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

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    When I was young we boosted our pocket money by collecting bottles and returning them to claim the refund. A common-sense, green approach. Shouldn't we go back to that?

    Never apologise for jumpers-for-goalposts recollections. The panoply of ethical living systems should always make room for simple, old school solutions. These also include water fountains and putting a jumper on in lieu of turning up the thermostat. All antidotes to overengineered sustainability solutions.

    For readers born after the 1980s, by which time bottle-return schemes in the UK were extinct, here's an explainer: the scheme adds a small charge to the price of a bottled drink. Return the bottle to a certified outlet and you get the charge back. It's essentially a deposit and it should pay dividends in eco terms. They are still common in countries including the USA, Australia and parts of Scandinavia where they've also come in handy for providing an incentive to take responsibility for other potential pests of the planet: batteries (in Sweden) and tyres (Maine, USA).

    As it became cheaper to make bottles and consumerism rose the impetus to collect and refill vanished. And we fell in love with single-use plastic containers. Then we found out there was a heavy ecological cost but seem to have been unable successfully to reverse our habits. For instance just 25% of plastic packaging was recycled in the UK during 2012, placing the UK in 25th position out of 29 EU Countries. Overall the UK still recycles 25% less waste than Denmark, and this year just scrapes into the top 10 league table of recyclers in Europe.

    We need to up our game if we want to move towards a "zero- waste" economy and hit our targets. A well-designed bottle bill, governing deposits on glass, aluminium and common forms of plastic could do wonders for our rubbish status!

    Inevitably there's corporate resistance from the drinks giants. Even where deposit refund schemes are common there is dissent. Recently in Australia's Northern Territories a deposit scheme was challenged by Coca-Cola Amatil and Schweppes.

    On these shores a new movement, the Deposit Alliance, an offshoot of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) offers new hope to deposit enthusiasts like you. Based on extensive research it recommends the UK puts a deposit of 15p on drinks containers under 500ml and 30p on containers over 500ml. This would generate return rates of around 90%. Furthermore a nationwide system of deposit-return schemes would create in the region of 4,000 jobs.

    As well as all the eco pluses of a well-modelled deposit scheme, there's also evidence that suggests that the establishment of a new (or even old) social habit like this becomes a sort of gateway to mass sustainable consumption. So, all compelling reasons to get this done. But the question remains, does anyone have the bottle to do it?

    Green crush: Wardrobe Angel

    Is there wardrobe voodoo? Every time a black bin liner of clothes is slung into a bin, you imagine Halifax-based Stephanie Roper feels it personally. If you're in the wardrobe doldrums she will re-style, re-imagine and re-sell you out of it. The Wardrobe Angel has skills developed after she lived out of one suitcase for a year on the heels of a career in fashion merchandising. "I want you to wear what suits you inside and out," Roper says, "and to love what's in your wardrobe."

    Greenspeak: Idling capacity [eye-dgleeng kapase'tee] noun

    This describes all those resources which aren't being fully utilised – including the spare seats in one-person car journeys and unused space in offices. Now imagine the eco and economic potential if you could access it!


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


    theguardian.com© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Turning India's urban waste management system into employment opportunities for those at the bottom of the ladder

    With global waste measured in millions of tonnes, it is easy to question whether recycling your water bottle or daily paper can really have an impact. In India, a recent survey by the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) showed that almost half of people in the 35–44 age bracket were unwilling to segregate their waste at all. Too much effort, a lack of space for multiple bins and a lack of trust in local authorities to handle recyclables were quoted as reasons for resistance.

    The sheer amount of plastic and other waste along Indian road sides would be enough to put most people off the mammoth task of urban waste management. But for the past two decades social entrepreneur and Ashoka fellow Ravi Agarwal has been working to change a system which has the potential of improving health and environment in the country where one sixth of the world's population lives.

    A country of 1.2 billion people, India produces more than 55m tonnes of solid waste annually. Consumption per capita is still lower than in many developed countries, but urban planners fear that the country's exceptional growth will flood the system. The latest official Census of India statistics in 2011 showed that Bangalore's district population alone rose a staggering 47% in just ten years, making it the second fastest growing city in India, after Delhi.

    At times, the figures do overwhelm him, Agarwal admits during a phone interview from his base in Delhi. "When we make 5% progress and realise the city has grown 20%, I get impatient", he said. His answer has been to build strategic partnerships with women's groups, schools and rag pickers associations.

    The latter group have traditionally been crucial to India's waste management. Recycling to this date is carried out largely by the informal sector, though the nature of the work has changed. "Waste has become incredibly complex", Agarwal explained. "It is no longer simply sorting glass from paper and tin cans. We now have multi-layered plastics and all kinds of new materials coming into packaging. These cannot be recycled without high tech recycling facilities."

    It is not just the volume of waste, but its hazardous contents which concern Agarwal and his team. Chemicals in products, lead in paints, pesticides in food and bio-medical waste have all contributed to the toxic mix that forms a constant threat to the land, air and water. On top of that, the demands of a rising middle class and illegal dumping from foreign countries mean that electronic waste is a growing problem.

    A study released last month by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) showed that as many as 8,500 mobile phones, 5,500 TVs and 3,000 personal computers are dismantled in Delhi every day for reuse of their component parts and materials. In the capital alone, it is estimated that over 150,000 workers are employed in official and unofficial e-recycling units.

    Acutely aware of the danger of disappearing income opportunities for the waste pickers, Agarwal turned the changing substance of waste into sustainable employment for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. He is currently working in two cities to help illegal waste pickers become authorised collectors.

    Once licensed, the workers pick up computers, fridges, TVs, mobile phones and separate the non-hazardous parts like the plastic cases, before delivering the remainders to recycling facilities. "The idea is to take the hazardous component of the waste away from them, without threatening their livelihood", explained Agarwal.

    In order to tackle the problems at large, Agarwal's organisation Toxics Link has successfully pushed for policy change and law reforms, banning the most toxic substances, including mercury, and restricting the use of many others. Agarwal believes that industry and government need to step up to the plate, but that consumers will hold the real power to demand change.

    Through innovative ways of communication, he aims to reach the next generation of environmental leaders. Educating the youth is a key part of the strategy, said Agarwal. "Once they are fully aware of the dangers to their own bodies and the environment, they won't accept the situation as it is."

    Danielle Batist is communications associate at Ashoka. Unilever and Ashoka Changemakers are looking for the next generation of young sustainability entrepreneurs. Do you have an innovative solution? Enter it today

    This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Become GSB member to get more stories like this direct to your inbox


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    Campaign to consign polluting carrier bag to the bin of history misses valuable point, say recyclers and packaging firms

    The greatest contribution that plastic bags have made to human society is their use as a toilet. In developing countries, the bags are commonly used as a repository for human faeces, where they end up hanging from trees. It is not pretty, and not particularly environmentally friendly, but it is better than the alternatives, of allowing detritus to make its way into drinking water supplies and thus spreading disease.

    Still plastic bags are found polluting waterways and ending up in the sea, where they are a menace to marine life. Earlier this year, a whale was found to have died of plastic pollution, its guts clogged up with our packaging castoffs. The problem is so great that there is now a floating pool of rubbish in the Pacific, greater in extent than any other detectable man-made impact on the environment.

    So when Nick Clegg, depute prime minister, announced a charge for plastic bags at the Liberal Democrat annual conference, there was cheering among delegates hungry for a new way to emphasise the party's commitment to the environment. The charge – if it comes about, and there are doubts as to how it will be implemented, and its efficacy as a result – should deter people from using the bags. And in the process, tackle a potent symbol of throw-away consumerism.

    But plastic bags are only a small part of the problem. They account for only 0.03% of marine litter, according to the industry organisation Incpen.

    The packaging that we all use, in day-to-day activities from buying food in supermarkets to our deliveries from online shopping centres, has a much greater – though less obvious – effect on pollution. A much greater percentage of non-biodegradable litter comes from food packaging such as the wrappers around food stuffs in supermarkets. Moves are afoot to cut that, supported by the retailers themselves, but there is still a long way to go.

