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- 04/26/13--07:02: _Paraguayan landfill...
- 04/26/13--08:27: _Should it brie in t...
- 05/10/13--09:04: _Garbage alchemists ...
- 06/05/13--07:16: _Superuse: meet the ...
- 06/10/13--23:00: _UK recycling indust...
- 06/14/13--07:56: _China leads the was...
- 06/17/13--08:03: _Bloomberg set to ro...
- 06/19/13--09:11: _Take it from a comp...
- 06/19/13--13:00: _Letters: Our waste ...
- 07/01/13--07:18: _Alaskan beaches bli...
- 07/02/13--17:37: _Glastonbury clean u...
- 07/10/13--04:11: _Bioplastic fantasti...
- 07/17/13--02:51: _British company dev...
- 07/18/13--09:38: _Mexicans flock to r...
- 08/06/13--08:28: _Fatberg ahead! How ...
- 08/08/13--08:51: _A 'fatberg' in the ...
- 08/15/13--01:18: _A new carton recycl...
- 08/16/13--02:55: _Should new houses i...
- 08/17/13--16:05: _'March of the incin...
- 08/29/13--08:59: _Is incineration hol...
- 04/26/13--07:02: Paraguayan landfill orchestra makes sweet music from rubbish
- 04/26/13--08:27: Should it brie in the bin?
- 05/10/13--09:04: Garbage alchemists transform junk into design gold – video
- 06/14/13--07:56: China leads the waste recycling league
- 06/17/13--08:03: Bloomberg set to roll out New York composting plan for food waste
- 07/01/13--07:18: Alaskan beaches blighted by up to tonne of garbage per mile
- 07/02/13--17:37: Glastonbury clean up operation - in pictures
- 08/06/13--08:28: Fatberg ahead! How London was saved from a 15-tonne ball of grease
- 08/08/13--08:51: A 'fatberg' in the sewers? What a waste | Richard Sugg
- 08/16/13--02:55: Should new houses include space to hide household bins?
- 08/17/13--16:05: 'March of the incinerators' threatens drive to recycle more rubbish
- 08/29/13--08:59: Is incineration holding back recycling?
Children of recyclers at Cateura landfill form band playing instruments fashioned out of discarded oven trays and oil barrels
They race towards a rubbish truck as it empties its load at a vast landfill on the edge of the city, hauling away bin liners that overflow with household waste. Their hands are black with dirt and their faces are hidden by headscarves that protect them from the high sun.
An estimated 500 gancheros (recyclers) work at Cateura on the outskirts of Asunción, where 1.5 tonnes of rubbish are deposited daily, separating plastic and aluminium that they sell on for as little as 15p a bag.
Among the mounds of refuse, however, are used oven trays and paint pots. Cast aside by the 2 million residents of the capital of Paraguay, they are nonetheless highly valued by Nicolás Gómez, who picks them out to make violins, guitars and cellos.
Gómez, 48, was a carpenter and ganchero but now works for Favio Chávez, the conductor of Paraguay's one and only landfill orchestra.
The Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments is made up of 30 schoolchildren – the sons and daughters of recyclers – whose instruments are forged from the city's rubbish. And while its members learned to play amid the flies and stench of Cateura, they are now receiving worldwide acclaim, culminating earlier this month with a concert in Amsterdam that included Pachelbel's Canon.
The project was born in 2006 when Chávez, 37, began work at the landfill as a technician, helping recyclers to classify refuse. But his passion for music took him home each weekend to the small town of Carapeguá, 50 miles from Asunción, to conduct a youth orchestra.
After he brought the group to Cateura to perform, the gancheros asked Chávez if he could teach music to their children, many of whom would spend afternoons playing in the rubbish as they waited for their parents to finish work.
But as the months passed, Chávez – a longtime fan of Les Luthiers, an Argentinian band that uses homemade instruments – realised the ever-growing number of children under his tutelage needed to practise at home if they were to progress.
"A violin is worth more than a recycler's house," says Chávez. "We couldn't give a child a formal instrument as it would have put him in a difficult position. The family may have looked to sell or trade it.
"So we experimented with making them from the rubbish. We discovered which materials were most comfortable, which projected the right sound and which withstood the tension of the strings. It was fine to hand these out as they had no monetary value."
Gómez travels three times a week to Cateura to dig out material. He shapes the metal oven trays with an electric saw to form the body of a violin and engineers cellos from oil barrels. The necks of his string instruments are sculpted from old strips of wood, called palé.
Now with the aid of colleagues, Chávez – who has been teaching music since he was 13 – uses the instruments to give classes to around 70 children and also directs weekly orchestra practice.
But he has a goal that goes beyond music. Chávez believes the mentality required to learn an instrument can be applied more widely to lift his pupils out of poverty.
Paraguay is the fastest-growing country in the Americas, but nearly a third of its population lives below the poverty line. The gancheros and their children live in slums, called bañados, which occupy the swamps between Asunción and the River Paraguay.
"The state does nothing," says Gladys Águilar, 61, from a shantytown next to the landfill. "Politicians put a sweet in our mouths with their promises. But when they are elected all they care about is power and the sweet turns bitter."
Chávez recognises the shortcomings of the government, but says families can improve their lives by considering the long term. "Poor people need to eat today," he says. "They don't think about tomorrow's problems. But learning music means you have to plan. It's very challenging to explain to a child who lives in adverse conditions that if his dream is to play the piano he needs to sit on a stool for five hours a day."
Many parents also struggle to see the advantages of such an attitude. "Most tell their kids that a violin can't feed you; that they need to work to eat," says Jorge Ríos, 35, a recycler whose two daughters play in the orchestra. "But thanks to that violin my kids have seen new countries. They have an opportunity for a better future."
Ada and Noélia Ríos started attending Chávez's classes in a chapel two years ago after their grandmother, also a recycler, signed them up. They enjoy Chávez's strict regime, practising for two hours a day at their home – a shack with earth floors in the San Cayetano slum – and have travelled around Latin America with the orchestra.
"My dream is to be a musician," says Noélia, 13, clutching her guitar, made by Gómez from two large tins that once contained a Paraguayan sweet potato dessert. Her 16-year-old aunt, María Ríos, also plays in the orchestra.
"Going to other countries has opened my mind so much," says Ada, 14, a violinist. Following the trip to Amsterdam – its first outside of South America – the orchestra will play this year in Argentina, the US, Canada, Palestine, Norway and Japan. Chávez has also received an invitation to play at June's Meltdown festival in London.
Like her sister, Ada hopes to become a musician and also dreams of owning a Stradivarius violin, worth millions of pounds. But for now she is more than content to play her current instrument, whose face was taken from an old paint tin. "I don't care that my violin is made out of recycled parts," she says. "To me, it's a treasure."
How much food do we throw away and what's it worth? A not-for-profit company has sought to count the cost.
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This week, during a Westminster debate, Richard Benyon MP claimed that the average family throws aways £50 a month in food waste. The statement from the Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries has attracted a lot of attention - whether it's Labour claiming this is "Let them eat leftovers" rhetoric, or Conservatives claiming that Government is trying to "preach to people" about their food choices. But little attention has been paid to whether the number is actually correct.
The original source of the data is the Waste & Resources Action Programme, conveniently acronymed WRAP. Here's how they arrived at that all important £50 monthly food waste statistic:
• UK households throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food every year.
• 61% of that waste is avoidable, meaning that 4.4 million tonnes of the food in our bins doesn't necessarily have to be there.
• This is worth £12 billion.
• Divided by the country's 18.2 million families, this works out as £659.34 per year, or £55.95 per month.
WRAP describes avoidable waste as "food and drink thrown away that was, at some point prior to disposal, edible". To work out how much of our food waste is avoidable, they contacted 2,000 households that were considered representative of the UK.
Then, with their consent, WRAP rummaged through those households' bins and looked at what was down their sinks to see what proportion of food waste was avoidable. They then applied that proportion to the national waste figures.
What's it worth?
It was this hands-on approach that meant they were also able to estimate the monetary value of that waste. As well as recording the proportion of food that was still edible, they inspected the items themselves - whether they were basic or luxury, branded or unbranded - and calculated their value. Again, applying this to the national total meant that they were able to arrive at a figure of £12 billion annual avoidable food waste.
Families or households?
