.

    Planned obsolescence's running mate is Moore's law, which decrees that every two years the computing world doubles the amount of transistors on a computer chip and therefore the power of the computer. So you might say the average lifespan of a laptop is two years. Gulp. I have previously described the resources needed to make a computer, but here's a recap: one metric tonne of electronic scrap from personal computers contains more gold than that recovered from 17 tonnes of gold ore.

    Where will it all end? Moore's law should see transistors miniaturising every two years until we reach technological singularity– the point at which computers gain human-level intelligence and can build better versions of themselves. Others think time will soon be up on Moore's law, as computers will run out of matter and energy – by 2007 computers were reckoned to be drawing 4-5% of the world's power. Heat is the enemy of Moore's law. Those transistors packed on chips must be kept cool, so must the vast data storage centres, whose energy consumption, in 2010, was growing by 12% a year.

    We need to keep our cool, too. There's a huge amount of skill and knowledge online about how to make old computers worth their weight in gold. People who have dealt with IT for not-for-profits where there has never been much money for shiny new IT are particularly expert. Try Itforcharities.co.uk for a list of organisations waiting to take on your "obsolete" model and Jayne Cravens' postings on "old tech" at coyotecommunications.com.

    An untold truth is that we use a tiny fraction of each computer's capacity: you could say we're already outwitted by them. Unless we wise up we'll soon be overtaken by the machines.

    Green crush

    It may seem strange to have developed a crush on a bin bag, but this was a special bin bag. It was, in fact, the only bag of rubbish destined for landfill that John Newson, a Birmingham householder, produced in the whole of 2012. Dubbed the "extreme recycler", Newson developed a no-tolerance system of recycling, composting and avoiding in an effort to get as near as possible to zero waste. When he found Tetra Paks couldn't be recycled in Birmingham he took them with him to recycling centres in London when he visited friends. That's what we call dedication.

    Greenspeak: peak farmland

    A term to indicate that the amount of land used to grow crops is at an all-time high as farmers across the world become increasingly productive. From here-on in we'll use less and less land for cropping.


    If you have an ethical dilemma, send an email to Lucy at lucy.siegle@observer.co.uk


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    Got any spare Lego? Invention by American college student recycles plastic household scrap into 3D-printing material

    DIY desktop 3D-printers may be taking off, with basic flatpack models available for as little as £250, but the printing material itself still has a hefty price tag. A 1kg spool of plastic filament – which is heated then squeezed out in layers like icing to create objects – costs around £50, keeping it in reach of only the most enthusiastic hobbyists.

    But the home-printing revolution may now be on its way, thanks to an invention by American college student Tyler McNaney. The Filabot brings a miniature industrial recycling plant to your desktop, grinding down everyday plastic waste and transforming it into ready-to-use printing material.

    Everything from water pipes to drinks bottles, plastic wrappers and Lego bricks can be fed into the contraption – which grinds, melts and extrudes the plastic into a filament of either 3mm or 1.75mm diameters. It can also melt down failed or broken 3D prints, allowing for increased trial and error, or the ability to upgrade redundant parts.

    "Filabot will bring the real power of sustainability to 3D-printing, allowing for a one-stop-shop to make anything," says McNaney, who launched the project on Kickstarter last year and raised more than three times his initial $10,000 goal. Fans paid $350 for the first-run version of the machine, although the public model is still under development and no official price has been announced. McNaney plans to launch a range of machines, at different levels of completion, to allow users to adapt and develop their own kit – from the Filabot Core (which comes without a grinder), to the open-source Filabot Wee, which users can build from downloadable plans.

    It is a welcome arrival to a home-printing industry which, until now, has threatened to lead to a proliferation of plastic tat. The first 3D Print Show, held in London in autumn 2012, demonstrated that, however advanced and democratic these technologies are becoming, they are often being used to produce fantasy figurines and novelty puzzles.

    With the possibility to recycle outdated printed parts, the Filabot suggests a cradle-to-cradle approach, in which we can continually develop, update and modify products, helping to reduce manufactured obsolescence. And it provides a nifty solution for any unwanted plastic Christmas presents.


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    Despite a government incentive scheme, many Ghanaians are unhappy about the introduction of a ban on used fridges

    Behind a once mint-coloured concrete wall – now stained by red dust – in a hilly suburb of Ghana's capital, Accra, a large machine is making history as it chugs and whirrs away.

    It is a mobile fridge degassing unit – the first of its kind on the entire African continent, its owners say – and it is sucking poisonous gases out of hundreds of Ghana's discarded secondhand fridges. The machine was imported from Germany by City Waste Management, a company specialising in the safe disposal of electronic waste.