    Charges for plastic bags have already been introduced in parts of the UK, including Wales and Northern Ireland, so we already have an indication of how the policy could work in practice. Anna Beggs, from Northern Ireland, where the charge is already in force, told the Guardian: "I try to remember to bring my own bags so that I don't have to pay. If most people do that it will cut down on the plastic bag blight, especially in the countryside." The charge is 5p, compared with 25p in Ireland.

    Charging for plastic bags demonstrably cuts down on their use. A Welsh Assembly official said: "Since we introduced our 5p carrier bag charge in October 2011, bag use in Wales has reduced by up to 96% in some retail sectors and over £4m worth of proceeds from the charge have been passed onto good causes, which include environmental charities such as Keep Wales Tidy, children's charities and cancer charities. Since the introduction of the charge, people in Wales have changed the way they shop. It has encouraged shoppers to stop unnecessarily accepting new bags every time they are at the till and checkouts in Wales are now full of people reusing their bags."

    The charge is not technically a tax but is paid into a fund that goes to good causes.

    Maggie Dunn, a Labour party activist, says that charging for the bags in England, as Clegg has suggested, is overdue. "I support this – it is unacceptable, how many bags we throw away. We need to think about the consequences – they are in the sea, they are harming nature." Her view is that people will accept the proposed charges, if they are introduced, but that they need to be higher to people from using the bags. She suggests 50p would be more effective.

    Despite its reputation as the epitome of extravagant waste, packaging such as plastic films and paper wrappings for food, also play their part in environmental pollution. Companies and retailers that routinely rely on packaging point out that when food is spoiled for lack of preservative wrappings, the environmental cost is much greater than the impact of bags. In India, for example, and other developing countries, the UN has calculated that the spoiling of edible foods means that as little as half of the quantity produced makes it to market in an edible condition. The lack of cold storage facilities and poor refrigeration accounts for some of that, but the waste is one of the biggest factors in making it hard for the world to feed itself – an increasing problem in the context of a global population estimated to top 10bn by 2050, and the need to increase food production by more than half to cater to that rapidly growing need, according to the UN.

    "People equate plastic with waste and that is understandable, but what people don't realise is that packaging has a job to do – ensuring that the product doesn't get overheated on the dock, or in the lorry, or to deliver the goods in a good condition," says Jane Bickerstaffe of Incpen.

    Take a case in point - cucumber growers, who need to preserve their fast deteriorating food as soon as it is picked. "A cucumber wrapped in plastic needs only about 1.5 grams of plastic in its wrapper, but that extends the life of the product from about three days to at least 15 days, and when you look at the effort and environmental impact of growing a cucumber, the water and the fertiliser and all the rest, you can see we are preserving resources."

    Bickerstaffe is alive to the impacts of plastic packaging, but she urges people to take a broader view than the rubbish that they fill their household bins with. "It is understandable that people do not think beyond their own experience. They take it for granted. But they don't realise that the vegetable wouldn't have got to the shop without plastic." Companies are also taking the lead in recycling plastics, reducing the amount of packaging they use – which also cuts their costs – and finding new materials that can be substituted for polymers. But Bickerstaffe admits: "I don't think we have the answers yet."

    Big retailers are also taking measures to cut their packaging use overall. Sainsbury's was the first major UK retailer to offer milk in bags, reducing packaging by 75%, with the bags easy to recyclable at stores. The retailer says it has also achieved an estimated 14% reduction in packaging for plastic milk bottles across the range after adopting a new shape and style. Other products are also in for reduction: last year, the company cut the diameter of the inner cardboard tube on every one of its own-brand toilet rolls by 12mm, and that meant the number of delivery lorries required were reduced by the equivalent of 140,000 kg of CO2.

    Being green is not quite as simple as cutting packaging, however. A further problem is that when companies seek to find alternatives to plastic, these are sometimes incompatible with current recycling techniques. Most local authorities in the UK cannot at present recycle plastic film, and when the new generation of biodegradable plastics are included in general plastic wastes, they can contaminate the waste and as a result render it unsuitable for current recycling technologies.

    One local authority told the Guardian: "It's a nightmare because people think they are doing the right thing but if they put these new materials into their recycling bins, we can't help them. We are geared to one sort of packaging, and it's hard to re-engineer our systems to deal with another."

    For volunteers on the cutting edge of plastic waste, the changes can't come soon enough. The Marine Conservation Society organises clean-ups around the UK's coast on a regular basis, relying on volunteers to give up their weekends to reduce the amount of litter that is both an eyesore and a severe threat to marine life. For those manning the beaches, the biggest eyesore is one that is created by well-meaning members of the public - those who use plastic bags as a toilet, not for themselves but for their pets. Dog mess carefully scooped into plastic bags and deposited, equally carefully, on the footpaths, in parks, on country trails, on beaches is now the biggest waste issue in the UK, according to the MCS.

    "People who clean up after their pets by shovelling the poo into plastic bags may think they are doing the right thing, but unless they then put the bags into a bin, they are doing worse than leaving it where it landed."

    The plastic bags are a blight, and they prevent the faeces from degrading or being washed away. So what may seem to be a public-spirited act is creating litter and environmental damage.

    Laura Foster, pollution programme manager at MCS, said: "Plastic is extremely resistant to biodegradation, and degrades into increasingly smaller particles – estimates for plastic degradation at sea range from hundreds to thousands of years.

    "Last year plastic was the number one litter item found on our beaches A survey done of Northern fulmars found that 95% had plastic in their stomachs. In relation to discarded dog poo bags – we encourage dog walkers to bag it and bin it."


    theguardian.com© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Bronwen Clune: The Climate Commission came back to life thanks to donations. Good. We need to see ourselves as individuals choosing to fight climate change, backed by the government or not



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    I'm suspicious that my carefully sorted recycling is actually incinerated. I'm completely opposed to incineration. How do I make sure?

    Never let it be said that I don't know how to enjoy myself. Two weeks ago I was at the nation's biggest exhibition dedicated to municipal waste. The hall was full of big kit and startling innovation, the sort of thing that makes the Great Exhibition look a bit lacklustre. I was surrounded by leviathan machinery for crushing, sorting or burning our discards, all attempting to entice local authorities and waste companies to buy in. But to which, recycling or incineration? The industry seemed split down the middle.

    It is annoying that the UK has a patchwork of systems – some refuse is commingled (ie thrown together in a box), some separated. The Campaign for Real Recycling (realrecycling.org.uk) says that separated streams are better – the recyclate is less likely to be contaminated, therefore offering material that can be sold worldwide.

    Your best bet is to follow that "Reduce, reuse and recycle" mantra (the one the Wombles taught us). And recycle as much as possible, very precisely. It's easy – the boxes are well labelled and it only takes minutes.

    Superficially our 2012 rubbish figures look good. Recycling surpassed our pastime of shovelling stinking rubbish into landfill – an unappealing aspect of our mining heritage – so that 43% was recycled, 34% landfilled and 21% incinerated. Achieving this required herculean effort on behalf of just about everyone, plus an escalator tax system which makes it uneconomic to landfill. Well done, everyone! Except that this is not quite good enough. Our rate of improvement dropped last year, leading to fears it could flatline.

    Meanwhile England's 23 incinerators (70 others are rumoured to be in the pipeline) are waiting to capitalise on any recycling apathy. And while we've become obsessed about the evils of landfills, the atmospheric equivalent, skyfill, gets little air time.

    I won't go into the much-disputed health impacts of incineration here. New-age incinerators have been billed as cleaner and greener, able to turn trash into energy and rebranded "energy from waste facilities" or "energy recovery units". But incineration could impede recycling, diverting rubbish to keep these expensive operations functioning.

    Recycling's best defence is to keep up the noise about recycling, to assert that after reduce or reuse this remains the smart, green way to go. Or we could devolve this task once again to the Wombles – they've been signed up for a new 26-part series.