One problem however with the £50 family food waste number that's doing the rounds is that 'waste' as a concept, and 'bins' as the real-life manifestation of that concept, are more about households than they are about families. And that does change the numbers slightly. If you take the 26.4 million UK households that the ONS recorded in 2012, the monthly value of avoidable food waste drops slightly to £37.87.
That's important because the ONS defines a household "as one person living alone, or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room, sitting room or dining area" and define a family as "a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent with at least one child". In other words, families don't necessarily live together or waste food together, households do.
The data behind this was first published by WRAP in November 2011 so it might seem strange that it's being cited this week to weigh up the financial and environmental cost of food waste. WRAP claim this is partly because food waste is "rising on the global agenda" with the United Nations Environmental Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and others joining forces for a new Think Eat Save campaign.
Which areas throw away the most?
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) also publishes data on the volume of waste collected from UK households. We've summarised this by region and by year to create the interactive map above.
Look at the table below to find out how the amount of household waste has changed regionally since 2009.
There's also a link to the full data below. Do you think 61% of your food waste is avoidable? Do you think your household loses £38 a month throwing away edible food? Tell us what you think by posting a comment below.
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In austerity Greece, junk is being turned into new, beautiful but functional objects
A new exhibition shows how to grow mushrooms on coffee grounds, make a playground out of old wind turbines – and how much you can do with a windscreen
A collection of airline trolleys have arrived in the Architecture Foundation's gallery in London. But something's not quite right. They are filled not with miniature cans of tonic water and ready-meals, but an intriguing assortment of scraps: metal offcuts from laser-cutting, fragments of timber cable reels, bits of car windscreens – even a mysterious trough of used coffee grounds.
"This is our mobile school," says Jan Jongert, a Dutch architect whose practice Superuse Studios has been rethinking design for a world of scarce resources over the past 15 years. "It is part materials library, part case-study bank – and it all fits into the back of a van."
The slender aluminium trolleys – some of 5,000 made redundant by KLM when they recently updated their design – house a wunderkammer of case study projects, drawn from Superuse's work, as well as projects produced by students at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, where the architects also teach. In the words of Jongert, the projects are about "identifying and connecting available flows in the urban ecosystem". He sees production as an organic cycle of streams, which are too often separated. By bringing together mutual inefficiencies – aligning surplus with demand, waste with need – the work looks to develop a more integrated world of products and services.
One trolley tells the story of GRO Holland, an initiative that recycles coffee grounds as a growth substrate for mushrooms. "98.8 percent of coffee is wasted in the process of making it," says Jongert, explaining how waste grounds are now collected from a network of cafes, mixed with oyster mushroom spores and packed into perforated plastic bags, then hung in a humid warehouse. The harvested fungi are sold back to the cafes, and the waste substrate passed on to nearby tulip farmers to reuse.
His practice is now working on designs for a new visitor centre for the organisation, which will see mushrooms used as thermal insulation in a cavity wall – while the coffee grounds will be used in rammed-earth walls. In Jongert's world, nothing goes to waste.
Superuse (formerly known as 2012 Architecten) first tested these ideas with a series of interiors projects, which soon grew in scale. Beginning with a Rotterdam nightclub, which incorporated aeroplane seats and benches made from car tyres, they moved on to build an entire house out of reclaimed materials, with a steel frame made from redundant textiles machinery, clad in timber salvaged from cable reels.
The rotor blades of decommissioned wind turbines are also a recurring feature in their work, forming elaborate maze-like structures of tunnels and towers in children's playgrounds.
For the past few years, they have collected many such case studies of "upcycling" and repurposing from around the world on the Superuse website, an open source database "where recycling meets design" – from a children's train made of oil barrels to a mobile container pizzeria.
"But the real issue, as a designer, is knowing where to find these surplus flows," says Jongert, as he discovered working on a project for a new gateway to the Gibbons Rent garden in Southwark. "We designed an entrance using reclaimed pipework," he says, "but then realised that you don't have steel downpipes in the UK." Luckily a cheap supply of tree protector grills has come to the rescue.
This process of what he calls "material scouting" looks set to get a little easier, with the arrival of the new Harvest Map website, an online platform that links surplus materials with people that need them. Launched in the UK this week, it so far features a haul of Olympic leftovers.
While the Olympic building site actively promoted reuse of its surplus materials, other companies are not always so forthcoming. Working on a project for furniture manufacturer Vitra, Superuse realised that they could make 1km of seating from the factory's annual waste – a discovery that has since prompted the company to rethink its production methods. "We need to show this," says Jongert. "It is only through this transparency that things will change." He is adamant that "superusing" is the only way forward: "The idea of connecting these disparate flows will become a big part of the economy. It will have to happen – we have no other choice."
Better recycling and resource use has potential for net exports of more than £20bn and 10,000 new jobs by 2020
Pursuing recycling and more efficient resource use could lead to a UK industry with net exports of more than £20bn and 10,000 new jobs in the recycling sector by 2020, according to a new report.
Businesses outside the sector could also reduce their costs by £50bn a year on savings in raw materials and energy, says the report, Going for Growth, published on Tuesday by the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap).
If activities such as the research and development of new design techniques, that would minimise the need for recycling, and better ways to reuse materials are included, the opportunity could be for 50,000 new jobs and a £3bn boost to the UK's annual GDP.
The findings reflect the potential opened up by a "circular economy" – one in which used material is not regarded as waste but as a resource, to be reused first, as that is the most efficient option, then recycled as necessary. As raw material prices rise owing to increasing global competition for resources, the UK could reduce its reliance on key raw materials – including rare earths, used in windfarms and electronics – by as much as one-fifth by 2020.
An example of a product designed for easier reuse and recycling is the Google Nexus device. It can be easily disassembled for repair or to recover the valuable metal used in its construction, because it is screwed together, unlike the iPad, which is glued together.
ESA calculates that from now to 2020, 395m tonnes of recyclable material will pass through the UKs waste management sector. But on current rates, only about 255m tonnes will be recycled. If the remaining 140m tonnes was recycled, that could mean a £1.4bn boost to the economy.
Liz Goodwin, chief executive of Wrap, said a circular economy would keep resources in use for as long as possible. "Reuse makes sure we get the maximum value from materials and brings significant business benefits. It is the complete opposite of make, use, throw away, make another – the way of doing things now," she said.
But this will require a rethink of how products are designed from the earliest stages, with a return to first principles. David Palmer Jones, chairman of the ESA, which represents companies in the waste and environmental sectors, said: "About 80% of the environmental impact of a product is determined at design stage. If we work together to change the way products are designed, we can avoid the current trend of a third of potentially recyclable material being lost to the economy. This is vital for resource efficiency and security, and to reduce environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions."
One of the key areas for discussion is electronics, as between now and 2020 the UK is likely to produce about 12m tonnes of electronic waste in total, of which a quarter will be IT equipment, consumer electronics and screens, and this material alone is likely to contain precious metals with an estimated market value of £7bn at today's prices.
The ESA said its members would put forward experts to advise on designing products for reuse and recycling, but also wants the government to step in, by encouraging the EU to use its powers to ensure certain products have a minimum level of "recyclability", and reducing VAT on products with a high level of recycled content. The organisation also wants separate food waste collections to become widespread, for households and businesses.
Goodwin said: "Think of the growth and job opportunities for keeping our material on UK shores. We hear so much about growth, and the circular economy is a key enabler [of growth]. Growth equals job creation, opportunities for investment, and generating shareholder returns."
EU legislation is fuelling a multibillion-dollar market. As landfill charges increase, it is often cheaper to send rubbish abroad
With the world's population and consumption increasing, the waste heap is growing. More than 4bn tonnes of waste (municipal, industrial and hazardous) is generated annually worldwide. Where does it all go?
There is a major challenge in describing and quantifying the global waste trade. A limited number of countries monitor and make public their imports and exports. Definitions and reporting discipline can vary greatly across countries. There is also a large (and growing) illegal trade in waste, which is even more difficult to monitor. The market for waste is now worth an estimated $443bn (£283bn) a year, and this figure is growing because of increasing export volumes and rising prices.
The top destination for waste is China, which in 2010 imported around 7.4m tonnes of discarded plastic, 28m tonnes of waste paper and 5.8m tonnes of steel scrap. Between 2000 and 2008, European exports of plastic waste increased by 250% – and about 87% of these exports ended up in China (including Hong Kong).