    "We take out the poisonous gases and we separate the oils," says Vivian Atiaybor, 41, the field co-ordinator and public relations manager for City Waste. "Since October, we have processed 450 fridges here, and there are another 600 already waiting for us to collect. Many of these fridges are so old that even within our households they are already letting off poisonous gases."

    City Waste is separating and scrapping old fridges under a rebate scheme that incentivises Ghanaians to replace them with new ones in exchange for a subsidy of 200 cedis (about £70). Others have been confiscated from the port. Secondhand fridges have been banned in Ghana since 1 January, when a new law – passed in 2008 but delayed so that importers and dealers could adjust – came into force.

    Officials say there are a number of reasons for banning the devices, including the use of toxic and ozone-unfriendly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – banned under the Montreal protocol– in fridges more than 10 years old. But the main reason was to reduce the energy burden on Ghana's already overstretched national grid, says deputy director of the Energy Commission, Kofi Agyarko.

    "Ghana has a lot of used refrigerators – we conducted a study which revealed that we had in excess of 2m, and that on average they were consuming 1,200kW hours of energy in a year," Agyarko says. "That compares with energy-efficient refrigerators in Europe and America which consume 250kW hours in the whole year. That tells you the way we were wantonly dissipating our energy resources."

    Ghana is not the first African country to ban secondhand fridges; neighbouring Ivory Coast and nearby Nigeria have both introduced legal prohibitions on the devices in recent years. But Ghana is the first African country to use public funds to subsidise the process of replacing old fridges with new ones, having allocated 3m cedis for the scheme.

    "We are leading the way on the African continent because we are not just banning the importation of used refrigerators. We have also put in place an arrangement to ensure that people who cannot afford to buy new refrigerators are cushioned," Agyarko says.

    City Waste – the sole scrapyard manager for the government rebate scheme to dispose of old fridges – earns its income by selling plastics to Ghanaian companies, which recycle them to make flip-flops and plastic containers. The company also sells metals, foam and other, more hazardous, materials extracted from the fridges to recycling plants in Europe.

    But the company says processing secondhand fridges is so costly they cannot guarantee they will make any profit from the project. It believes that the cost-effective recycling of appliances such as refrigerators will only come from region-wide collaboration. "In Germany, you don't find mobile degassing units like this one, but one huge factory worth millions of euros," says Jürgen Meinel (pdf), founder and technical director of City Waste. "That is out of reach for Ghana at the moment, but if we got all the Economic Community of West African States together, then it would be worth it."

    Despite interest in the scheme among certain consumers, some of whom have already traded in their old fridges, many people in Ghana remain sceptical about the new law. "When they introduced the ban we were very upset, but there is nothing we can do," says Kwesi Akpalu, 50, from Madina in Accra. "We like buying secondhand fridges because they are often good quality and European-made, sometimes they are even brand new cast-offs and store rejects. But the new ones are cheap fridges imported from China, the quality is very bad. Sometimes the secondhand ones even outlive them. If they want us to buy new fridges they have to start importing better-quality new ones that are also affordable."

    At Big Twum Ventures, a secondhand fridge repair shop in Haatso, Paul Pappoe, 30, a mechanic, has mixed views. "My business depends on fixing broken fridges – if people start buying new fridges, we will suffer, it will take a longer period before they break," Pappoe says. "But then a lot of the new refrigerators coming in are from China – the quality is very poor, so even though they are new they break anyway. Chinese appliances are very good for our business."


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    Kickstarter campaign hopes to raise funding for video series charting adventures of children's environmental superhero

    President Obama's high-profile statements about climate change in his inauguration speech—"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms"—will need to be backed by strong action if there's any hope of dimming recent attacks on science in America's classrooms.

    The National Center for Science Education lists four new bills in the last week alone that have been introduced in state legislatures: two in Oklahoma, and one each for Missouri and Colorado. For example, House Bill 179, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives on January 16, labels as controversial the teaching of "biological and chemical evolution;" Ditto for Colorado, which on the same day introduced House Bill 13-1089 (PDF) which also misrepresents global warming and evolution as questionable science.

    No wonder Dr Eugene Cordero thinks climate change needs a superhero. Bam! Enter the Green Ninja, the not-very-talkative martial arts master who whips up all sorts mayhem to teach young minds about carbon footprints, energy-saving strategies and gas guzzling leaf blowers, a kind of climate-bent Captain Planet, for a younger generation.