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

    Green crush: water voles

    Water voles are more than just a reassuring riverbank presence – they're a biodiversity barometer. Their existence tells us that our wetland river habitats are in good health and that a decade of creating more wetland habitats in the UK is paying eco dividends. Unfortunately the latest news from the National UK Water Vole Database is not encouraging: maps from this summer indicate populations have taken a dunking, down by more than a fifth. We can do more: creating and maintaining large-scale good-quality habitat, reintroduction schemes, mink control (invasive mink have become an unexpected predator) and habitat management. Find a water vole recovery project (wildlifetrusts.org/species/water-vole) and reverse this creature's fortunes.

    Greenspeak: Planet hacking {plaa-n't hā-qyn'g} verb

    Term given to a small number of extreme and controversial geoengineering technologies aimed at reversing or delaying climate change impact. Includes injecting particles high into the atmosphere to disperse solar energy from the surface


    theguardian.com© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    The circular economy, recycling products after use, is cheap and environmentally friendly – but is it up to companies, consumers or the government to drive it forward?
    Sponsored feature

    A circular economy has long been a very good idea. Rather than using raw materials to make products that are then thrown away, a circular system recycles products after use back into the manufacturing process. Also known as "closed loop" or "cradle-to-cradle", it makes good business sense: procurement and sourcing is more secure and transparent, it's cheaper and also happens to be much more environmentally friendly. But if that's the case, why aren't more companies doing it? And what can be done to move the circular economy into the mainstream?

    This was the topic of a Guardian roundtable, held in association with Marks & Spencer. Adam Elman, global head of Plan A Delivery at Marks & Spencer, offered an effective introduction: "We need to find a way of using fewer resources and using resources better ... ultimately, it is about finding news ways of consumption. Whether you call it the 'circular economy', 'the sharing economy', 'collaborative consumption', we need that agenda to move forward at a different pace and at a different scale."

    Some organisations are already doing this well. Carpet manufacturer Desso has a scheme whereby it takes back any waste carpet from customers irrespective of whether it is a Desso product or not; this is then sent to a recycling plant in Holland, the yarn is retrieved and is eventually made back into Desso carpet. "We are saving and making money for everybody, and creating new employment," enthused Carole Monteregge, key accounts manager, Desso.

    Enlightened regulation

    Other stories in the room included National Grid's closed-loop recycling of aluminium conductors, M&S's Shwopping scheme for used clothes and Cisco's redeployment of London 2012 IT infrastructure to recipients including WWF. Individuals and organisations are also sharing each other's unused capacity, such as the rapid growth of spare-room holiday lets via Airbnb.co.uk. Benita Matofska, founder of The People Who Share, has calculated the potential worth of unused goods, property and empty spaces globally to be worth a potential £3.5tn, "and that is just what we've been able to source and document – the actual figure is likely to be much more".

    There are many barriers in the way, however, of a circular or shared economy. It requires a lot of joined-up thinking, cross-sector collaboration and enlightened government regulation – all of which are currently in short supply. "We need to see a complete reorganisation of production and consumption systems, and companies working much more cleverly together as a horizontal economy", argued Dax Lovegrove, head of business and industry relations, WWF UK. "We don't see many big players delving into that space ... there is possibly only one circular economy MBA in the UK, at Bradford University, [and] that's perhaps a good indicator of where we are at."

    The will and the desire is there said Stuart Bailey, group head of sustainability and climate change, National Grid, "but the whole problem is supply-chain logistics ... [for example] we have transition towers made of folded metal plate, and very few people in the UK can make folded plate that's 3.5 metres wide, and those that can can't use recycled steel in the process."

    There is also an education and skills gap. Anne Lise Kjaer, who has advised the EU and major industry on sustainability policy, including Marks & Spencer's Plan A, argued that the message has to start with school children. "If we don't go into schools and talk to them about this, they won't go home and talk to their parents and help to make it happen ... I was brought up in Denmark – we were the first to recycle in the whole world, and something we did every year was to plant trees ... that's the level we need to bring it down to."

    With the message failing to be conveyed within higher education too, this lack of knowledge carries on into the workforce. "We did a survey earlier in the year with the grocery sector," said Mark Barthel, special adviser and head of design, Wrap, "and the skills and knowledge levels around sustainability and the circular economy are atrociously low ... we've got a real challenge here, how do we build this skills and development agenda and how do we work collaboratively ... to really drive this?"

    There was a debate, however, as to where best to concentrate such efforts: on the consumer or on the business world. Chris Dow, chief executive of Closed Loop Recycling, believed that the consumer is "the magic bullet in all of this" – once persuaded by the worth of a circular economy, both economically and environmentally, consumer demand would be such to force the business world to change, said Dow.

    However, Neil Harris, senior manager, Cisco Systems, disagreed, saying, "I can't help but think that we just have to do it for the consumer ... it's our job to deal with the discontinuous change, the technical tough stuff behind the scenes. Explaining this to them doesn't seem to work." Barthel concurred, saying "any behavioural change takes at least a decade, no matter how trivial it is ... For some of the issues we are facing in resource security, can we afford to wait 10 years? No, we can't. So we need to figure a way of getting around the consumer."

    Jonathon Porritt, who has wrestled with these issues for years as the founder director of Forum for the Future, believed that business's inability to agree on this point is holding back the circular economy. "This is a big deal – whether the consumer is relevant to this story or not. It's something that is often raised ... we want the consumer to be involved because it would be so much better if they were. But all the operating experience tells us that in fact levels of involvement from consumers have been quite small historically."

    There is, however, a middle ground, suggested Mike Barry, director of Plan A, Marks & Spencer. "There are certain things that will just happen. A lot of retailers can swap all their coffee to fairtrade, their eggs to free-range, and to the consumer it's still just eggs and coffee ... But there are other areas that need a different buy-in." For example, he pointed out changing business models, which make shopping more sustainable by effectively "renting" clothes to customers and then recycling them at a later date, could be difficult for some people to get used to. "If you're an older customer … That seems a bit of a leap, and so there's certain aspects of the model where you have to get consumer buy-in."

    Economic motivation

    The motivation for both business and consumers, all agreed, is not necessarily environmental but economical. "What we need to factor into all of this is an understanding of why consumers do what they do and why they do it," said Pippa Goodman, commercial director, Future Foundation. "And fundamentally people do it for financial reasons, to save money. In terms of getting various corporations and systems in place to push this forward, that's the story that has got to be packaged."

    But there's also a third player with the power to make or break a circular economy: the government. "Without government intervention, the circular economy will never move at the speed [we want]," said Porritt. "Extended fiduciary responsibility is by far the most important thing that has happened inside European and global markets to drive better attitudes inside business. Targets set for emissions and only those targets have driven changes inside OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and other big sectors ... so we have to get governments back into clever, smart, future-oriented regulations. Without that, it won't really work."

    Landfill tax was upheld as an example of a positive regulation driving business toward the ethos of reduce, reuse and recycle. However, on the flip side are regulations driving the wrong behaviours. Dow mentioned a government subsidy that still exists to send recycling overseas, despite the carbon and economic costs of doing so. For National Grid, said Bailey, a major headache is caused by clay deposits removed during tunnelling being classified as waste (and the strict regulations that come with that) despite being a reusable material for the company. Mark Walker, general manager of car club company Zipcar UK, informed that a new sub-75g emissions limit for the London congestion charge means "we are no longer incentivised to buy fuel-efficient cars" due to a lack of suitable cars on the market.

    What is needed, concluded Walker, is "a pincer movement" of all the relevant parties – consumers, business and government – coming together. All three know that using fewer resources is better for them and for the planet. But it is only by collaboration that the goal of a circular economy can move from a concept to a reality. "M&S set itself a target of zero waste to landfill without really understanding how we were going to get there," said Barry. "I think these big goals drive a level of innovation that none of us can imagine ... sometimes that's how business works, you set the target and then you find the innovation".