The trade is being driven by tough EU legislation forcing local authorities and businesses to recycle more, and increasing landfill charges, making it cheaper to send the waste abroad. More than a third of the waste paper and plastic collected by British local authorities, supermarkets and businesses for recycling is sent to China.
According to a report to the secretariat of the Basel Convention in 2003, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany were the highest exporters of waste, while Italy, France and, perhaps ironically, Germany, were the top waste importers.
Despite legislation banning the shipping of hazardous waste from the EU to non-OECD countries, an estimated 250,000 tonnes a year of used electrical products still flood to west Africa and Asia – hotspots are Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan and China – under the guise of "used goods" or "charitable donations", allowing traders to elude these laws.
In these countries they may be dismantled by unprotected workers, often children, who remove small pieces of metal to be sold, and hard drives to extract personal information for fraudulent use. The remaining plastics and cables are often dumped or burned. More than 15 million people make money from waste-picking – almost all of them in developing countries.
Despite the difficulty in estimating the volume and value of the illegal waste trade, attempts by the UN Environment Programme and the Green Customs Initiative indicate that crime syndicates earn $20 to $30bn a year from waste crime. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47% of waste destined for export was illegal.
According to an International Solid Waste Association report to be released in October, worldwide trade of recyclable plastics is estimated at a total of 12m tonnes a year, valued at $5bn. It flows mainly from affluent western and northern countries to Asia, especially China, which again enjoys the lion's share with about 70% of the global market. Europe is the major collective exporter with Hong Kong, the US, Japan, Germany and the UK representing the top five individual plastic scrap exporters.
Mayor set to cross 'final recycling frontier' with city-wide plan to handle up to 100,000 tons of food waste a year
The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, is preparing to roll out a new composting plan for the city, aimed at diverting some of the 100,000 tons of food scraps that ends up in landfill every year.
Bloomberg, who is due to leave office early next year, has called food waste the "final recycling frontier". Now it appears New York is moving towards that line, testing pilot projects in some neighbourhoods in preparation for a city-wide composting plan.
The city has hired a composting plant to handle up to 100,000 tons of food scraps a year – or about 10% of the city's total food waste, according to the New York Times,, which first reported the story.
Last April, about 100 city restaurants joined a voluntary composting plan, the food waste challenge. By next year, 150,000 households will be on board along with 100 high-rise buildings and 600 schools. The entire city could be recycling food scraps by 2015 or 2016.
The composting programme will at first be voluntary. But a city official told the Times that after a few years New Yorkers who do not separate out their food scraps could be liable to fines – just as they would be now if they do not recycle paper, plastic or metal.
The composting plan will make up a big part of New York's efforts to divert up to 75% of its solid waste from landfills by 2030. Reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills also reduces greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Food waste from all sources makes up about a third of the 20,000 tons of trash the city generates every day.
New York spends $336m a year to send its trash to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. A composting programme would save about $100m a year, Ron Gonen, the city official responsible for recycling and sustainability, told the paper.
Other cities, such as San Francisco, have composting programmes in place. New York had been seen as a challenge because of its population density.
New York is the latest to join the composting trend that doesn't take much time and has great benefits for the environment
New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced plans to introduce composting into the city's garbage mix with the goal of making it mandatory in a couple of years. The scheme has barely gotten off the ground and already some New Yorkers are fretting about the prospect of a future where they will be required to throw a banana peel in one bin and the non biodegradable sticker that was once attached to it in another.
Terrifying as such a prospect may be to composting virgins, however, one can only hope that such resistance will be overcome, as the benefits of diverting food waste from landfills far outweigh any (perceived) inconvenience.
Every year Americans throw out around 40% of the food they buy (pdf) and nearly all of that food waste (96%) ends up in landfills or incinerators. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills than any other single material where it rots and becomes a significant source of methane a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. We shouldn't be throwing out this much food in the first place, of course, but as we are, it makes environmental and economic sense to convert this waste stream into a revenue stream. Composting it and turning it into a resource is an obvious way to do that, but still only a handful of American cities – most notably Seattle, San Francisco and Portland – have embraced this route. Despite their experience being a mostly positive one, composting is still the exception rather than than the norm.
This makes it all the more exciting (for composting enthusiasts like me anyway) that New York, a wasteful city by any standards, is going to be joining that elite group. If composting can work here, and there's no reason it shouldn't, then surely it can work anywhere. For it to do so, however, the public has to be on board and so far they have tended to be rather skeptical.
Much of the resistance to composting seems to stem from concerns about having extra bins in small spaces and a whole new range of smells to contend with. Writing in the New York Observer this week, Rebecca Hiscott summed up these objections as follows:
"We're all for eco-friendly initiatives, but we're really not enthused about the stench of day-old meals wafting through our shoebox-sized, un-air-conditioned apartment, thanks."
I get the bit about the shoe boxed size apartment, but news flash: we're already contending with the stench of day-old meals, the only difference now is that they are mixed in with our regular trash. It's interesting to note also that no one ever seems to object to having a huge (and stinky) garbage bin in their small apartments but the prospect of having three smaller bins (for trash, recycling and compost) is somehow daunting.
Let me shed some light on how it's all going to work: the city plans to provide single family homes with a special organics container with wheels and a lid that locks. Apartment buildings that choose to participate will have to buy their own bins that meet the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) specifications. Apartment dwellers will be provided with a small kitchen top container free of charge that they can then empty into the organics container at the same collection point where they dispose of their trash and recycling. So no mind blowing changes, people will still be carrying the same amount of waste to the same place, they'll just be carrying it in one additional container.
Giving people free bins is one thing, getting them to use them, and to use them properly, is quite another, however. The directive from the DSNY is simple enough: "if it comes from something that grows it goes into the compost". But seeing what ends up in the recycling bins in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I shudder to think what will end up in the compost.
According to Brett Stav, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), which has been collecting food waste since 2005 and yard waste since 1989, putting the wrong stuff in the compost bin can lead to contamination that is very difficult to deal with after the fact:
"People use plastic bags to carry their food scraps to the compost bin and then throw the bag in as well. It only takes one plastic bag to contaminate a container."
Through aggressive education efforts, that range from distributing free compostable bags to paying visits on repeat offenders, the SPU has managed to keep contamination to about 10%.
Fee based incentives are also useful for getting people to put the right stuff in the right bin. San Francisco has been composting yard and food waste since 1996 and made it mandatory in 2009. Through its recycling and composting efforts the city has achieved an impressive 80% landfill diversion rate, compared to 34% nationwide and a measly 15% in New York. To encourage even more recycling and composting the city is introducing a new fee structure that will allow residents to lower their monthly collection rates if they opt for smaller black (trash only) bins and bigger blue and green bins for recycling and composting respectively.
So far New York has no plans to offer fee based incentives, but I hope the city does whatever it takes to get the public on board with composting, and I hope other cities in America follow suit.
Our current "out of sight out of mind" approach to waste disposal is unsustainable on every level. We should be well beyond the point where recycling and composting are viewed as annoyances rather than the necessary landfill diversion schemes that they are. We're not at that point yet, but with a bit of luck, New Yorkers might lead us there.
The issue of overseas waste shipments continues to impact on the UK recycling industry, especially the knock-on effect on low-carbon job creation here in the UK (Norwegians turn Europe's trash into cash but fuel concern over the future of recycling, 15 June). Domestic recycling rates continue to improve and while most local authorities now collect plastic bottles at the kerbside, some waste companies are still sending huge volumes of this plastic resource abroad rather than having it processed here. This is supported by the incentives they receive via the government's PRN credit system. If this material stayed in the UK, it would reduce our imports of virgin raw materials and would create sorting and reprocessing jobs in the UK. Reports have suggested more than 50,000 new UK jobs would be created if 70% of waste collected by councils was recycled here in the UK.
We strongly support free trade but are merely asking for a fairer system by a review of the existing set-up, which financially supports the export of materials rather than domestic recycling. The problem is exacerbated by poorly sorted materials being illegally exported, yet still gaining a 100% PRN credit – the system is broken and needs urgent attention. This issue is a real-world interface between economics and the environment. As it currently stands, British packaging companies are subsidising the export of valuable recyclate which should be going back into UK packaging and back on the shelves of UK retailers. The results are less British infrastructure, fewer British jobs and greater reliance on unreliable international markets. Legislation needs to change to rectify this.
