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

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    The blue bin may be preferable to the trash can, but recycling still has a waste footprint – and it requires someone on the other side of the equation to use what you toss. A better goal is simply to have less stuff

    I talk a lot about reduction. Reducing the number of toys you have, the quantity of cleaning supplies you buy, even the amount of meat you eat. My constant focus on reduction over recycling, upcycling or disposing of waste responsibly is a deliberate one. Put simply, recycling isn’t enough.

    Recycling is good, and I’m not here to contradict that. When the options are to either toss a plastic bottle into the recycling bin or into the trash can, you’ll see me shaking my pom-poms for the blue bin. But I’m afraid the black-and-white thinking ends there. Recycling is a complicated business, and not always a pleasant one to boot.

    Related: Why is recycling important? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Adam Vaughan

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    The cartoneros of Buenos Aires are finally cashing in on the city’s newfound love of recycling. But the Argentinian capital still has a long way to go

    Cecilia works a five-block strip along Calle Paraguay in Palermo, a hip district in downtown Buenos Aires. Opening a flap door at the bottom of a lime-green bin the size of an industrial fridge, her gloved hands reach in to fish out the contents inside. Plastic bottles, discarded cardboard, newspapers, a discarded cheque book and a set of bookends: all the items disappear into a large, heavy plastic sack that she ties up and leaves by the roadside.

    “After we’ve finished, a truck from the cooperative comes and picks up the sacks and takes them back to the plant for sorting,” says the 34-year-old, who has been in the job for three years after a long stint of unemployment.

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    A new report released at Davos highlights some startling facts about the huge environmental and resource impacts of a fast growing plastics industry

    The world of plastics is in drastic need of reform. This is the conclusion of a new report released at Davos by the World Economics Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and consultancy firm McKinsey. Here are five of its most startling facts:

    Related: Why cigarette butts threaten to stub out marine life

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    From Taiwan to the Atacama desert, and eco-homes to recycling software, we highlight some of the finalists at 2016’s circular economy awards

    Sustainer Homes

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    Strong progress made on everything from biodiversity to recycling will all be put at risk if the UK votes to leave the European Union

    Scientists recently declared that the evidence is compelling enough to say we are now living in the Anthropocene. Humanity’s impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and wildlife has, they argued, pushed the world into this new epoch.

    Britain is a world leader on the environment and has played a pivotal role in the European Union on this issue ever since 1986, when Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act, which established the EU’s competence in this area. If we are to play our part in ensuring a green future for the UK, we must remain in the EU.

    Yet the impact that leaving the EU would have on the UK’s environmental standards rarely features in discussions about the referendum. The environmental audit committee, of which I am a member, is currently reviewing this. The evidence so far is clear: families in Britain and our rivers, beaches and special places would pay the price if we voted to leave.

    In 1995, under the last Conservative government, the UK was dirty man of Europe. Some 83% of our household waste went to landfill and just 7% was recycled or composted. By 2014, thanks to a series of EU directives, the UK’s recycling rate had reached 45%. The UK currently recycles 90% of construction materials, well ahead of other countries.

    Some 99% of our beaches now comply with EU minimum standards on cleanliness. Gone are the days of my childhood when I emerged from the sea at Blackpool covered in oil. Seaside towns also benefit as cleaner beaches mean more tourists and stronger local economies. In 2014, the Environment Agency estimated that the net benefit in England and Wales of implementing the EU Water Framework Directive by 2027 was £9bn.

    The EU has cleaned up its air. Between 1970 and 2014, UK nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions fell by more than two-thirds, reducing the risk of respiratory diseases. Over the same period, sulphur dioxide emissions in the UK dropped by 95%. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that bringing the UK in line with EU emissions directives will have a net benefit of £1.45bn by 2020.

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    An online petition accusing the company of creating ‘mountains of e-waste’ is gaining signatures, but this is an industry developing at breakneck speed

    The annual cycle of the iPhone rumour mill has become almost as predictable as the launch of the handsets themselves. Leading the charge of this year’s batch of tittle-tattle is that the 3.5mm headphone jack is being ditched for the iPhone 7.