    At the table

    Oliver Balch (Chair) Journalist

    Chris Dow Chief executive, Closed Loop Recycling

    Mike Barry Director of Plan A, Marks & Spencer

    Adam Elman Global head of Plan A Delivery, Marks & Spencer

    Dax Lovegrove Head of business and industry relations,WWF UK

    Neil Harris Senior manager, Cisco Systems

    Anne Lise Kjaer Founder, Kjaer Global

    Jonathon Porritt Founder director and trustee, Forum for the Future

    Pippa Goodman Commercial director, Future Foundation

    Benita Matofska Founder,The People Who Share

    Mark Barthel Special adviser and head of design, Wrap

    Stuart Bailey Group head of sustainability and climate change, National Grid

    Mark Walker General manager, Zipcar UK

    Carole Monteregge Key accounts manager,Desso

    Roundtable report commissioned and controlled by the Guardian. Discussion hosted to a brief agreed with Marks & Spencer. Funded by Marks & Spencer. Contact Chris Howells on 020 3353 4870 (chris.howells@theguardian.com). For information on roundtables visit: theguardian.com/sponsored-content


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    James Jarvis is one of 32 skilled volunteers steering unwanted goods towards the homes that need them

    It is around 4pm and a team of workers in a large warehouse behind a housing estate in Finsbury Park are just about to clock off. They have spent the day sorting and fixing a range of electrical items that have come through their doors: TVs, computers, DVD players.

    One of those ready to go home is 32-year-old James William Jarvis. He is based in the workshop as a volunteer once a week and has been turning up for the past year, collecting new items in the van.

    Jarvis is one of 32 volunteers on Islington's Bright Sparks project. Volunteers work alongside paid staff members, either in the workshop or as retail staff in the nearby shop.

    Bright Sparks repairs, refurbishes and sells on household electrical items and furniture. On average it collects 7.5 tons a month, around 680 items. They either take in things that people don't want any more or offer a repair service for those looking to get small items mended at little cost. Each month they receive on average of 17 items for repair and 158 donations.

    After Jarvis left prison he found it hard to get a job, but he moved to north London to turn his life around. Regular volunteering on site has given him valuable skills.

    "I have reading and writing problems and I have learned how to do testing on computers. Every little helps somewhere along the line," he says. "When I walk through the door here I know straight away what I have to do."

    The Bright Sparks initiative started in 2010 with small scale domestic appliances like dryers; now it deals in larger items such as washing machines. It was initially completely funded by the council who contribute less as the income generated increases. The grant from the council for 2013-14 is £110,000 with an expectation of the project becoming financially self-sufficient within two to three years.

    The project manager and founder Diye Wariebi says that volunteers get a lot back. "They get retail and customer service experience, as well as cash handling and basic administration skills," he says. At the end of 2012-13 just under 10% of the project's 18 volunteers were in full-time employment or further education.

    Jarvis had been out of work for 10 years before Bright Sparks and now he hopes to one day get a permanent contract with the company.

    Bright Sparks started as part of Digibridge, a social enterprise set up to help improve people's lives through IT support.

    The council have been involved in spreading the word about the work of Bright Sparks though leafleting and social media. Wariebi says that there are also a lot of people telling friends and family that it is a good place to go to get a bargain.

    Their latest paid recruit previously worked as a volunteer for them. Siobhan Obliana, a full-time mother of five, began volunteering in December.

    "I had been looking for a job for some time. It was a struggle and quite depressing," she says.

    Obliana says that she has gained in confidence since working at Bright Sparks and that the opportunities she has had are better than at other places she has worked where volunteering just meant making cups of tea.

    "I got a new kind of respect for myself knowing I was more than just a mum and I could say I have been at work all day. This job gives me a chance to meet adults and not just answer the demands of my children," she says.

    Wariebi has met with some challenges setting up the shop, including the level of regulation around reuse. "You need loads of environment agency licenses, it is not too onerous but you have to do it. When we first started we didn't realise this as the project was evolving and expanding into more things and was no longer just a small organisation doing one thing. There were lots of things to take into consideration."

    Another important factor is finance. "You need investment too because some of our activities are not profitable. We repair a kettle that is normally not worth our while to repair, but it is great training to show someone how to do that," he says.

    However, he is ambitious for the project to expand and add value to what they are doing. "There are loads of opportunities. We would like to open up another shop in another part of the borough so people over there don't have to travel as far. We need to take it one step at a time."

    • Do you have a story to share for #ourday? On 17 October the Local Government Association will hold a one day Tweetathon to celebrate the work of councils. Email sarah.marsh@theguardian.com

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  • 10/11/13--04:44: India's e-waste burden
  • The country's IT prowess attracts global business, but it also generates huge amounts of electronic waste often scavenged by children in dangerous conditions

    The Indian city of Bangalore produces some 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, according to a report by Assocham, the Association of Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India. This figure is rising at a rate of 20% per year and the report's authors forecast the amount of computer waste across the country could increase by nearly 500% by 2020.

    With a population of 8 million people, Bangalore has emerged as a global telecommuncations and technology hub shouldering 40% of India's IT industry. Since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, major international firms such as Infosys, Intel and Microsoft have opened bases there along with nearly 3,000 software firms, 35 hardware manufacturers and hundreds of other small scale businesses – turning this once lush farmland into India's Silicon Valley.

    More than 500 Bangalore-based companies generate an annual revenue of over $17bn (£10.5bn) – a healthy portion of India's $85bn total tech-based export that started life as outsourcing and backoffice centres. Have you ever phoned your mobile phone company and been put through someone in India? They may well have been in Bangalore.

    The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) set up a formal recycling system for e-waste to deal with Bangalore's growing tech dump. But awareness of the e-waste management and handling rules is poor.

    Up to 90% of this waste is still handled through the informal sector– by firms who employ low-paid workers to process and incinerate e-waste. The people who do this are unaware of safety measures needed for the work. They release lead, mercury and other toxins into the air and use acids to extract precious metals from hardware. What can't be got out is unceremoniously dumped – letting pollutants seep into groundwater.

    Hal Watts, a designer who trained at the Royal College of Art's sustainability wing, SustainRCA, has devised a bicycle-powered machine that separates valuable copper from electronics. Copper is used in all circuit boards and within most wires. Its ubiquity is what makes it a valuable commodity for people who scavenge through piles of e-waste and sell the copper on.

    "All recycling technologies have been designed with large western recycling plants in mind," says Watts. "There is almost no equipment that is affordable enough for the informal recycling sector because no single recycler deals with enough waste to afford these large machines.

    "The informal recycler breaks up waste, sells the copper to one guy, the plastic to another, the circuit boards to another etc. These guys amass their material and sell it to an exporter who then flogs it to a recycling plant often located in a developed country."

    Countries such as Singapore, Belgium and Japan have smelting units that extract precious metals the human eye can't see.

    Further up the recycling chain are startups like Karma Recycling. Based in New Delhi with a nationwide expansion plan to open a hub in Bangalore, Karma targets end users and consumers.

    Most Indians have access to basic technologies like mobile telephones, televisions and radios. A rapidly expanding middle class also has access to personal computers and other comforts. If you can't sell your old gadget on to someone else, Karma provides a system where you can get an online quote for it. They buy it from you, refurbish or dismantle it and then sell those components on. They also have logistics solutions to handle larger hauls of rejected or broken electronics.

    "Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world," says Akshat Ghiya, Karma Recycling's co-founder. "If it's not recycled scientifically, it leads to a waste of diminishing natural resources, causes irreparable damage to the environment and to the health of the people working in the industry.

    "Companies design new and improved gadgets every day, flooding the markets month after month, year after year. What happens with these devices when we're done with them? It is time for us as a society to realise that what has gone around (and has been used), must come around (and be reused)."

    There is legislation that governs the disposal of used and defunct electronics, requring e-waste to be collected, transported and safely disposed. Sale of some electronic scrap to un-authorised or unlicensed dealers and vendors, large or small-scale, is illegal. But that doesn't stop the murkier side of the industry from operating.