It seems absurd that the PRN system provides a higher payment for exports than it does for domestically processed materials. This was not an intended consequence but a result of the legislators and the recycling industry understanding the market dynamics of this immature but growing sector. We and our industry colleagues will continue to raise the issue. We hope to gain wider support and go beyond the environmental channels, and raise it at Treasury and business level.
CEO, Closed Loop Recycling
• Waste should be seen as a resource. I have never understood why some green groups in the UK oppose energy from waste, when the real issue is the astonishingly high amount of waste – nearly half – the UK still sends to landfill. Scandinavian countries have, for years, recycled a high proportion of waste. However, instead of leaving the remainder of their waste to rot, the Nordic cities have the good sense to use most of it to make heat and power for the benefit of their local community. There are only a few cities like this in the UK, a notable example being Sheffield.
Deputy director, Combined Heat and Power Association
• I feel strongly that you have neglected a major issue of waste PFIs which are still being pushed through (or being fought by local residents at the 11th hour). They threaten council budgets – some of which are already sinking under an existing PFI. This situation would surely be news if, instead of incinerators, there were many giant hospitals planned when there were already empty beds in all the other ones and Europe was offering to treat the patients at half the cost.
Marine biologist's expedition to coast rich in fish, birds, and other wildlife unearthed tonnes of trash along remote shores
• Share your photos of the world's dirtiest and cleanest beaches
I am back ashore after an unusual expedition that brought scientists and artists to witness and respond to beach trash on the shores of southern Alaska. I have good and bad news.
The expedition was called GYRE, partly because much of the trash spins out of the North Pacific Ocean gyre, and partly because of the trip's message: what goes around comes around. The trip was conceived by the Alaska SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum, with National Geographic and the Smithsonian involved. A resulting traveling museum exhibit will premier in Anchorage in February and then, like ocean trash, spend a few years traveling around.
So what shall we take first, the good news or the bad? Actually, almost everything I saw was a bit of both, so let me share impressions. We traveled from Seward in southern Alaska and headed southwest for about 300 miles, with stops, to the shores at Gore Point in the Pye Islands, Wonder Bay on Afognak Island, Blue Fox Bay on Shuyak Island, and Hallo Bay at Katmai National Park.
We met concerned citizens — paid and volunteer — who collect and catalog trash on some of the more accessible beaches (a very relative term in a roadless region where every beach requires a boat or an airlift). At Katmai's Hallo Bay, rangers had worked for a week to pile and bag stuff that doesn't belong on a beach or in a national park; we hauled four tonnes of trash from a four-mile beach.
That's a lot, and on some of the coast there certainly is a lot of trash. On most of the coast, though, there's little. Vertical, rocky, high-energy shorelines make up most of the region's crenellated coastlines. Most of what washes up there in fine weather washes away in savage winter storms. It then funnels to quieter, protected beaches — most of which are crescents of sand at the heads of bays between headlands — and there, yes, it collects. That's where you'll find your trash, so those are the places we landed on.
Almost all problematic beach-trash is plastic. Plastic's signature rot-less inertness makes it last many years. And so, it's used for many things, including fishing nets. On beaches we visited, fishing gear made up a lot of the trash. When I walk the beaches of the U.S. East Coast, I find a lot of toy soldiers, action figures, and balloons. Noticeably, by comparison, Alaska trash is adult, working trash. Yes, we found soft-drink and plastic bottles (how could we not?). But a lot of it was fishing net floats, fishing nets — old driftnets and new trawl nets — buoys, ship bumpers, and dock lines. There were also cargo nets and products that had spilled from shipping containers washed from freighters in storms.
How could we tell what came from shipping containers? Because we found fly swatters with the logo of one specific sports team, and hummingbird feeders, on each beach we visited. The fly swatters were everywhere. We also found consumer product containers — soap bottles, for instance — with various Asian and English writing.
Several people arranged to meet us to show-and-tell of their efforts to catalog and remove washed-up junk. Expedition member and California-based educator Kate Schafer observed that the people we met were all outraged, yet none was defeated. I liked that characterization.
But their effort is nothing if not Sisyphean. Trash comes off; more trash washes in. No end in sight. This is how it will be as far into the future as we can see. Unless we look past our worn-out noses and...
But before we talk about solutions, let's consider a serious question: if trash washes up on a beach so remote that no one is there to see it, does it make a mess?
This is not a deserted place. This is the last best megalopolis of life for hundreds of species of bird, fishes, and mammals long since driven from their strongholds farther south by human crowding and destruction of their living places. Alaska has the largest remaining salmon runs in the nation, but a hundred years ago, the world's largest salmon runs came and went from the rivers of Oregon and Washington, especially the Columbia River, before it was dammed to the damnation of it native inhabitants, both human and fish. Grizzly bears, now more abundant in Alaska than anywhere in the world, were once commonly encountered out on the Great Plains (where Lewis and Clark confronted, shot, then wrote of them). Those open-country bears must have fed well on buffalo until white people decided to starve the Native people to near-extermination.
How we treat our lands and other living inhabitants reflects how we treat other peoples and how we treat one another. That's why trash, even on a "remote" beach, insults our dignity and sullies our humanity.
The national park from which we removed one tonne of trash per mile is frequently visited by tourists, who don't want to hire planes and guides only to find garbage. In this not-remote place, plastic causes harm and suffering. Before it gets ashore, it causes harm and suffering to seals, turtles, fishes, and seabirds who die from tangling in it and from the consequences of eating it and who feed it to their young. I've seen all of these creatures in trouble with trash.
Clearly, plastic is a problem. One of its main features is that it greatly resists getting metabolized by bacteria or chemically degraded. It doesn't go away. It just gets smaller. Animals eat it, and even at the scale of molecules, it's still plastic. Plastic polymers have been found circulating in the blood of mussels. Some plastics are non-toxic; some have toxic additives like lead and metals. We found both of those additives in some (though not all) of the samples we tested.
Even the tonnes of plastic we took were destined to be piled ashore in a landfill, though much of it could have been reused or recycled. We just moved it. That's what the market bears. It's too cheap to recycle because the makers and sellers don't pay the costs of disposal. As with many "cheap" things, the price reflects only the fact that the sellers privatize their profits and socialize the costs. Many things priced cheap are really rather costly.
Plastic collects. It collects near where many people live. It collects far from where people live, close to where other beings live. It goes where we don't think it goes because we don't think about where it goes.
And people who do actually know where it goes, don't know where it comes from. It's been 30 years since I heard about the first organized beach cleanups, and I'm getting tired of hearing the experts explain how we don't know where these nets come from or can't tell how these bottles get into the ocean.
It's time for environmentalists to stop simply categorizing the human-made debris. We need to start understanding how and where it gets into the ocean. The U.S. government has observers on fishing boats to monitor catches; why isn't there a question on the form asking captains how many nets they've lost in the last year? Why not a survey asking if they've ever dumped an old net because on-land disposal is too expensive? Why no adequate sampling and surveying of rivers for plastic outflow rates, no adequate dialogue with shipping companies to understand rates of container loss?
I'd rather not land on another beach where a person with a clipboard is counting how many bottles have Chinese lettering, unless that person has a colleague studying whether those bottles come from rivers or fishing boats, and what can be done about it.
Why is there no initiative to pay for old nets, rather than charge for their disposal? And why is there no legislation requiring a refundable deposit for new nets?
Cataloging and removing trash is important, but some of the effort must now be peeled off the beach and applied farther up the trash stream. After all, we want this to stop, right? The only way to do that is to understand how it gets into the ocean to begin with.
The proper posture for addressing this problem starts with our personal choices in stores and community recycling. But that isn't the solution. The solution lies in developing a new generation of materials whose lifetime trajectory is scaled to their use, whose fate in nature is appropriately timed to their function.
I would not want a fiberglass boat that dissolves in seawater in under 50 years; but I would indeed want yogurt to come in a container that isn't for all practical purposes eternal. Products with a two-week shelf life would be well-served in containers that take just a few months to rot in seawater and sunlight and release nutrients to bacteria.
Some people believe they "know" that the Pacific Garbage Patch is a mat of trash the size of Texas that's so thick you can walk across it. In truth, there's no such mat. There's a very large area in the north Pacific where an accumulating array of trash is slowly whirling. It's enough to kill sea turtles, and albatrosses eat enough of it that I've seen them on distant places like Midway Atoll and Laysan Island, dead, their innards packed with toothbrushes and cigarette lighters. But in most of the ocean the garbage is too sparse for a person to notice unless you're really paying attention. Yet even that thin soup, clearly, is far too much for the health of the wild inhabitants.