    Cordero—both the creator of Green Ninja and a climate scientist at San Jose State University—has already created a series of videos and lesson plans for teachers. And they are now looking to the crowd on the popular funding website Kickstarter for more cash to produce a 16-episode YouTube series, starting this Spring. At the time of writing, with just 10 days to go, the Green Ninja team has raised half of its stated $10,000 goal.


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    Once part of a hazardous grey economy, the people who pick over rubbish in the Philippine capital are now an organised and recognised force

    Every day almost 500 trucks loaded with bags of waste grind up the track to the Payatas landfill site, overlooking Quezon City, the most densely populated municipality in the Manila urban area. Waiting at the top are gangs of scavengers. Each gang, about 10-strong, takes charge of one load, with roughly half an hour to recover anything worth recycling.

    After that the bulldozers move in, pushing the remaining waste to a landfill area. The heat, stench and noise are horrendous as the gangs rummage frantically. The same process repeats day after day on dozens of landfill sites worldwide, but the Payatas dump now purports to be a modern, model facility.

    It was the scene of a disaster in 2000. A mountain of waste collapsed, engulfing a shanty town below and killing some 300 people. The dump was closed, but the local authorities soon had to reopen it, for lack of any other location to dispose of the 1,200 tonnes of household waste produced daily by the 2.9 million residents of Quezon City.

    Payatas is one of the poorest parts of the Philippine capital, with almost 40% of the active population unemployed and nearly half the residents earning less than 4,000 Philippine pesos ($100) a month, according to the Payatas Poverty Alleviation Foundation (PPAF). The stink of rotting waste haunts the area around the disposal facility, the site of stalls and junk shops that buy finds from the scavengers. Food waste is sold to pig farms.

    The disposal facility is now supervised and managed by a private operator. The old landfill sites have been consolidated and grassed over, in preparation for the construction of an eco-park. Dotted around the facility are vents for recovering the bio-gas released by decomposing waste. It is used to fire an electricity generator on the spot.

    This was the first waste-management project to be funded in Southeast Asia as part of the mechanisms introduced by the Kyoto protocol to combat climate change.

    The electricity powers street lights in Payatas and a workshop open to residents at the weekend. But Quezon City's real innovation lies in the way it has integrated the informal economy in its waste management system.

    "After the disaster we got all the scavengers and junk shop owners together," says Louis Sabater, an engineer working for the PPAF. "The idea was to take them on board, to use their know-how for collecting recyclable waste while improving their living conditions."

    The 3,000 scavengers now working at the waste facility all belong to the Payatas Alliance Recycling Exchange. Days are divided into two shifts and revenue evenly shared. Child labour is banned and each truck-load is checked at the entrance to exclude jumpers, youths riding the vehicles in order to scavenge as much as they can before reaching the dump.

    "Before there was endless conflict between gangs and scavengers, it was a free-for-all," says Imelda Ariles who worked on the site for six years with her husband before being elected to head Pare.

    Quezon City itself is regularly cited as a model for waste management, recycling almost 40% of household waste. It has achieved this in three ways: privatised waste collection, modernisation of the Payatas facility and integration of the informal sector. By collecting most of the recycled material the informal sector has saved the municipality millions of pesos. This is largely down to the Linis Ganda (clean and beautiful in the local dialect) organisation. Launched in 1983 to clean up the streets of San Juan, another part of Greater Manila, it now represents the owners of about 500 private recovery centres in the city and 2,000 of the eco-aides (itinerant waste-buyers) who supply them.

    Thanks to Linis Ganda, among others, the whole business is much better organised and no longer part of the grey economy. The recovery centres have greater bargaining power in relation to the scrap dealers. Eco-aides now have ID and uniforms, boosting their social standing.

    The Philippines was one of the first developing countries to face up to the huge increase in waste due to urbanisation and growth. According to a 2012 World Bank report, South Asian and Pacific countries will have to cope with a 150% increase in household waste by 2025.

    In the Philippines, legislation passed in 2000 made local government responsible for setting up sustainable household-waste management systems, while encouraging separate streams for recyclable and organic material. "Each local authority is supposed to open a controlled landfill facility," says Lizette Cardenas, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of the Philippines. "Unfortunately this is rarely so."

    Local councils struggle with limited resources, increasing amounts of waste and waterlogged open landfill sites. "The real challenge is town planning," says Shalimar Vitan, the Asia-Pacific coordinator at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia). "When urban development is uncoordinated, the poorest people are the first to suffer from inadequate waste management. It's a real development issue."