    It could make sense for Apple. Getting rid of the jack would allow it to make the handset even thinner, while potentially selling more products. Users are less enamoured with the idea, however, and a petition to keep the 3.5mm socket has attracted more than 290,000 signatures.

    Related: We're all losers to a gadget industry built on planned obsolescence

    Related: Texas teenager creates $20 water purifier to tackle toxic e-waste pollution

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    Join experts on Wednesday 3 February 1-2pm GMT to discuss the opportunities and challenges for circular business models in healthcare

    Last year in England alone there were almost 10m operations, 22m visits to A&E and 16m hospital admissions. Due to changing demographics such as an ageing population, the pressure on healthcare systems will only intensify.

    The circular economy is the concept of keeping resources in use for as long as possible through their recovery and re-use. Proponents believe applying these principles to healthcare could help ease the pressure on the sector by saving money and serving patients better.

    Related: Circular economy principles help NHS meet cost and environmental targets

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    The Bio-bean start-up recycles waste coffee grounds into biomass fuel pellets and coals that can fire up both boilers and BBQs

    While the distinctive smell of a barbecue may herald the first sign of summer, it is not often associated with energy efficiency.

    That may be about to change with the launch of a new type of barbecue coal called Hot Coffees, which hails from waste coffee grounds.

    Related: The innovators: micro micro-breweries causing a froth

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    The rise of the de-cluttering icon, Ikea’s “peak stuff” comments – we have an overconsumption problem but simply chucking things out won’t solve it

    Earlier this year, Ikea’s head of sustainability said at a Guardian Sustainable Business event that consumers in the developed world had reached “peak stuff”. The success of Japanese de-cluttering icon and best-selling author Marie Kondo suggests he’s not the only one who thinks so.

    The praise and enthusiasm for the KonMari method, which is Kondo’s approach of only keeping items that “spark joy”, signal that attitudes in an increasingly disposable world are shifting. On Instagram and Twitter her devotees post pictures of the clothes and items they’re getting rid of, often with glowing endorsements of her method’s effects on wellbeing.

    Related: Top tips to joyfully declutter your home, from Marie Kondo

    Related: The rise of mending: how Britain learned to repair clothes again

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    The retailer’s popular e-waste program has turned into a cautionary tale for businesses navigating the challenges of the recycling economy

    In 2009, Best Buy began an electronics recycling program that has since become the centerpiece of the retail giant’s sustainability effort. To date, the retailer has accepted junky gadgets and appliances from anyone – not just customers – for free. But it now appears the popular program isn’t as profitable as Best Buy would like it to be.

    Earlier this month, the retailer announced it would start charging customers $25 for every television and computer monitor dropped off at a retail outlet as part of its in-store recycling program. Because of this, Best Buy will no longer accept television and computer monitors from customers in Pennsylvania and Illinois, as both states prohibit companies from collecting fees to help defray recycling costs. It will still recycle hundreds of other items for free.

    Related: The good, the bad and the ugly: sustainability at Nespresso

    Related: Funding problems hit plan to clean Rio's polluted waterways ahead of Olympics

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    In a recent live chat, experts joined us online to take questions on how circular business models are taking root in healthcare. Here’s what they said

    Read the full chat

    The circular economy is the concept of keeping resources in use for as long as possible through their recovery and re-use. For healthcare, this might be buying refurbished MRI scanners or sharing under-utilised surgical equipment.

    A recent live chat debated how circular economy principles might take root in the healthcare sector. Here are seven things we learned.

    One hospital had purchased a piece of surgical equipment and only used it sparingly. A sister facility of the same health organisation about 50km away wanted access to the same technology but did not have the capital nor patient volume to justify the purchase and so were either renting at a costly rate or not doing the procedures at all ... Healthcare systems are so challenged right now, both financially and clinically. Doing more with less is becoming an important maxim.

    Health systems do not respond to innovation for the sake of innovation, but if you can show them the path to $1m in cost savings, you will generally get an audience.

    To use a rather medical term, multi-disciplinary teams are required to ensure that designers talk to manufacturers and to maintenance and repair folk, and also hopefully users too.