On our Alaska trip, we saw plastic trash on each landing. But between landings, in the company of whales and seabirds, we saw many rugged shores seemingly devoid of debris, and we observed not one floating human-made object.
What we did see, in the greatest remaining remote wilderness of the United States, is that, as Nick Mallos of the Ocean Conservancy noted, "These shores are not untouched; now the challenge is, how can we keep them unspoiled?"
The Guardian's photographer Graeme Robertson witnesses a clean up operation by Glastonbury festivals staff and volunteers after 175,000 revelers left the site at Worthy Farm in Somerset
From everyday electronics to biodegradable glasses, new products are being fashioned from the most unlikely materials
They burrow at our riverbanks, bully our crayfish, and hide their mischief behind cute furry cuffs. The Chinese mitten crab has long been a scourge of our waterways, clogging drainage systems and flood defences. Capable of travelling hundreds of kilometres up rivers and across dry land, they have even been spotted scampering down high streets.
One proposed solution to this crustacean curse was to eat our way through them. Mitten crabs are prized in Asia for their tasty sexual organs, and Gordon Ramsay has sung the praises of their sweet, intense flavour. But for some reason, crab gonads never caught on in the UK restaurant scene. Now, a different solution might be at hand: young designer Jeongwon Ji has used their shells to make a new form of plastic.
"I was surprised people in England don't eat these crabs," says Ji, who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, where their roe-filled ovaries are highly sought after. "I started to look at what else they might be used for, and realised that crab shells are rich in chitin, a natural polymer that could be used for plastic."
Working with a science student at Imperial College– next door to Ji's own base at the Royal College of Art– she had the chitin extracted at a lab before testing it in different combinations with red algae and glycerine to form a gelatinous paste. Pressed into wooden moulds and left to dry, it formed a grainy, tactile rubber.
She stands in front of a table spread with an intriguing collection of objects she has fashioned from her crabby plastic. A wonky elfin hat in olivey green teeters next to a squat black pyramid. There is a tapering coral-pink triangular block, and a warped slab that looks like an abrasive bar of soap. Everything is slightly puckered and misshapen, like leathery fruit-peel left to dry in the sun. They could be dredged from the sea bed, or talismans from a wandering alchemist – but they are in fact consumer electronic designs.
"We've come to believe plastic is about the precision and perfection of industrial production," says Ji. "But I wanted to challenge that idea and make it really natural and organic, something you want to touch."
What looks like a bar of soap is in fact a computer trackpad, the olive hat is an LED torch – and the pyramid is a Wi-Fi router. They are the kind of organo-futurist products you might find if Dixon's opened a branch on the Ewoks' home of Endor. And they have special powers to match: a crooked cream cylinder is actually an air purifier, employing the natural antibacterial quality of chitin – which also means it is an ideal material for children's toys of the future.
"Using these materials makes the products biodegradable," says Ji, "and it avoids the toxic chemicals used in most plastic production, so it improves the health of the people who manufacture our electronics."
Submerged in water for two weeks, her bioplastic begins to dissolve. That's all part of the point: "It is about returning a kind of fragility to these objects – which usually only have a one or two year lifespan anyway," says Ji.
In the UK alone, we produce around five million tonnes of plastic waste every year – of which 75% ends up in landfill. While the percentage of recycling is rising, biodegradable plastic is a ballooning alternative, with global production predicted to reach over 800,000 tonnes by 2020. Although bioplastic is mainly used today in packaging and disposable cutlery, young designers are increasingly looking to it as an option for short-life consumer products.
Chinese designer Ivy Wang has developed a range of accessories from potato cell walls, a by-product of biofuel production, in collaboration with Professor Jurgen Denecke's research lab at Leeds University.
"It's about throwaway design without guilt," says Wang. "The future Chinese market is young and well educated, with strong purchasing power. But they are also aware that the growing consumption can cause major environmental damage."
Wang thinks she has hit on a solution. In the production of bio-ethanol from potatoes (believed to be the future source of bio-fuel over the next 20-30 years) there is 10% waste in the form of potato cell walls. At the same time, as part of an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction project, China plans to produce 12m tonnes of bio-ethanol and bio-diesel every year. The result? A mountain of waste potato, with no current use.
Compressing this waste under heat and pressure, she has produced a material with the flexibility and durability of plastic – which she has cast to make glasses and other accessories. "10% waste may sound minor," she says, "but when scaled up, it's a vast amount." She estimates there is around 2.5 tonnes of waste cellular wall per hectare of potatoes, so it will be an abundant material source with the potential to replace a range of synthetic plastics.
So crabs and potatoes no longer means crab cakes – today it might just be the recipe for everything from Biros to mobile phones.
James Cropper becomes world's first firm to separate plastic content from cups, leaving pulp fit for making luxury papers
The British company which makes the red paper for the Royal Legion's famous poppies has developed the world's first technology to recycle disposable coffee cups into high quality paper products.
Kendal-based James Cropper, a specialist paper and advanced materials group, will on Wednesday open a £5m reclaimed fibre plant using the ground-breaking new technology at its Cumbria production mill.
Until now, the 5% plastic content of cups has made them unsuitable for use in papermaking. In the UK alone, an estimated 2.5bn paper cups go to landfill every year. James Cropper's recycling technology separates out the plastic incorporated in the cups leaving paper pulp that can be used in the highest quality papers.
The new facility is being inaugurated today by the Queen and the Princess Royal.
The plant's process involves softening the cup waste in a warmed solution, separating the plastic coating from the fibre. The plastic is skimmed off, pulverised and recycled, leaving water and pulp. Impurities are filtered out leaving high grade pulp suitable for use in luxury papers and packaging materials.
Mark Cropper, chairman of James Cropper plc, said: "Cup waste is a rich source of high grade pulp fibre, but until now the plastic content made this product a contaminant in paper recycling. Our technology changes that and also addresses a major environmental waste problem and accompanying legislation. We are greatly honoured that Her Majesty the Queen and The Princess Royal are joining us on the occasion of our new plant opening."
Cropper is responsible for the paper in 80% of UK hardbook books, as well as the poppy paper and paper in Hansard, the parliamentary almanac. The company's main production facilities are in the UK and the US, with supporting sales offices in US, Europe and Asia. Half of its products are exported.
Since Mexico City closed a huge landfill, residents have warmed to recycling – but the rest of the waste system is yet to catch up
Carlos Quintero picked up a huge bag full of plastic bottles and moved a few feet forward before setting it down again in the long snaking queue to get into Mexico City's Mercado de Trueque, or barter market. In return for donating the bottles for recycling, Carlos would receive well-needed tomatoes, onions and a cabbage.
"It is a really good way of getting something out of things we normally throw away and helping the environment," he said. "And it helps the family economy, too."
The monthly market started in March last year, aimed at raising awareness about recycling through modest vegetable incentives. But the project is now straining under the weight of its own success.
"The objective is that people learn to separate, store and value the waste they produce," said Liliana Balcazar of the city's environment ministry, which runs the market, usually in a central park, although it moves to different locations around the capital every other month. She said the market received about 12 tonnes of rubbish each time. "It was always popular," she said, "but now it is overflowing."
Recyclers hand their rubbish over to government employees, who weigh the material and give vouchers to exchange for vegetables grown by farmers on the outskirts of the city.
Recent participants – who ranged from an architect with a trolley full of wine bottles to a poor woman with a neatly tied-up bundle of cardboard – recognised that the market would never solve the problem of how to manage the 12,000 tonnes of rubbish the city produces every day.
Since the closure of an enormous landfill early last year, shortly before the market opened, rubbish has been trucked out to smaller tips in surrounding states at considerable cost. There has been little sign of the environmentally friendly hi-tech waste management facilities that have been promised for many years.
Even so, the market's most dedicated fans return month after month, oftenwith friends or family in tow. "It is really worth the effort," said Erika Rodriguez, a regular, accompanied by her mother. "Once you start, it is difficult to stop."
"It's great for us," said smallholder Axel Castañeda as he cleared away piles of beetroot stalks, his entire stock gone."The price is good, and the volume is great."
But some of those handing over their recycling are inevitably disappointed, because the range and availability of vegetables quickly dwindles by late morning. Late arrivals are more likely to end up with a bunch of vouchers and almost nothing left to swap them for.