    • This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde


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    They play golf, live for three centuries – and turn 40 this week. Here's to the gang of stuffed raccoons from 1970s kids' TV who showed Britain how to recycle

    Who would win a fight between a Womble and a Teletubby? Why did the Wombles' 1970s mission to teach a nation not to litter fail so abjectly? How did they, as Marvin Gaye would put it, get it on? Forget about the wonders of the ice age: as the Wombles of Wimbledon Common celebrate their 40th birthday, these are the questions that need answering.

    Let's tackle the first question. Obviously your Teletubby, while having much the same BMI as your mature Womble, is bigger and thus more terrifying in a smackdown scenario. That said, the former's gaudy colour scheme (Tinky Winky purple, Laa-Laa yellow) would make a surprise attack unlikely on even a very slow-witted Womble (I'm thinking of Tomsk, who has the lowest womble IQ and, as axiomatically follows, likes golf). Plus, because each Teletubby contains a sweating actor who's going to sack their agent as soon as they get out of their fur suit, they aren't exactly going to chase down their preys like cheetahs. Wombles are stuffed, and have no such motivational issues. Wombles, unlike Teletubbies, have vicious little eyes and snouts that suggest powerful teeth – both good in a scrap. They also have retractable claws, decisive in close combat – and definitive proof that 1970s kids' TV is better than today's.

    Wikipedia puts about the nonsense that wombles are raccoons. Do raccoons wear scarfs, spectacles and hats? Aren't raccoons, in fact, known for tipping up bins rather than initiating community-wide, proto-recycling initiatives? A Womble's life span, unlike a raccoon's, may be as long as 300 years (the Womble song Minuetto Allegretto refers to Great Uncle Bulgaria as being a lad in 1780: you do the maths). This may explain how Great Uncle Bulgaria beat Britain's fascistic immigration system. Long-lived, species-non-specific stuffed animals rarely require visas, even when travelling from outside the EU.

    Reading on mobile? Click here to watch video

    The great tragedy of the Wombles is that their mission to make Britain tidier now looks like a sick joke. The concept was dreamed up in 1968 by the late children's author Elisabeth Beresford, and later adapted for TV by means of Ivor Wood's brilliant stop-motion animation, an adorable Bernard Cribbins' narration and Mike Batt's undying theme music. It is as laughable as the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. Think of how last month's snow encouraged some dog owners to believe they had a free pass to let their pets befoul the pavements, rather in the way that Mike Batt's Wombling Merry Christmas befouled the singles chart in December 1974. Actually, that's unfair: there was much worse stuff (Mud's Lonely This Christmas, for one).

    Did the Wombles clean up their own mess? A rhetorical question: of course they did! When they went for a walk, Tobermory would lead the way, followed by Orinoco, who carried a bag for Tobermory's waste, followed by Bungo, who was tasked with bagging Orinoco's. Tomsk, Wellington, Madame Cholet, Stepney and even Cousin Cairngorm McWomble the Terrible would follow in orderly fashion. Otherwise, Wimbledon Common would have become a vast Womble latrine. Who bagged Tobermory's waste? We may never know.

    The selflessness and communal bonds that the Wombles demonstrated weekly from 1973 to 1975, the basic respect they urged for our streets, commons, one another and by extension, the planet, are widely missing from our age. We need Wombles in 2013 – but where are they? The likely truth is that the Wombles have retreated underground for good, never again to shake their snouts at the overground mess we have made. The same is true around the world: Elisabeth Beresford imagined that each country would have a Womble colony, but they are now nowhere to be found. Apart from the Singapore Wombles, who can and often do eat their dinners off the city's pavements, so clean is it there. (True story.)

    Finally, how do Wombles get it on? Well, first they retract their claws. Empathetic in so many ways, they are, we must suppose, thoughtful lovers. And then? None of your business.


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    Some cities have banned plastic bags for environmental reasons, but recent studies have found that reusable totes can be havens for dangerous bacteria. Do you go shop with the bags you bring?



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    News feed, transport information and advertisements to be shown on 100 Renew paper bins rolled out across capital

    People receive their news from many sources these days – papers, television, web, mobiles. And now, rubbish bins.

    Renew, a company co-founded in 2002 by chief executive Kaveh Memari, has developed a newspaper recycling bin which doubles as an open-air information screen. It has placed nearly 100 of the hi-tech bins around the City of London under a 21-year contract with the authority.

    The bins – or techno-pods as Memari refers to them – are made of damage-resistent fibreglass with screens at either end which can relay anything from news to advertisements to information on London underground delays or the number of Boris bikes available in the vicinity. A team of journalists provide the news feed, with other content coming from magazines such as the Economist and Time Out. A group of software developers – what Memari calls the Geek Squad – operate from Athens.