    The informal recycling industry often employs children to dismantle electronic waste. Assocham's report strongly advocates legislation to prevent a child's entry into this labour market. The report also reveals that less than 5% of India's e-waste is recycled.

    Consumerism works much the same around the world – something new and shiny comes out and those that can afford it try to get it.

    "Objects are not currently designed to be recycled," says Watts. "A change in design practices won't occur without stricter legislation or until materials become so expensive that there is real interest from companies to design with recycling in mind."

    When it comes to the reduction of e-waste, the onus is on both the consumer and the producer. In Bangalore, and elsewhere, individuals and companies have to see the fiscal benefits in upgrading without disposing what they had before. The secret life of machines is one where they are always reincarnated.

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    Apple’s recycling programme for old iPhones gives £175 discount off a new one - but alternative trade-in schemes offer more. By Samuel Gibbs



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    Fly-tipping in England has declined by 44 percent since 2007/8 with London 2012 borough Newham having the largest number of incidents in the country

    • See how bad fly-tipping is in your area with our interactive map.
    Get the data

    Fly-tipping is often a rallying point for those who want to stop their local area becoming rubbish. Despite the annoyance that it causes residents it seems that the practice is actually becoming less common.

    Figures released for 2012/2013 by Defra show that the number of incidents of fly-tipping fell by 4% on the previous year to 711,000, which marks five straight years of drops since 2007/8 when the number of incidents stood at 1.3m.

    However, 4% also marks the slowest rate of decline in the those five years. It compares to an 18% drop between 2008/09 and 2009/10 when the decline really began to gather pace.

    The 711,000 incidents cost local authorities an estimated £36.4m to clear up, which is 3% less than last year's load.

    How does fly-tipping break down?

    The vast bulk of fly-tipping is actually household waste with people's general rubbish accounting for 67% of all incidents. Just under a third of household waste that is fly-tipped is contained in black bags.

    The 479,000 incidents of household waste being fly-tipped equate to one for every 46 households in England.

    Other than household waste what gets left outside designated areas is a mixed bag. The second biggest source is construction, demolition and excavation material, which accounts for 6% of all fly-tipping incidents.

    Slightly grimmer inclusions were the 7,500 animal carcasses that were dumped and 4,200 incidents involving asbestos.

    Number of prosecutions down

    The drop in total incidents has coincided with a bigger fall in the amount of action taken against fly-tippers. Local authorities took out 425,000 enforcement actions against fly-tippers in 2012/13, which was 13% less than 2011/2012's number.

    These enforcement actions cost £15.2m to local authorities in total, compared to £17.7m in the previous year. Local authorities decided to prosecute 2,200 fly-tippers in 2012/2013 with 99% of these cases ending in conviction.

    In terms of how much local authorities were having to clear, 45% of fly-tipping incidents involved a small van-load or less while 11% of dumps would have filled a tipper lorry.

    London: rubbish on the streets

    Newham is the local authority area with the most incidents of fly-tipping in England. In 2012/13 there were 28,400 incidents in the east London borough that contains much of 2012's Olympic village.

    Newham also comes out on top when the figures are adjusted by population. There were 92.35 incidents for every thousand residents in Nehwam.

    If you apply this measure to all local authorities in England, fly-tipping appears to be a much worse problem in London than it is for the rest of the country.

    The median number of incidents per 1000 people for the whole of England is 6.33. In contrast, the map above shows that eight areas in London have 42 or more incidents.

    The place with the highest number of incidents for its population size outside of London is the seaside resort town of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk.

    We have put together an interactive map of the number of incidents in every English local authority to show how the capital compares with the rest of the country.

    Get the numbers and get involved

    • Download the full spreadsheet
    • Contact us at data@theguardian.com
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    We have taken the fly-tipping statistics for 2012/2013 and mapped the number of incidents per thousand residents in every English local authority area



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    Our pursuit of constant growth can never be sustainable. Instead, we must deconstruct our consumer society to consume less and value more

    Tuesday 20 August 2013 was Earth Overshoot Day, the day every year when humanity exceeds the yearly ecological limits of the planet, and starts to consume and pollute more than the Earth can endure.

    Back in 1972, The Limits to Growth had warned that we would soon exceed the 'carrying capacity' of the planet, and by the mid-1980s the authors were proved right. Since that time, industrial civilization has been bankrupting future generations not just financially, but by stealing an unfair proportion of their resources.

    Unless dramatic changes are made, within 20 years the global supply of oil, fresh water, food and many minerals will cease to meet demand. Yet even against this backdrop, I believe that we should cease our dangerous obsession with 'sustainability'.

    Life is a physically consumptive process. It is therefore impossible to live sustainably, as by pursuing our continued existence we inevitably deny at least some resources to those to come. Granted, we can choose to go about our business more sustainably, and this is a laudable goal. But every time the dreaded 's' word is thrown into a policy or strategy, it helps to spread the propaganda that there is a means of continuing to live as we do now, but in a sustainable fashion.

    Recycling and renewables: a false sense of reality?

    Let's take two practical examples. Firstly, there is the idea that we can seek sustainability by recycling. Certainly putting things into reuse rather than landfill is a good idea. But sadly no technology exists that can efficiently turn discarded products into pristine raw materials.

    All current recycling is at best downcycling, as high-quality metals and plastics are reclaimed in low-quality guises with a limited range of applications. We therefore need to seriously promote the solution of consuming far fewer things, rather than continuing to propagate the growing belief that mass consumerism can continue unabated providing that everything we throw away is magically recycled.

    Just as recycling does not provide a sustainable means of consuming physical resources, there is also no renewable energy source to which we can transition. In fact, there is no such thing as renewable energy at all. All means of power generation consume non-replenishable resources. Wind turbines, for example, require towers, generators and sails to be constructed, while photovoltaic solar cells do not materialise out of thin air. All forms of alternative power generation also have a limited working life, as well as a relatively low net energy yield.

    Back in the 1930s, the sweetest forms of petroleum gushed so freely from the ground that their energy return on investment (EROI) was roughly 100:1. This means that 100 units of energy were produced for each unit of resource consumed. Yet today petroleum extraction is usually a far more intensive process, and typically results in an EROI of between 40:1 and 20:1. The EROI for natural gas, and for unconventional oil obtained from shale or tar sands, is then well below 10:1. EROI values for wind power typically max out at 18:1, often far less, while photovoltaic solar has an EROI below 10:1, as do wave power and biofuels.

    Due to falling EROI values, the cost of energy will keep increasing, while energy supply will continue to fall. There is simply no known energy source that can deliver anything like the EROI and hence the cheap and abundant energy that we have become addicted to. This is also hardly a surprise. Today we burn around one million years of stored photosynthesis annually, and yet hope to sustainably transition to a form of energy (such as wind or solar) that has to deliver its output in real-time. There really is only one option on the medium-term horizon, and that is for us all to use far less energy.

    Fashionable but not feasible?

    Sadly right now, sustainability has become a trendy obsession. Perhaps the only thing that most politicians, economists and many business leaders crave even more foolishly is constant economic growth. In plain survival terms, the latter is as ludicrous a proposition as the former. It is therefore not surprising that spin-doctors and marketeers have conflated the two concepts into the preposterous notion of "sustainable economic growth".

    No natural system – from an amoeba to a civilisation – has ever managed to fight entropy and to sustain itself forever, let alone to grow indefinitely without hastening its inevitable demise. Indeed, in the biological world, constant growth is more normally a sign of obesity or cancer, rather than a healthy state of affairs.

    Rather than striving toward sustainability, we would should start focusing on how we can least painfully deconstruct our consumer society and transition to a world in which we consume things less and value things more. To see how this may be achieved, we also only have to look back to the first half of last century.

    Lessons from history

    Only a few generations ago it was normal to purchase products intended to last a lifetime, and which were frequently repaired. In bizarre contrast, today it is not uncommon for people to still be paying for things that they have long since been discarded. The obsession with with mass disposability must be broken, and an age in which product repair is a common and natural activity must return. There are signs that this is starting to happen with an increasing number of people are joining 'hackerspaces' or 'fab labs', and in the process becoming part of the growing Maker Movement that seeks to fabricate and repair its own stuff. Even some corporates are getting in on the act. In October 2011, Apple made a patent application that included a variety of new designs for portable devices that would be easier to repair.