A harried official, surrounded by one such group, unhappy about going home with only radishes and tomatoes, pleaded for understanding. The market, he said, is "an educational project not a substitute for normal rubbish collection".
Team of sewerage workers took three weeks to clear bus-sized toxic ball of fat that threatened to flood streets with sewage
A sewage worker has become an unlikely hero after taking three weeks to defeat a toxic 15-tonne ball of congealed fat the size of a bus that came close to turning parts of the London borough of Kingston upon Thames into a cesspit.
The first sign of trouble came when residents in a block of flats near the royal borough's main sewer reported difficulty flushing their toilets. Gordon Hailwood and his team found a "fatberg" of solidified grease and oil blocking 95% of the 2.4 metre diameter brick sewer pipe. It took three weeks working in foul conditions to clear with high powered water jets.
"Kingston came very close to being flooded with sewage. We have recorded greater volumes of fat in the past but we don't believe there's ever been a single congealed lump of lard matching this one", said Simon Evans, a Thames Water spokesman.
Fatbergs build up on sewer roofs like mushy stalactites. "I have witnessed one. It's a heaving, sick-smelling, rotting mass of filth and faeces. It hits the back of your throat, it's gross," said Evans.
"It's steaming and it unleashes an unimaginable stink. Hailwood and his team certainly saved Kingston from a terrible fate."
Water and sewage companies say fatbergs are becoming more common. London, with the highest concentration of food businesses in the country, produces an estimated 32m-44m litres of used cooking oil every year, much of which is poured down drains.
Also, the use of wet wipes as toilet paper is increasing, with potentially disastrous results below ground.
Thames Water says it has to clear nearly 40,000 blockages a year caused by fat and sanitary wipes being wrongly put down drains by restaurants and households. "We have 59,000 miles of sewer and fat and wet wipes are the main partners in 'sewer abuse' crime," said Evans.
"The wipes break down and collect on joints and then the fat congeals. Then more fat builds up. It's getting worse. More wet wipes are being used and flushed. It took Hailwood and the guys three weeks to flush this one out with high-powered water jets.
"Given we've got the biggest sewers and this is the biggest fatberg we've encountered, we reckon it has to be the biggest such berg in British history," said Hailwood.
"The sewer was almost completely clogged. If we hadn't discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston. It was so big it damaged the sewer and repairs will take up to six weeks."
However – in what environmental groups call a "win-win" development – waste fat is now being used to generate renewable energy. McDonald's collects more than 600,000 litres of used cooking oil from its London restaurants each year, converting it to biodiesel to run half its fleet of lorries. London mayor Boris Johnson is pressing for waste fat to be used to run London's buses.
"By capturing it right here in London and turning it into biodiesel we could provide 20% of the fuel needed to power London's entire bus fleet while saving thousands of tonnes of CO2 and creating hundreds of new jobs. There is huge potential to unlock the value in used cooking oil and turn it to our economic advantage," Johnson said last week.
One consortium plans to generate 130 gigawatt hours (GWh) of renewable electricity each year – enough to run 39,000 average homes – by burning 30 tonnes a day of fat, oil and grease. The oils will be collected from food outlets and manufacturers, and solidified grease will be harvested from "fat traps" installed in restaurant, hospital, stadium and factory kitchens. Thames Water has agreed to buy half the electricity to run London's largest sewerage works at Beckton.
Keeping drains clear
• Animal fats and vegetable oil, lard, grease, butter and margarine, food scraps and dairy products all contribute to blocked drains, "fatbergs" and sewer blockages. Waste disposal units do not remove fats.
• Wipes, nappies, sanitary towels, rags and condoms do not break down easily and can snag on pipes, drains and the walls of sewers, leading to blockages.
• Pesticides, battery acids, nail polish, motor oil, chlorine and other cleaning products, paints and photographic chemicals are all toxic waste and should be disposed of carefully because they do not break down in sewage systems and can pollute rivers and sea water.
• If you have a septic tank, then be extra careful. Don't flush medicines, coffee grounds, paper towels or egg shells, or anything that breaks down slowly, down the toilet or sink.
For much of history, the fat found in a giant ball clogging London sewers would have been put to a surprising array of uses
A colossal "fatberg" of wet-wipes, sanitary products and food fat clogging a Kingston sewer threatened to send raw sewage spurting into London streets and homes in late July. Looking like some kind of B-movie monster, this 15-tonne abomination reminds us that waste is getting harder to keep underground.
But for most of history, a fatberg would have been a valuable commodity. Rather than shooting high-powered water-jets at the monster, the green solution would have been to make it into tallow candles – the chief source of light for most people before gas or electricity. Hence the job of "grease-dealer" – a person who made their living by collecting the grease of domestic kitchens, scraping it into a tub, and presently re-selling it. Once, you made energy from anything you could – including, sometimes, your pets: "My old dog Quon was killed … and baked for his grease, of which he yielded 11 pounds," wrote a Dorset farmer in 1698.
But, if you could afford it or steal it, the real prize in the world of fat came not from animals but from humans. On 17 October 1601, just a few weeks into the notoriously protracted siege of Ostend, a number of the town's Spanish assailants were shot and killed close to the city walls. Soon after, "the surgeons of the town went thither … and brought away sacks full of man's grease which they had drawn out of their bodies". The Protestant Ostenders may well have considered this to be a form of poetic justice. Human fat was held to be one of the best agents for the treatment of wounds, and who better to supply your first aid than the people who were shooting at you?
Like various other parts and fluids of the human body, fat was a standard European medical ingredient until the end of the 18th century. Usually applied topically (and sometimes rubbed on as a liniment), it was used to treat gout, cramp, convulsions, breast cancer, ulcers, bruising and melancholy. It was also held to be an excellent painkiller, and could be pasted on your cheeks as a kind of cosmetic, smeared into the facial pits left on surviving victims of smallpox.
Nor was it mere folk medicine. Those prescribing or recommending human fat included Théodore Turquet de Mayerne (personal doctor to James I), the French anatomical pioneer Charles Estienne and the English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. There is good reason to think that fat actually worked effectively against wounds and sores. In Germany in particular it was used for this purpose by executioners, who were surprisingly popular healers in the early modern period. In one case, "Lorenz Seitz … a journeyman brewer in Nuremberg, was rescued from knife-happy barber-surgeons by … Johann Michael Schmidt, the local executioner". The bandages which Schmidt used so successfully were almost certainly steeped in human fat obtained from state executions.
As these slowly became less frequent, human fat may have become harder to obtain (and more costly) back in the Old World. Its economic value was certainly well known. For, at Rushall in Norfolk in 1736, after a man and his wife had "had some words", the husband suddenly "went out and hanged himself". Eschewing funeral or burial, "his wife sent for a surgeon, and sold the body for half a guinea". While the surgeon was carefully "feeling about the body", she assured him: "he is fit for your purpose, he is as fat as butter"; after which the deceased "was put naked into a sack, with his legs hanging out, thrown upon a cart, and conveyed to the surgeons".
A still darker history than this emerges when we return to the humble candle. It was quite widely believed among uneducated criminals that a candle made from human fat had magical properties. Thieves could use it to send their victims to sleep, or even to make the possessor invisible (and therefore all the more effective as a burglar). In 1577 another Nuremberg executioner, Franz Schmidt (execution tended to be a family business), broke on the wheel at Bamberg "a man who had committed three murders for the sake of the fat of his victims". In 17th-century Norway one criminal had his flesh torn off with red-hot pincers after confessing to the practice.
Shortly before a notorious German robber, Theodor Unger, was executed at Magdeburg in 1810, those at his trial heard how "a regular manufactory had been established by gangs of thieves for the production of such candles". In 1834 a Pomeranian man named Berger chanced on a murder victim, cut fat from under his ribs, and took it home where he borrowed a candle mould from a neighbour before unsuccessfully trying to make a thieves' candle.
Just two years later a Prussian murderer admitted that he had aimed "to get a sufficient quantity of human fat, with which to make a torch to render himself invisible". In 1888, four peasants from Russia's Kursk region murdered a young girl, Lukeria Cherkuahina, for just the same reason – upon being searched, they were found in possession of fat rolled up in Lukeria's handkerchief. In England during the notorious Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, one writer speculated that the infamous mutilations of female victims also had similar magical aims.