    The initial impetus for the bins came from the City of London authorities, with the capital littered with discarded free newspapers and Brussels putting pressure on for it missing recycling targets. Memari said: "We de-risked it for the City, they don't pay for the service and the only risk for them is reputational [if things go wrong]."

    The company had hoped to have 100 pods – 200 screens – in place by the time of the Olympics, but that target slipped and was finally reached in November. But with the City getting the service for free, how does Renew propose to make money? Memari talks of several revenue streams: advertising, finding a major company to sponsor the pods, attracting publishers, talking to film studios, and even telecoms companies about using its wired connections to carry data services or conversations.

    "We have killed the idea it's a grotty place for [advertisers and publishers] to put their messages. We are also talking to seven major film studios and they are very interested in the possibilities."

    He believes studios could film special scenes to be shown on the screens, linked to major movies in what is effectively a viral marketing campaign.

    The pods can also be used for emergency messages, with one recent test showing an alert reaching the system just three minutes after being received at the control room.

    Now the pods are in place Renew has begun its real push to advertisers and media, with marketing campaigns under way for a number of businesses including CNBC, Qatari Islamic Bank, and Wallpaper, as well as a couple of charities which have been given free or heavily discounted airtime.

    Renew has raised £4m in total from investors so far, mainly high net-worth individuals including one Premier League and England footballer. It has run up £3m of debt, but received financing to help with the rollout of the pods from the Qatari Investment Authority.

    "We went to all the high street banks, but nothing," said Memari. "Perhaps they thought the risk was too great. The Qataris looked at it as a real estate investment, much the same way they looked at the Shard and Harrods."

    It will need further funds as it expands overseas. It has one pod situated near Wall Street in New York, is looking at a trial of 100 units in the City, and may need to raise another £5m if this succeeds. Singapore and Tokyo are also in Memari's sights.


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    Hundreds of recyclers are tidying up their towns after losing patience with councils' inaction over dirty streets

    Adrian Ablett is a little nervous about starting his new job. After being made redundant last year, the 40-year-old is pleased to have found work again but worried about the effect it might have on his ambition. The self-styled "can-man" of Leicester has been keeping himself busy out on the city streets three or four times a week for several hours at a time, picking up other people's rubbish like a 21st-century Womble. "In an ideal world I would do this 24/7," he said. "I genuinely love it and I'm out in all weathers."

    He has specialised in aluminium drinks cans, which he removes from pavements, gutters, grass verges, bushes and parks and takes to a recycling centre. Since he began a little under three years ago, he has recycled 62,000 cans. Most were collected when he walked around on foot for several miles, pulling a heavy, modified wheelie bin. Now he has upgraded to a bike and trailer donated by a local bicycle repair shop and he hopes the extra power to his collecting elbow will enable him to reach his goal of 100,000 cans this year.

    Ablett is just one of an army of litter vigilantes. Unpaid and unasked, they are ordinary men and women who have simply got so fed up with litter and mess that they have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. Many receive abuse for their trouble and others have run into problems with local councils that can sometimes take umbrage at unauthorised citizen clean-ups.

    "The council hate me," said volunteer litter picker Owen Braines, who lives with his wife and three young children near Pool in Cornwall. "They really don't like it. It's such a shame, the lack of empowerment in the community that comes from councils sometimes. Nobody listens to you when you complain so it gets boring – so you roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

    "The hardest thing now is that when I clear up a fly tip I have to pay for it as industrial waste when I take it to the council tip. And I do it because it's the right thing to do ecologically. I'm not a lunatic, I just don't think we should be wasting resources. I'm pretty poor but I'm passionate and I'm instilling the right values in my kids."

    Britain has a massive rubbish problem; some 30 million tonnes is dropped on our streets every year. Along with dog mess, litter is the most complained about issue to MPs and local authorities, which spend some £500m a year picking it up. Rubbish is not just unsightly, it is a hazard to wildlife and the environment – some supermarket plastic carrier bags will take 500 years to decompose.

    A BBC documentary to be broadcast this week talks to some of the hundreds of people who act as litter vigilantes. Meanwhile, websites such as litterheroes.co.uk spring up to reveal the true numbers of "pickers" out there alongside the increasingly popular community litter picks such as Keep Britain Tidy's the Big Tidy Up campaign, which aims to get people out a few days a year in their local areas for organised rubbish collecting. But many people keep a low profile about their public-spirited clean-up habits because of hostility from others.