    Another positive and possible strategy is localisation. For decades most economists have preached the benefits of globalisation, while ignoring its horrific impact on the environment and future generations. I am not suggesting that all forms of global trade should cease but we cannot go on wasting one seventh of the planet's resources on transportation.

    We could purchase as much but consume far fewer resources by sourcing many basic goods – including food and clothing – on a far more local basis. Most economists may tell you that this is a lie. But should we really continue to trust those who still preach the benefits of the consumer society and the need for constant economic growth?

    We live on a small planet whose resource envelope we have already significantly exceeded. Any suggestion it is possible to sustainably continue to live as we do today has to be a dangerous proposition. Even if we could tap the resources of the stars we could never build a world that is sustainable. Labelling our endeavours as such, and poisoning our minds with the folly of the sustainability concept, is a pursuit that we ought to seriously question.

    Christopher Barnatt is an associate professor in Nottingham University Business School, and the author of nine books, including Seven Ways to Fix the World. He runs the website ExplainingTheFuture.com

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    This witty film about our throwaway society – made by pupils at a school in Spain – won this year's audience award in the European Commission's Energy Bits challenge



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    Country impounds huge shipment and claims British companies are using it as dumping ground for toxic old appliances

    One of the UK's largest recycling companies has imported thousands of banned second-hand fridges into Ghana, according to the west African country's energy regulator.

    Thousands of fridges discarded by British households have been shipped to Ghana by Environcom, which describes itself as the UK's largest electrical re-use and recycling company, flouting rules designed to protect the country's environment against harmful chemicals, according to the Ghanaian authorities.

    "Environcom have sent a shipment of about 37 containers – almost 4,000 second-hand fridges – to Ghana," said Victor Owusu, public affairs spokesman for Ghana's energy commission.

    Environcom has links to British retailers Dixons and Argos, which supply used appliances to the company for recycling. It admitted exporting the fridges to Ghana but said it did so before the ban came into place.

    "Environcom stopped exporting fridges to Ghana some months ago in line with the introduction of the ban, however some containers that left us on time got delayed in transit and arrived in Ghana late and containers that were received prior to the ban were also impounded," said a company spokesperson.

    The Guardian has seen documents which show the fridges were shipped from Britain to Ghana in August this year, almost two months after the ban came into force. Environcom says it sells second-hand fridges to third parties to ship to Ghana, and that it could not be held responsible for delays during the process.

    The Guardian has seen an email exchange between Environcom and the Ghanaian authorities in which the company threatened to withdraw plans to invest in a recycling plant in the country if it was not allowed to import parts from second-hand fridges.

    "Environcom have been working on a multimillion GBP investment in Ghana … Your latest feedback has led us to question whether we withdraw from this project and look at alternative markets within west Africa," wrote Graeme Parkin from Environcom, in an email dated 21 June.

    Environcom says it had been seeking to clarify the law in Ghana and was now working on a new agreement to invest in recycling facilities in the country.

    There is increasing criticism of the practice of sending second-hand electrical goods to African countries, where many end up in toxic rubbish dumps scavenged by children and poisoning local environments.

    A study by Greenpeace found that as much as 75% of "second-hand goods" imported to Africa could not be reused, and that in Ghana, goods that had been dumped were releasing hazardous substances into the environment, including toxic metal lead; chemicals such as the phthalates DEHP and DBP, which are known to interfere with sexual reproduction; and chlorinated dioxins known to promote cancer.

    Second-hand fridges have been banned in Ghana since 1 January, after officials became increasingly concerned about the number of old electrical products no longer wanted by British households which were ending up in the country.

    Ghana is the first country in the region to introduce a ban on old fridges, and officials hope it will reduce the quantities of toxic and ozone-unfriendly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and reduce the energy burden on its already squeezed national grid, where old fridges suck up more than half of the national energy output of 2,000 megawatts a year.

    Ghanaian officials say numerous British companies are still importing second-hand fridges to Ghana in violation of the ban. "Since the ban came into force, we have made about 177 seizures of second-hand fridges," said Owusu. "Most of those have come from the UK – over 90% of the imports are coming from there. They know about the regulations, but they are errant companies that want to defy the law."

    Environcom said discussions with the Ghanaian authorities about its impounded fridges were continuing. But Ghanaian officials said the shipment would be destroyed, and accused Britain of being the main exporter of unlawful second-hand electrical goods to the country.

    "We are also determined that this ban of second-hand fridges into Ghana becomes a success story," said Owusu. "Now that energy is becoming so critical, who would allow their country to become a dumping ground for used refrigerators from the rest of the world?"

    Environcom has come under the spotlight for sending second-hand electrical goods to Africa in the past.

    Earlier this year company director Sean Feeney, a former senior Dixons executive, admitted Environcom had exported old-fashioned cathode-ray tube TVs to Africa when they became "hazardous" products, which could not be safely disposed of.

    "In the past unscrupulous companies have used west Africa as a dumping ground," the Environcom spokesperson said. "In fact, when the new management came on board, Environcom stopped exporting refurbished TVs to Africa for many years because of the difficulties in controlling the end results and the impact on the local environment."

    But as shipments of second-hand British fridges continue to arrive at its ports, Ghana said it would be making a complaint to the British government.

    "We are going to file a complaint to the EU, and to the British high commission," Owusu said.

    "I know that in the UK itself this kind of thing would not happen. I think they think it's Africa, so they can get away with it."


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    Berkshire town's phosphorus-rich excreta is converted by nutrient recovery reactor into pellets for farm and garden use

    Just a few yards from the choked M4 motorway, beyond the massive settling tanks and a steaming, 500-tonne mountain of black sewage sludge at Slough treatment works, a modern alchemy is taking place that could potentially keep the world in food for a few more years.

    The plant is taking the tiny quantities of phosphorus contained in the poo of the Berkshire town's 140,000 people and turning it into high-quality fertiliser fit to grow organic garden vegetables.

    At one end of the novel process in Europe's first "nutrient recovery reactor", the human waste is dark and "earthy" smelling. At the other end, bright white, odourless phosphorus-rich pellets drop into sacks. The sewage workers euphemistically say they are "harvesting pearls". Thames Water, which owns the facility, says it is making "Viagra for plants".

    According to the water company, Slough's excreta has a "unique vintage", and contains more phosphorus than any other area in south-east England, possibly because of the quantity of meat eaten in the town or because it boasts several large food processing and pharmacueutical works. The company expects to make £200,000 a year from the combination of selling 150 tonnes of its fertiliser to farmers and gardeners, and not having to spend as much money on chemicals to unblock pipes.

    "We reckon using this technology Britain could save 20% of the 138,000 tonnes of phosphorus fertiliser that it imports a year," says Piers Clark, Thames Water's commercial director. "Phosphorus is a fast-depleting, non-renewable resource which we will run out of. Without it, all life on the planet will take a nosedive."

    It is the key ingredient in fertiliser and essential for farming, says Peter Melchett, policy director of organic trade body the Soil Association. "Without fertilisation from phosphorus, wheat yields will fall by more than half. This technology could offer a solution to securing global food supplies over the coming decades."

    "Night soil", or raw human excrement, was traditionally valued highly and spread over fields but because it contains dangerous pathogens and contaminants it is now banned. Instead, treated sewage sludge that still contains some heavy metals is given free to some farmers to use sparingly. The advantage of Slough's renewable phosphorus fertliser, says Clark, is that it is clean of contamination and quantities can be tailored for different crops.

    Mineable reserves of phosphorus in countries like Morocco, the US and China are set to be completely depleted in 100 years according to some experts while others say "peak phosphorus" will occur by 2035, after which it is expected to become increasingly scarce and expensive. Its price has risen 500% since 2007.