For some time now, modern grease-dealers have been attempting to get restaurant fat waste turned into diesel fuel, rather than being poured into overburdened drains. Back in 2008 a California liposuction surgeon tried a more radical version of this process. In Beverley Hills, Craig Allen Bittner had been using the fat drained from his patients to run the SUVs of himself and his girlfriend. By this stage, however, Californian tissue laws did not permit anyone to beg, borrow or steal parts of the human body. Despite permission from his donors, Bittner presently shut up shop and headed off to South America. He could, of course, have argued that history was on his side: until pretty recently, fat – whether human or animal – was hard to come by, and too good to waste.
As the UK's only carton recycling factory opens, Tim Smedley takes a tour and asks if it's the beginning of the end for shipping waste to China
I am standing in what will soon be the UK's only carton recycling facility in Stainland near Halifax, Yorkshire. In front of me are huge bales of waste cartons - Tetra Pak, to you and me – waiting to be recycled. I wonder where they're from. "That one's from the Nottingham hub", answers Fay Dashper, recycling operations manager, ACE UK, pointing at a bale seemingly indistinguishable from any other. "You can tell from the shape of the bale and the quality of the material... I'm a bit of a carton geek".
It's Dashper's job to be a carton geek. While Tetra Pak has become the colloquial term for the plastic-coated cardboard that packages fruit juice and pureed tomatoes, there are two other manufacturers – Elopak and SIG Combibloc. ACE UK (the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment) represents all three. It has teamed up with recycling company Sonoco Alcore to create this processing plant to stop cartons being shipped overseas or, worse, to landfill. This one factory alone will process up to 40% of the UK's cartons when officially operational in September, turning them into "coreboard" tubes with uses from carpet rolls to clingfilm.
By bringing new recycling capability to the UK, ACE is hoping to promote the environmental credentials of its product. "Because we are opening this recycling facility, a lot of local authorities are very interested in bringing cartons here", informs Dashper. "We are talking to one group of seven Local Authorities right now that are going to start taking cartons at kerb-side because this facility is opening, and we expect several more will follow."
Cartons, ACE UK believes, have had some unfair press. Three types of virgin wood go into one carton (recycled fibres aren't strong enough): spruce, pine and birch. They are lined with polyethelyne and/or aluminium (not wax, as some believe). Until recently the majority of local authorities didn't accept them for recycling, so they went to landfill.
ACE UK argues that councils have previously had no incentive to find recycling outlets for cartons. Local authority recycling targets are weight-based, with the effect of huge increases for food and garden waste recycling but not for the lightweight carton. With plenty of carton recycling factories overseas but none in the UK, some councils' ethical "no export" policy has even had the perverse effect of sending recyclable material to landfill. ACE UK attempted to counter this by installing their own Bringbank recycling banks for eco-conscious consumers to take their cartons to, which were then shipped to Europe. However, the success of the scheme was limited. Dashper tells of one Bringbank found with two prosthetic legs jammed in it. One still had a slipper on.
The story of cartons is not dissimilar to that of UK recycling at large. We currently produce more recyclate (the industry term for recyclable waste) than we have the capacity to recycle domestically. In part this is because we've got much better at collecting it – we now recycle 43% of household waste compared to just 14% ten years ago.
A survey last year by industry body the Resource Association and You-Gov found that 73% of UK adults did not know what happened to their recycling, and 32% said that better information would make them more likely to recycle. "We genuinely believe that transparency is the name of the game", says Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association and former director of WRAP. "The more you can demonstrate to people what actually happens to recyclate and where it goes, the more confidence you will build in the industry".
An added need for keeping recycling at home is that China is increasingly refusing our refuse. Operation Green Fence was initiated in February by President Xi Jinping to ensure the recycling exported to China meets far stricter quality standards. "Because of the way we collect a lot of our material there is often contamination", says Georgeson. "The Chinese have now got very fussy; they are protecting their own increasingly high end manufacturing base, plus they are generating more of their own recyclate through increased domestic consumption, and so need less of ours." He says this has "sent shock waves" though the industry, but also argues it is an opportunity for the industry to change tack and build the domestic market.
The new carton facility in Yorkshire could be seen as part of that broader trend. Georgeson cites other recent manufacturing success stories in UK recycling such as Closed Loop in East London, Saica in Manchester, Eco Plastics in Lincolnshire – the world's biggest plastic bottle recycling manufacturing plant – and UPM's huge paper plant in North Wales. However there have also been closures, including a previous short-lived attempt to recycle cartons by the Smith Anderson Group in Fife, Scotland.
"There has been some uplift in capacity", says Georgeson, "but so many of these companies are big international companies making investment decisions if not globally then certainly at a European level." Australian-founded Closed Loop, American-owned Sonoco Alcore, Spain's Saica or Finnish-headquartered UPM, are perhaps cases in point. Such investment can come and go.
Another uncertain end destination is that of the plastic and aluminium retrieved at the Halifax plant, roughly a quarter of the material from cartons. ACE and Sonoco are adamant that none of it will go to landfill, with plans for the material currently ranging from pellets for plastic car parts and garden furniture to burning as fuel to power the factory itself.
Dashper feels that this transparency combined with a guaranteed price per bale will be attractive to Local Authorities. The incoming MRF quality code of practice requiring better levels of sorting of co-mingled recycling is likely to mean greater requirements of residents too; they are in turn more likely to be engaged with the recycling process if they see it stay in the UK, and an industry creating British jobs. This could be a "virtuous circle", says Dashper. It's an opportunity that could turn back the tide of sending recycling overseas. Equally it's one that could just float away.
New housing in England should be designed to include space to keep bins out of plain view, says the government. Community secretary Eric Pickles said the plan would help keep the streets free from 'clutter'. Do you want wheelie bins out of sight?
Rise in number of plants burning waste may be disincentive to greener methods of disposal
A rush to build incinerators to burn waste and break the UK's reliance on landfill is threatening the country's commitment to increase its recycling rates.
As new figures reveal that recycling rates have fallen for the first time in 30 years, experts warn that the UK is in danger of building far more incineration capacity than it needs. The controversial waste disposal systems are used to produce electricity and heat for homes and industry. But there are fears that the "march of the incinerators", as some have called it, will act as a disincentive for councils to recycle waste.
Historically, the UK has used landfill as its preferred method for waste disposal and, as a result, has been slower to adopt incineration than other EU states. However, an obligation to meet EU directives has meant that in recent years the UK has been forced to find alternative means of disposal. The directives are yielding results. Just under 47 million tonnes of waste was sent to landfill last year, compared with just over 84 million tonnes in 2001.
This has given a significant fillip to the incineration industry both in the UK and abroad. Much of the UK's waste that ends up being incinerated currently goes to Germany or the Netherlands, where it is burned and used to heat homes. The process is often cheaper than seeking landfill sites in the UK.
Experts said the use of incinerators had consequences for recycling as local authorities were forced to divert waste to feed the plants. "The choice to invest in thermal treatment can hold back recycling efforts," Adam Baddeley, principal consultant at Eunomia, said. "At one level, the money invested in such plant simply isn't available to put into building recycling plants or collection infrastructure. And once you've built an incinerator or gasifier, there's a strong incentive to keep it fed with waste, even if that means keeping on collecting as 'black bag' rubbish, material that would be economically practicable to collect separately for recycling."
Charmian Larke, technical adviser for Cornwall Waste Forum, which unsuccessfully opposed a large incinerator in the south-west, questioned the planning process that resulted in incinerators being approved. "Some of them [planning officers] have spent their entire careers trying to get this incinerator so they are wedded to the idea," Larke said. "But if the council members understood how bad these contracts were, the officers would lose their jobs."
Larke claimed that many of the incinerators were built in poorer areas. "There's a feeling that people who are downtrodden have a harder time getting their act together to object, and hence it's easier to place nasty things next to them."
Julian Kirby, waste resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth, described incinerators as a 19th-century technology used to treat a 20th-century problem. "The growing success of recycling and food waste collections – and the potential to redesign products to cut waste and boost reuse and recycling even more – mean there are few things more pointlessly parasitic on cash-strapped councils than incinerators," Kirby said.
There are now 39 incineration plants in the UK that have either been built are under construction or are at the planning stage, and there are concerns about overcapacity.