    "I do get the odd snigger or people laughing at me," said Ablett. "Most of the comments will be positive but you occasionally get a few comments like, 'It's not your job to do that'. Well no, it's not my job, but I enjoy it and it's the right thing to do. I am a real environmentalist and believe we should be recycling, not just dumping our rubbish on the streets. A can that's recycled can be back on a supermarket shelf again inside six weeks and it takes a lot less energy to recycle than to produce a new one. I enjoy doing it. Supermarkets don't care about the amount of packaging and rubbish that they produce, they just want to sell. If everyone did a little bit where they live what a difference that would make. You don't have to get as involved as I do."

    In a little lean-to garage space near his bedsit, Ablett keeps the tools of his voluntary trade – high-visibility jackets in green, pink and yellow, and his bike. "I found those sheets when I was out picking," he says, indicating the corrugated plastic roofing. "You'd never believe the things I come across. I found an ATM machine in the bushes last week. Round here it's mostly beer and Coca-Cola cans. I have seen people toss their cans, but I don't ever approach them and say anything – you never know what would happen. I don't get involved like that."

    In the documentary, a woman in Hampshire who invites people who drop litter to pick it up and put it in the bin is seen being harangued by a well-spoken passerby who tells her she "has no authority" to stop people and has clearly taken great offence at her actions.

    But even pickers don't all agree on what they should or shouldn't be doing. Owen Braines, for example, won't touch dog faeces, saying it is natural and that the environmental damage is higher by wrapping it in a plastic carrier bag that then goes to landfill than just leaving it to decompose.

    That is not the view of the pink flag lady of North Yorkshire, Jill Hirst. The dog owner was so fed up with her village being covered in dog faeces that she set up the Glusburn and Crosshills Dog Fouling Action Group. One of her campaigns involved putting homemade pink flags into every poo she found on one well-walked lane near her local primary school.

    "We ran out at 53 and had to go and make more," said Hirst. Fed up with inaction from her council, she and her husband Matthew put up posts sporting homemade poo bag dispensers for dog walkers. "It's about pricking their conscience," she said.

    But even if her fellow "picker" in Leicester doesn't agree with her litter target, they do agree that they would love to see everyone joining their vigilante spirit. "Good luck to the dog muck people but not for me thanks. But if I could inspire just one more person that would be really great," said Ablett. "We all can make a difference."

    Litter Wars will be broadcast on BBC1 on Tuesday 19 Feb at 10.35pm


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    Green cleaning brand claims plastic trawled from the sea can be used to create fully sustainable and recyclable packaging

    Ecover, the green cleaning brand, said on Thursday it will use plastic waste retrieved from the sea to create an entirely new type of sustainable and recyclable plastic bottle.

    The Belgian company is working with plastic manufacturer Logoplaste to combine plastic trawled from the sea with a plastic made from sugar cane ('Plant-astic') and recycled plastic, in what it is calling a world-first for packaging. Products made from the packaging will go on sale next year.

    But the company was unable to give details of how much plastic would be retrieved or what percentage of "sea plastic" would be used in the packaging.

    Ecover chief executive, Philip Malmberg, said: "We won't have a definitive figure on the amount we will retrieve we are just hoping to get as much as is possible and give fishermen an incentive to join the initiative and help clean the seas. We want to get the sea waste in as much of our packaging as possible – it will always depend on the amount and quality of the plastic they have managed to fish."

    According to the Marine Conservation Society, plastic debris accounts for almost 60% of all litter found on UK beaches, while much of it ends up in the sea. The scale of the problem was highlighted in a recent study by scientists who found a sperm whale that died off the coast of Spain last year had a stomach full of flowerpots, hosepipe and nearly 30 square metres of plastic greenhouse covers.

    Ecover was set up in 1981 and the UK is now one of its biggest markets, generating some 40% of sales. The company said it would work with the industry-led Waste Free Oceans initiative and the UK recycling plant Closed Loop to recruit fishing communities working in the British waters off the North Sea to collect plastic.

    Boats outfitted with special equipment will be able to collect between two and eight tonnes of waste per trawl for cleaning and recycling, while other fishermen will collect plastic debris mixed with by-catch and deposit it at special collection points. The sorted waste will then be sent to Closed Loop Recycling's plant in Dagenham, east London, where it will be processed and turned into the plastic for the new bottles.

    Trials have already begun on the exact mix of the three plastics that will allow the brand to deliver what it claims will be the first ever fully sustainable and recyclable plastic.