    "The UK is heavily reliant on phosphate rock imports for food production. It can be a pollutant when its concentrations are too high because it leads to the explosive growth of algae which saps oxygen. Using it this way we can see it as valuable reseouce again", said Rosanna Kleeman, a researcher studying Slough's sewage.

    "Slough has taken some stick over the years from the likes of Sir John Betjeman and Ricky Gervais, who immortalised its trading estate in The Office. But we are rebranding it as an eco-warrior [town] at the forefront of the effort to save the planet," said Clark.

    A case, says one Thames worker, for Betjeman's famous line to be amended from "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!", to "Come, friendly bums..."


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    The world's biggest aluminum recycler hopes to raise US recycling rates, which lag behind the global average

    Recycling aluminum is a no-brainer – or, at least, it should be.

    Producing aluminum beverage cans out of recycled scrap, instead of by mining bauxite and manufacturing new ingots, saves energy, carbon emissions and money. The same is true for the aluminum that goes into cars, planes, electronics and buildings.

    If businesses and consumers want to get serious about creating a circular economy – where everything, once used, is made into something else and nothing goes to waste – aluminum is a very good place to start.

    Yet the recycling rate for aluminum cans in the US is a mere 55%. That's below the global average of about 70% and well below rates of better than 90% than Scandinavian countries can boast – or Brazil's 98% recycling rate.

    The low US rate represents an enormous waste of materials and energy – and a big opportunity. Atlanta-based Novelis is aggressively seizing that opportunity.

    The $9.8bn firm converts aluminum into flat sheets, most of which is then turned into beverage and food cans. Novelis is already the world's biggest aluminum recycler, and it aims to do more. Its chief executive, Phil Martens, says the company wants to turn its "whole business model from a traditional linear one to a closed-loop one".

    To that end, Novelis this year introduced a breakthrough product called the evercan, an aluminum sheet for beverage cans that's guaranteed to contain at least 90% recycled content.

    To learn more, I met with John Gardner, Novelis's chief sustainability officer, who explained to me why Novelis is well positioned to demonstrate, with aluminum, how a circular economy could work.

    Novelis was created in 2005 when a Canadian firm then called Alcan, an integrated mining and production company, spun off its downstream operations. (In case you're wondering, as I did, Novelis is a made up word that incorporates the ideas of innovation (novel), speed (velocity) and quality (precision). The company is wholly owned by the Aditya Birla Group, a $40bn conglomerate based in Mumbai.

    Because Novelis owns no mines – unlike, say, aluminum giant Alcoa – it's free to pursue a strategy driven by recycling. Gardner says:

    "Recycling aluminm is a fantastic thing because you can make exactly the same product again and again. Economically, it makes sense. Environmentally, it makes sense. In terms of resource use, it makes sense." What's more, the capital costs of building a recycling plant are a fraction of the cost of building a primary smelter.

    Historically, Novelis's global business had been fed by about one-third recycled content and two-thirds new aluminum. It's up to approximately 43% recycled aluminum this year after setting an audacious goal, two years ago, to reach 80% recycled content by 2020.

    The company is investing roughly $500m to nearly double its recycling capacity. In its 2013 fiscal year, which ended in March, Novelis began operations at a new facility in South Korea, which is the largest fully integrated beverage can recycling system in Asia. It also broke ground in Germany for what will be the world's largest aluminum recycling facility and opened the first can-recycling center in Vietnam.

    So the seriousness of its commitment is evident. Novelis is pursuing its sustainability strategy "with a great deal more vigor, purpose and creativity than any of its competitors," says Jonathan Porritt, the director of the UK-based nonprofit Forum for the Future, who serves on the company's sustainability advisory council. Says Porritt: "Being 'a little less wasteful' and 'a little more efficient' doesn't hack it; one step-change after another is what's required."

    The problem is, Novelis needs help – and lots of it. In the US, for example, the subpar recycling rates mean that demand for recycled aluminum content exceeds the supply. To fill the gap, used cans are shipped from Mexico to the US. That can't be smart.

    Only approximately half of the homes in US have access to curbside recycling, and many people with curbside pickup still toss everything into the trash. To capture more scrap, local governments will need to build more recycling infrastructure and consumers will need to change their behavior.

    And it's unclear, at this point, who will buy the evercan. Novelis expect to bring the product to market next year, Gardner told me, but neither Coca-Cola nor PepsiCo – the two most obvious buyers – have signed up. In fact, Novelis hasn't announced any customers for the project.

    Coke has put its resources behind the Plant Bottle, a PET plastic beverage bottle made partly from plants, while PepsiCo has lightweighted its bottles and promoted recycling. Neither company agreed to an on-the-record interview about evercan.

    It may be that Novelis' first customer will be one of the craft beer companies that has made sustainability commitments.

    "We've started a dialogue with the brands," is all Gardner would say. "We'll have some [evercans] on the shelves early next year in Europe and the US."

    Give the fact that the economic imperative and the environmental needs align so nicely around aluminum, closing the loop shouldn't be all that hard. Then again, Gardner has already seen a great deal of progress since he joined the company 27 years ago. When he built the firm's first recycling plant in Warrington, England, in 1990, the recycling rate in Europe was only around 2%.


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    Government, council and retailer-backed report says ban on landfill could save UK £17bn and heat 600,000 homes

    Food producers, retailers, restaurants and consumers are being urged to join forces to secure a ban on all food waste going into landfill by 2020, in a bold national campaign.

    Compulsory collections of food waste from all homes and businesses by local councils are among a series of measures recommended in a new report to enable food waste to be harnessed as a valuable resource to provide energy, heat and benefits for agriculture.

    The ambition is to save the UK economy over £17bn a year through the reduction of food wasted by households, businesses and the public sector, preventing 27m tonnes of greenhouse gases a year from entering into the atmosphere.

    The new study, Vision 2020: UK Roadmap to Zero Food Waste to Landfill is the culmination of more than two years' work and has the backing and input of local authority and industry experts. It sets the framework for a food waste-free UK by 2020.

    Last week official figures revealed the average UK family was wasting nearly £60 a month by throwing away almost an entire meal a day. A report from the government's waste advisory group Wrap showed Britons were chucking out the equivalent of 24 meals a month, adding up to 4.2m tonnes of food and drink every year that could have been consumed. Almost half of this is going straight from fridges or cupboards into the bin, Wrap found. One-fifth of what households buy ends up as waste, and around 60% of that could have been eaten.

    At the same time the UK's largest retailer, Tesco, recently agreed to reduce its multi-buy items and other promotions after revealing that 35% of its bagged salad was being thrown out. It also found that 40% of apples were wasted, and just under half of bakery items.

    The report highlights where and why food waste is happening at each stage of the UK supply chain; what actions are being taken to tackle food waste in each sector and what more can be done in the future to drive the positive environmental, economic and social outcomes.

    The campaign is led by food waste recycling company ReFood – in collaboration with BioRegional, a sustainable business charity – as part of the Vision 2020 campaign supported by national and local government as well as industry. The Vision 2020 panel is headed by Lord Deben, the Conservative former environment secretary John Gummer.

    Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, said: "Our message is clear; food waste is a valuable resource that should never end up in landfill sites. Everyone from the food producer, through to the retailer, the restaurant and the householder can play their part in ensuring that we take full advantage of its considerable potential by ensuring we re-use, recycle and recover every nutrient and kilowatt of energy it has to offer."

    The report calls for better collaboration at every stage of the supply chain to accelerate the adoption of best practice, improve waste prevention and maximise the value of food waste as a resource. A clear timetable for the phased introduction of a ban on food waste to landfill to come into force by 2020 would allow the industry the time to finance and develop an optimum collection and processing infrastructure, it says.

    Compulsory food collections by local authorities are key to the new campaign – currently only 40% of councils have separate food waste collections, while Birmingham – the UK's largest authority – still relies on black bag collections of mixed waste. The Local Government Authority, which was involved in the report, says if "food contamination" of recycling was halved by 2020, it would save £1bn. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now consulting on banning food into landfill, but not England.