    Drapes, gowns and other textiles we use are almost always cheaper, even with disposal costs included, than those we can reuse. Unfortunately, I doubt healthcare will lead this, but I do think we may catch up when the value can be demonstrated.

    In developed countries we are now trying to change a system that has existed and grown for decades, which is more difficult than building something from the ground up. It will be possible to implement circular systems as corner stones of the healthcare system in developing countries without having to break down existing walls.

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    A San Francisco brewery is using Nasa technology to make beer with water from sinks and showers, while other brewers are finding new ways to go green

    In autumn of 2014 – three years into California’s devastating drought– architect Russ Drinker became fixated on brewing beer from recycled greywater (that is, water that’s been treated after use in sinks, showers and washing clothes).

    He wasincreasingly frustrated that the media paid little attention to water recycling. “They were focused on conservation instead. But if Californians really want to have an impact on our water use, we have to recycle our freshwater ... and get over our psychological resistance to that.”

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    Britons drink more than 8m takeaway coffees every day – then throw away the cups. Why are so few recycled?

    The paper coffee cup is one of modern life’s consumer conundrums. It is ubiquitous, yet coveted, pricey yet just about affordable. It confers status in a world where you need to be busy to be important, while telling everyone you had time to wait in line while the beans were ground and the milk was steamed. And now there is one more contradiction to add to the list, because the paper coffee cup, it turns out, is recyclable - yet woefully, overwhelmingly, unrecycled.

    A conservative estimate puts the number of paper cups handed out by coffee shops in the UK at 3bn, more than 8m a day. Yet, supposedly, fewer than one in 400 is being recycled.

    Everyone’s patting themselves on the back, going, ‘We’re doing all this great recycling’, when the reality is different

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    UK coffee drinkers use around 3bn disposable cups per year – but only one in 1,000 is currently recycled. It’s time to tackle this tide of needless waste

    Less than 1% of takeaway coffee cups get recycled – or “dramatically less than 1%” in the striking phrase of Peter Goodwin, co-founder of the UK’s only paper-coffee-cup recycling business. It takes a specialist company, because the plastic used to laminate the cups has to be removed before the paper is pulped. A bit like the fruit juice cartons that, as any eager recycler will know, are not to be confused with cardboard and are processed alongside paper cups in Stainland, West Yorkshire, at the UK’s only carton recycling plant.

    Related: Caffeine hit: what happens to Britain's 3bn empty coffee cups?

    Just as we are filling up the air with carbon dioxide, so we are filling up giant holes in the ground with rubbish

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    Minister had indicated a plastic bag-style levy could be on the cards after revelation that only one in 400 cups is recycled

    The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said there are no plans for a tax on disposable coffee cups, after one of its ministers suggested such a tax would be a good thing to look at.

    Rory Stewart made the remarks in the House of Commons after it was revealed that just one in 400 coffee cups are recycled each year.

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    The UK government has denied that there’s a plan to tax coffee cups, but would you be for or against one? Here are some of our readers’ reactions

    With less than one in 400 paper cups handed out by high street coffee chains currently being recycled, environment minster Rory Stewart suggested a tax on coffee cups could be issued to tackle the growing recycling problem. While this suggestion has been ruled out by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, here are some of your thoughts on a coffee cup tax.

    I get a paper cup every Monday morning in the office canteen, reuse it all week, and take it home at weekends to use as a seeding pot in the garden shed in spring. Not to save money, just because it seems an efficient thing to do. Saves warm water and detergents. There really are much more important issues.PaulMan

    It would be better if it was extended across all types of fast food and take away drinks packaging. Some of the money could be used for litter picking schemes. jasonbirder

    People who drink their coffee in pay VAT and therefore pay a higher price for a cup of coffee. People who take away pay no VAT and pay less. If a tax is applied to takeaway cups, people will simply be paying slightly more for a cup of coffee, but still less than a drink-in cup. 5p on a £2.50 latte won’t put people off. Green123