    Malmberg added: "Sustainability is a never-ending journey. Solve one problem or tackle one issue and it simply leaves you free to solve the next. Our focus on continual innovation means that we are always pushing boundaries. As manufacturers we've got to take responsibility for sustainability very seriously – to take real action on climate change and the damage done by our over-reliance on fossil fuels, creating 'green' products that deliver more than a nod to sustainability."

    Ecover's move has the backing of the Environment Agency, although it is not providing any funding or subsidy to help retrieve the plastic debris. The company said it would incur the costs of the exercise and pledged not to pass it on to consumers via any price increases.

    But the move may prompt questions about the company's decision to focus on packaging at a time when many other manufacturers are devoting their energies to reducing packaging by encouraging refilling of existing containers and developing highly concentrated products. Unilever's Persil, for example, has launched the industry's first super-concentrated liquid detergent, Small & Mighty, while supermarket giant Tesco has launched an exclusive range of refillable multisurface cleaners. Splosh, a start-up based in Hay on Wye, claims to have cut packaging waste by up to 95% through its new range of home cleaning products.

    Malmberg insisted the company was also pursuing these areas of development, and that between 10-15% of its business involved refills.

    A spokeswoman for the government's waste reduction body Wrap said: "Ecover's initiative of increasing recycled content sits comfortably alongside the existing range of innovative ways that Courtauld signatories and others have found to optimise their packaged products. This covers everything from using a concentrated material so pack size can be reduced, and 'lightweighting' packaging to reduce the amount of material used, through to improving how readily the pack can be recycled."


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    Faeces processed to produce valuable fertiliser for crops and new forests – and eliminate source of disease

    It's a modern-day alchemy that is, on a small scale at least, helping Haitians turn something deadly into something valuable.

    "If we can take all the poop that's making people sick right now," said Dr Sasha Kramer as she stuck a thermometer into a large mound of faecal waste in the middle of Troutier, Port-au-Prince's city dump, "and turn it into this really valuable resource that could be used for reforestation or for increased agricultural production, then you really take a problem and turn it into a solution."

    Every week, Soil (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) collects the human waste from 56 dry toilets built in camps for displaced earthquake victims, and mixes it with chips of sugar cane bagasse, a byproduct of local rum production.

    "It's plenty hot," said Kramer, pointing to the thermometer needle at 60C (140F). "Cholera would be dead in less than a second."

    Haiti is trying to fight what has exploded into the worst cholera epidemic in modern history, with 57% of global cholera cases last year concentrated on this tiny half-island. Cholera is an easily treatable, yet deadly, waterborne disease that spreads through faeces-infected water.

    Dry-compost toilets are a low-cost way of preventing human waste from infecting lakes and streams in a country without proper water supply and sewerage.

    The Haitian government recently built several sewage treatment plants that process traditional pit latrine waste in open-air stabilisation ponds. It and sewage treatment companies such as Jedco are experimenting with the alchemy of transforming a potentially deadly substance into a rich and much-needed fertiliser.

    In order to treat human waste safely and kill pathogens, the waste must sit for at least seven days at 50C, according to the World Health Organisation. After six to nine months, the potentially toxic waste is transformed, with low carbon emissions, into fertile soil, simultaneously helping to fight cholera and deforestation, and revive food production.

    Banana, papaya, cashew and other trees have been planted in the allotments between compost bins to demonstrate how the compost can be used to rehabilitate damaged environments.

    "Arguably there's not much worse off than the Port-au-Prince city dump," said Kramer, standing under a four-month-old banana tree. "We're trying to find some rare endemic species in Haiti that we can plant in between these bins so that one day what we leave behind would be these islands of biological diversity instead of piles of garbage."

    In Haiti's northern region of Cap Haïtien, where Soil built its first toilets in 2006, there is now a farm and the compost is used to grow peanuts and fight malnutrition. Collaborating with farmers and Scouts, Soil aims to fight Haiti's extreme deforestation – it has only 2% forest cover – by planting 10,000 mango, cashew, orange, lemon and other indigenous fruit trees.

    In the past month, Soil has sold 1,500 five-gallon bags of compost for $3,000 (£2,000).


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    Many nations will fail to meet target of recycling 50% of waste by 2020, warns the European Environment Agency

    Recycling rates in the UK rose faster in the first decade of the millennium than any other country in Europe, according to official statistics published on Tuesday.

    Although the UK started from a low base in 2001 – recycling rates were just 12% for all municipal waste – it increased by the greatest amount by 2010, reaching 39%, on a par with the average for the EU.