"The UK needs sufficient infrastructure to treat our residual waste and divert it from landfill," said Baddeley. "However, with a recycling target of 50% by 2020 and a decline in waste arising, if the large number of planned [incineration] facilities become operational, there is a real risk of us building excess thermal treatment capacity, something we already see in various northern European countries. They over-invested in treatment facilities and are now importing a growing amount of waste, particularly from the UK and Ireland, to fill them."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said sending waste to landfill or incineration should be the last resort. "We have been clear with local authorities that incineration must not compete with recycling or ways of reducing the amount of waste we produce."
Increasingly common in Europe, municipal 'waste-to-energy' incinerators are being touted as a green trash-disposal alternative
For communities short on landfill space, "waste-to-energy" incineration sounds like a bulletproof solution: Recycle all you can, and turn the rest into heat or electricity. That's how it's been regarded in much of Europe, where nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste is burned in 450 incinerators, and increasingly in the United States, where dozens of cities and towns are considering new, cutting-edge plants.
But leaders of the international zero-waste movement, which seeks to reuse all products and send nothing to landfills or incinerators, say incineration falls short on the energy front and actually encourages waste. Many "zero wasters" — including groups such as Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA — have become ardent opponents of the technology, contending that proponents have co-opted the carefully crafted zero-waste label by suggesting that burning to produce energy isn't actually wasting. In Europe, where incineration capacity continues to grow despite already exceeding the trash supply in some countries, the showdown goes beyond semantics to the heart of the meaning of sustainability.
While the world certainly has no shortage of it, trash is not renewable — not in the way that sunlight, wind, and geothermal heat are. Producing goods from virgin, finite resources requires energy — lots of it. Once the goods become trash, zero-waste advocates say, burning them in an incinerator destroys those resources for good.
Incinerators can provide heat for municipal heating systems or steam for electricity, recovering some of the energy used to produce their fuel. But even given the environmental costs of recycling, which include transporting and processing the material, zero wasters contend that it makes far more sense to recycle than to incinerate.
The precise energy savings for any given waste stream depends on its composition, according to Jeffrey Morris, an economist and environmental consultant with Sound Resource Management Group Inc. in Olympia, Washington. "But it would be a surprising situation to find a waste stream that it would be more beneficial to burn rather than to source-separate and recycle," says Morris, who did a study in 1995 — still widely cited by recycling advocates — which found that recycling most materials from municipal solid waste saves on average three to five times more energy than does burning them for electricity.
These days, the waste-to-energy debate is particularly active in Europe, where government incentives and subsidies have encouraged the construction of incinerators. Waste-to-energy supporters contend that the recycle-versus-incinerate comparison represents a false choice — that the two can coexist. "We see waste-to-energy continuing to have a role to play in an integrated approach to waste management, providing hygienic treatment of the remaining waste that is not suitable for sustainable recycling, and at the same time generating energy from it, rather than it being sent to a landfill," Ella Stengler, managing director of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, wrote in an email. "Recycling and waste-to-energy are complementary to achieve lower landfill rates."
As it turns out, countries with the highest rates of garbage incineration — Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, for example, all incinerate at least 50 percent of their waste — also tend to have high rates of recycling and composting of organic materials and food waste. But zero-wasters argue that were it not for large-scale incineration, these environmentally conscious countries would have even higher rates of recycling. Germany, for example, incinerates 37 percent of its waste and recycles 45 percent — a considerably better recycling rate than the 30-plus percent of Scandinavian countries.
There's no doubt that dumping untreated municipal solid waste in the landfills common in eastern and southern Europe, where incineration rates lag far behind those of northern Europe, poses significant environmental problems. These include the leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater, an increasingly urgent shortage of space, and the release of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. (In the United States, more than half of all waste is dumped in landfills, and about 12 percent burned, of which only a portion is used to produce energy.) According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the United States, behind industry and agriculture. Such environmental impacts are the reason why many European countries have instituted landfill bans in recent decades, contributing to the rapid expansion of incineration and waste-to-energy technology.
Zero-wasters say that a major problem with incineration is the long-term contracts that waste-to-energy plants sign with the cities that supply them with trash. Incinerators are extremely expensive to build — large, modern facilities in Europe cost $150 million to $230 million — and to make a profit and repay investors, incinerator operators need a guaranteed stream of waste. The operators sign contracts with municipalities to provide a certain volume of waste over a long period of time, often 20 or 30 years, effectively committing municipalities to generating a certain amount of waste. Zero-waste advocates say this reduces the incentive to recycle more and waste less, which exists with landfills, where tipping fees can be high.
With incineration, said Dominic Hogg, chairman of UK-based waste-management consulting firm Eunomia, "the financial logic for engaging in further recycling is lost."
Hege Rooth Olbergsveen, a senior adviser in Norway's Waste Recovery and Hazardous Waste department and a proponent of waste-to-energy, acknowledges that the economics of incineration can impair recycling efforts.
"It is in many cases more expensive to collect and sort out waste for material recycling than just to collect it as residual waste and send it to energy recovery," she wrote in an email. "Some municipalities introduce only cost-effective waste solutions, while other municipalities have strong political will to introduce environmental measures and collect more waste for recycling."
German zero-waste advocate Hartmut Hoffmann, head of Friends of the Earth Germany's waste working group, said he's seen such an effect in Bavaria. In and around the towns of Schwandorf, Coburg, and Burgkirchen, each of which contains an incinerator, some waste authorities have openly refused to separate organic waste for composting, he said, instead incinerating the material at a lower cost. "For us, this refusal is good proof that the existence of incineration plants can hinder recycling," Hoffmann said.
In Flanders, Belgium, an effort to keep a lid on incinerator contracts has led nearer to zero waste, said Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe and European regional coordinator for GAIA. Since the early 1990s, when recycling rates were relatively low, the local waste authority in Flanders has decided not to increase incineration beyond roughly 25 percent, Simon said. As a result, combined recycling and composting rates now exceed 75 percent, GAIA says. "They stabilized and even reduced waste generation when they capped incineration," Simon said.
Without incineration, he believes, most European countries could improve current recycling rates of 20 or 30 percent to 80 percent within six months. Hogg agreed, saying that rates of 70 percent should be "easy" to attain. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which calculates recycling and composting together, puts the current U.S. rate at 35 percent, compared to a combined European Union figure of 40 percent. Many of the newer members of the EU, mainly from Eastern Europe, have few if any waste-to-energy incinerators, recycle very little, and landfill 75 percent or more of their trash.
Except for pockets like Flanders, Simon believes that the major mistake Europe's leading incinerator countries have made is committing too much trash to incineration too soon by instituting landfill bans. "Back then nobody knew or expected it would be possible to achieve the current recycling rates," he said. "As they rolled out recycling they also planned incineration capacity. This trend hit the wall when recycling started competing with incineration for the available waste. In this situation some countries decided to give way to incineration and either import waste to burn or burn recyclables."
Plastics are particularly attractive for burning, as they're made with petroleum and generate more energy when incinerated than almost any other material. "Plastic is a good fuel, " said Pål Mårtensson, a zero-waste advocate in Gothenburg, Sweden. "So they don't bother that much to sort it out [for recycling]."
Burning plastic is also known to release harmful dioxins into the air. Waste-to-energy proponents say state-of-the-art plants filter out such toxic air pollution, but opponents say even the best plants do not filter out all toxics. This week, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency revoked the operating license of a waste-to-energy incinerator in Dumfries after a large fire, saying the operator had failed to recover energy efficiently and had not met the requirements of its operating permit.
Despite EU directives calling for member states to both end the burning of all recyclable materials and achieve recycling rates of 50 percent (the current average is 25 percent) by 2020, public subsidies support the expansion of incineration capacity in many European countries.
Waste importers Sweden (with 31 plants as of 2011), Germany (72 plants), the Netherlands (12), and Denmark (29) continue to approve, finance, and build new waste-to-energy plants even though capacity exceeds domestic waste volumes. The United Kingdom (24 plants) is expected to reach capacity by 2018, according to a June report by Eunomia. Still, incineration remains profitable for facilities accepting waste that is shipped hundreds of miles from eastern and southern Europe.
Malcolm Williams, a director of the UK Zero Waste Alliance, is concerned that increased incineration capacity may lead Europe to miss what he deems are already modest waste-reduction targets for 2020. Even 90 percent recycling should be attainable, he contends. "It's just a myth that recycling is a difficult thing to do," said Williams. "So why on earth is anybody planning anything that is going to burn or bury more than 10 percent of the waste we're producing?"