    We already pay tax on takeaway coffee - it’s called VAT. The thing with the plastic bag charge is that it invites shoppers to bring their own reuseable carrier bags with them. No coffee shop is going to risk serving you a hot liquid in something you produce from your pocket are they? Who would be responsible for any injuries caused by spills or leakages for one thing. Create an alternative cup that is easier to recycle and doesn’t disintegrate whilst in use by all means, but don’t think you can crack this one by taxing the customer yet again. Sceptic101

    We can debate the recycling, but we need to rapidly reduce the use of single-use cups in the first place. In Paris (at climate negotiations) coffee was sold in one euro reusable cups - you could keep or hand back for a rebate. I keep one in my bag here and never have throw-aways (quick wipe round, wash later). I feel much better, I was sickened by the amount I was throwing away. If shops need to advertise they can print on the sides. It’s easy. Tattie

    Taxing non recyclable coffee cups sounds like a good idea to me. But why can’t more to be done to introduce biodegradable or recyclable coffee cups. JustanOldFool

    Similar legislation to carrier bags, it doesn’t even need administration from government. Clears the problem from the streets, if the buyer doesn’t return it there are plenty who will and the cups are all collected in bulk for specialist recycling. leadballoon

    When I was a kid, there was a deposit on bottles, so when you returned them to off licence you got 5p or whatever for each bottle. It would work for much of the coffee buyer population, as they tend to make same journey into work, so could drop it off at lunchtime or in evening. albertine

    Yes on the tax for coffee cups.And almost all of the other European countries have a deposit on cans and bottles. In Sweden it’s about 10p. You feed all of your empty Coke cans and Evian bottles to a deposit machine, which is usually attached to a supermarket, and it spits out a voucher which you can then reclaim at the till.Even some of the American states have this. I’m amazed how far Britain is behind the times in many things. Supermassive

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    National wellbeing snapshot covering period as UK shrugged off financial crisis finds improvements in 17 of its measures

    Recovery from the deepest recession in Britain’s post-war history has left Britons healthier, better off, less likely to be victims of crime and living greener lives, according to the latest official snapshot of national wellbeing.

    Life expectancy and living standards rose while unemployment fell during a three-year period from 2012-14, a time when the UK finally shrugged off the after effects of the financial crisis that began in 2007.

    Related: Austerity is making people physically sick | Dawn Foster

    Related: I wanted a new kind of mental health support group – we meet in the pub | Jessica Spires

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    Food and Grocery Council’s warning that NSW scheme will result in rubbish being strewn over front lawns labelled as ‘scaremongering’

    New South Wales premier Mike Baird’s plans to introduce a container deposit scheme in the state face renewed opposition based on the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s warning of rubbish strewn over front lawns by “scavengers” – a claim environmental groups have dismissed as “scaremongering”.

    Baird promised to introduce a container deposit scheme such as those in South Australia and the Northern Territory while seeking re-election as premier last year.

    Related: Why is recycling important? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Adam Vaughan

    Related: Cutting plastic waste to save marine life might raise living costs, Queensland MP says

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    From tyre chairs to newspaper art, people in Khartoum are finding innovative ways to attempt to tackle the country’s rubbish problem

    Wamda Yousef sits in front of the baskets and plates she’s made out of newspaper.

    “In the beginning, I thought it was difficult to learn, but gradually I learned to do all these artistic shapes only by [using] newspapers that were left by my aunt – she loves reading newspapers,” Yousef says.

    Related: Gambian community project helps women turn waste to worth | Louise Hunt

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    Join a panel of experts on this page on Wednesday, 30 March, 1-2pm BST to discuss how businesses can prevent food waste and create value from it

    In recent months, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons have introduced wonky veg lines that incentivise customers to buy “imperfect” vegetables.

    It’s a move designed to tackle the 12m tonnes of food waste created every year by UK households, hospitality and food service, food manufacture and the retail and wholesale sectors. And comes after high profile activists, including Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, have drawn increasing attention to the issue. With a value of more than £19bn a year, Wrap estimates that 75% of this food waste could be avoided (pdf).

    Related: Raise a Toast and help tackle the problem of food waste

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