    But the European Environment Agency, which released the figures, warned that many countries will fail to meet a European directive of recycling 50% of waste by 2020. Some countries, such as Germany, Austria and Belgium, already recycle more than half of their waste.

    Others, in particular those in south-eastern Europe, are straggling far behind: Greece only recycles 18%, up from 9% in 2001, while Romania recycles just 1%. In a few cases, countries have gone backwards, with Norway's rates falling from 44% to 42%, and Finland's dropping from 34% to 33%.

    Jacqueline McGlade, EEA executive director, said: "In a relatively short time, some countries have successfully encouraged a culture of recycling, with infrastructure, incentives and public awareness campaigns. But others are still lagging behind, wasting huge volumes of resources. The current intense demand for some materials should alert countries to the clear economic opportunities in recycling."

    The EEA said in a statement that "Europe is still wasting vast quantities of valuable resources by sending them to landfill", echoing earlier warnings from Janez Potočnik, the EU commissioner for the environment, that failure to use resources wisely could trigger a fresh economic crisis.

    Despite the UK's rapid improvement, the EEA's David Watson cautioned "that [its] growth in … recycling slowed down significantly towards the end of the last decade." The UK is expected to meet the EU target of recycling 50% of waste by around 2017, the EEA noted. Wales has pulled well ahead of England and Scotland on recycling in recent years, recording average rates of 54% last month.

    A Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: "Household recycling has risen from just 11% in 2001 to 43% this year and over half of business waste is now recycled. Government, local authorities and businesses have all worked with the public to achieve this and will continue to do so to meet challenging new targets."


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    There seem to be so many kinds of environmentally friendly paper to choose from. So which part of the production process is it best to encourage: regenerating forests or recycling paper?

    Twenty years ago forests were vanishing worldwide. The developing world lost 200m hectares between 1980 and 1995, and in a climate of ecological panic the Forest Stewardship Council (fsc.org) – a not-for-profit alliance between NGOs, government, and paper and timber players – originated in California.

    There has been a decline in global deforestation, thanks partly to the increased use of recycled paper and the purchasing of paper products that are certified as coming from responsibly managed forests. This has been driven by consumers like you. Still, deforestation remains high.

    You are trying to choose between two different systems of producing less wasteful paper. Both have merits. Recycling one tonne of paper would power a home for nine months, save 7,000 gallons of water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one metric tonne of carbon equivalent (CO2e). We also "get it" – put the paper in the recycling bin, close the loop by buying recycled, and hey presto: virgin trees have been saved.

    But a lack of credible certification means "recycled" paper might not contain a very high a level of old paper. Check percentages: buy the highest level of "post-consumer waste paper" – aim for 100%. If the paper was recovered using energy generated from coal, it might as well not be recycled.

    Meanwhile, the FSC uses a system of inspecting and tracking timber and pulp right through the chain. So far, 174m hectares of forests have met its strict criteria. Violence and the displacement of indigenous peoples are also prohibited in its chain. This is crucial: forests support 1.6 billion of the poorest people in the world.

    The 2010 documentary Sustainable on Paper, by Leo Broers and An-Katrien Lecluyse, exposed a certified plantation in Brazil as a eucalyptus monoculture polluting local communities. Anecdotal evidence from the paper industry suggests that printers are put off by hefty fees to certify as FSC. Just 0.05m hectares of FSC-certified forest are owned by indigenous communities (compared to 50.5m hectares owned privately). But the WWF still considers FSC certification the only credible one (above the purely recycled).

    I suggest that rather than choosing between the two you look for both, as paper products increasingly offer both FSC-certified virgin fibre and recycled content (also certified). OK, so this is not the clear-cut answer you were looking for – but the situation with our forests isn't clear cut either.

    Green crush

    Walk the talk in Veja's new trainers inspired (unusually for a fashion capsule collection) by a research professor in global ecology. The print is based on Professor Greg Asner's aerial maps recording forest cover and biodiversity in tropical forest ecosystems. The shoes are made from organic fairtrade cotton canvas and the soles from wild Amazonian rubber tapped by a forest community in Brazil. Available from April at Asos.com, Diverseclothing.com, Hubshop.co.uk and Glassboutique.co.uk.

    Greenspeak: Biofacture {baio-fækt-shr} noun

    One up on biomimicry (mimicking nature to find greener design), biofacture replaces a polluting staple with a non-polluting natural one. For example, it's out with nylon fibres and in with hagfish slime


    If you have an ethical dilemma, send an email to Lucy at lucy.siegle@observer.co.uk


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