    Re-using food waste through processes such as anaerobic digestion could return over 1.3m tonnes a year of valuable nutrients to the soil, the report says, or generate over 1 terrawatt-hour (Twh) electricity a year, enough to power over 600,000 homes.

    Sue Riddlestone, chief executive and co-founder of BioRegional said: "Achieving zero food waste to landfill within the next seven years is a big challenge and we will need the support and actions of individuals, businesses and the government if this vision is to be realised. However, the case for change is compelling. We will save billions of pounds. We will prevent millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering our atmosphere. And crucially, we will ensure that food is treated as a precious resource."


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    Egyptian Christian minority with tradition of turning a profit from recycling given official role in city's waste processing

    Suzie Greiss said: "I mean just look, you can hardly walk on the streets, there's rubbish everywhere. It's disgusting!" She lives in Heliopolis, a well-heeled suburb of Cairo. The capital's streets have grown filthy over the past few years and Greiss, who heads Egypt's Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), has had enough.

    In 2012 former president Mohamed Morsi had made the state of the streets an electoral issue, claiming that he would clean them up in 100 days. He failed. "There's only one solution," said Greiss, "and that is to bring the Zabaleen back to the core of the waste collection and disposal process."

    The Zabaleen are a Christian community who migrated from Upper Egypt to the outskirts of Cairo in the 1940s. Extremely poor, they earned a living as the city's ragpickers before turning to recycling in the early 1980s. With the help of NGOs, including APE, they have facilities for recycling plastic, paper and metal; they feed organic waste to the pigs they keep in their backyards. Animal excrement is sent to a compost plant in a Cairo suburb where it is processed and sold to farmers.

    The Zabaleen currently collect some 9,000 tonnes of garbage per day, nearly two-thirds of the 15,000 tonnes of rubbish thrown away by Cairo's 17 million or so inhabitants, and yet they have never been officially recognised by the Egyptian government.

    "It's an aberration. Over the years the Zabaleen have created an efficient ecosystem that is both viable and profitable, with a recycling capacity of almost 100%. It provides work for women and young people who are the first to suffer from Egypt's unemployment. We need to use this local organisation," said Leila Iskandar, who became minister of the environment after the fall of Morsi in July. She has worked for years with organisations in the working-class neighbourhood of Manchiet Nasser, where about 65,000 Zabaleen live.

    Iskandar has reversed the policy of previous governments, which tried to marginalise the work of this Christian, mainly Coptic, minority. In 2003, Hosni Mubarak's economically liberalising regime asked multinational corporations to handle waste disposal. "That model is not suited to Cairo, where residents are used to dustbins being emptied on each individual floor of a building. People couldn't get used to taking down their garbage and putting it into special skips, which were later raided by thieves," said Greiss. "As a result most people continued to pay the Zabaleen to come up and get their garbage unofficially, and then complained because they also had to pay for the foreign service company."

    The most disastrous decision was the mass cull of pigs in the spring of 2009 to prevent swine flu. "The WHO kept telling the government that the pigs had nothing to do with the epidemic but the government made its decision in 24 hours and 300,000 pigs were slaughtered. It was ridiculous," said Greiss. The loss to the Zabaleen was considerable.

    "Every family had at least a dozen animals and could get about $1,400 for the sale of a pig. That gave them some emergency money when they needed it. The rag collector's income fell by half," said Ezzat Naem, head of the Zabaleen union. "Thanks to that decision the Egyptian government deliberately destroyed an ecological system because once the pigs were dead it was no longer possible to recycle organic waste," added Iskandar. Consequently, food lay rotting in the streets.

    Now the Egyptian government is aiming to give official status to the Zabaleen's role in Cairo's waste processing. Under the joint management of the ministry of the environment and the Zabaleen union, 44 local waste disposal companies, using a labour force of 1,000 families, have been officially registered. They will take over waste disposal responsibilities in the south of the city from a subsidiary of Arab Constructors, an Egyptian company.

    The environment ministry is also launching a public awareness campaign to get people to sort organic and non-organic waste on the doorstep. "Of course that will take time," said Iskandar, who admitted that she still did not have the few hundred thousand dollars required for that project. "In the first six months we want to provide a free service, because people here are fed up with paying for nothing over the past year."

    Ezzat Naem brushed away a cloud of flies buzzing above his head and stepped over bags full of rubbish before entering the Zabaleen union's offices in Manchiet Nasser. This militant in his 50s has worked all his life in waste disposal and seen things get worse and worse. He wants to believe that this time it will be different.

    "We have always been treated as a backward people incapable of managing the refuse of such a large town. And yet we are the ones who invented an eco-city model."

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


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    Residents of Mantua risk public humiliation if they fail to adhere to the municipality's complex new waste collection system

    The people of Mantua are talking nothing but rubbish these days. A new waste sorting and disposal system has been introduced and it's causing a stir. There have been heated meetings between residents and municipal officials, letters to the press, street protests, everything short of a madcap boycott.

    Every household has been supplied with transparent plastic sacks and a set of mini-bins: there's a blue bin, a green bin, a brown bin, a grey bin and a substantial amount of explanatory literature. One issue immediately raised was where people in apartments without balconies would keep these bins.

    Previously we were free to sort our own rubbish and deposit it in discreet containers in the street, metres from the door. Now the containers have gone and there are collection times specific to certain types of rubbish and areas. From 7pm rubbish sacks and mini-bins begin to spread out along the streets and are easy pickings for dogs, cats, rats and no-gooders.

    My friend Antonio says leaving rubbish in a transparent sack at the front door is like hanging out your dirty laundry: "What if I'm a Viagra user, or I have a chronic beer habit, or the wife and I shell peanuts in the kitchen on the QT for a big multinational? That'll come out in my now very public rubbish!"

    Households have received an instruction manual written in four languages with a chart sorting over 500 items of rubbish into eight categories. You can't go wrong, if you have the patience to study it. So far, few have.

    Recently, I noticed from our window that passersby were slowing down and having a tentative look at something on the pavement outside the block. Somebody taken ill, a hurt animal? It was a rubbish sack that the collectors had refused; a sticker was slapped on it warning that the contents had been incorrectly sorted. As nobody wanted to own up to this brutta figura, it lay there for 10 days, eventually taking on the curiosity of a Banksy piece.

    Despite the civic unease, it will all sort itself out, as in 2005 when Italy became the third country in Europe to ban smoking in public places, and 2003 when a daytime headlight law for vehicles was introduced. Still, there is something therapeutic about having a good moan over a load of rubbish.

    Every week Guardian Weekly publishes a Letter from one of its readers from around the world. We welcome submissions – they should focus on giving a clear sense of a place and its people. Please send them to weekly.letter.from@theguardian.com


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    Regulated waste-processing plants would help reduce costs and save the planet's resources

    What do New Zealand, South Korea, China, Japan and a good chunk of the United States have in common? They all convert leftover waste food into delicious meat, via the pig. In the UK, we used to recycle our food waste in the same way: pigs and humans have lived in perfect harmony for more than 5,000 years precisely because pigs are such good converters of waste. It was only after the outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001 that a temporary ban was imposed on the swill industry, a ban that then spread across Europe and suddenly had a distinctly permanent feel to it.

    Many thought the ban justified; foot and mouth saw the slaughter of millions of livestock and countless farmers were driven out of business. Some scientists supported the theory that the outbreak of the disease was due to a negligent farmer failing to "cook" his swill properly, but there remains doubt as to whether foot and mouth actually came from his farm.

    He was breaking all the rules, but the UK serotype of foot and mouth bore an uncanny resemblance to the South African serotype that had been running rampant and we know that rules were being broken on the importing of contaminated meat. Unfortunately, the investigations were inadequate and the consequence was that scores of farmers who had invested in machinery to treat their swill safely were put out of business.

    The crucial point here is that the cooking of swill is essential to its use; failure to do so is dangerous. Robust systems to heat-treat food waste effectively have been established in many countries. But in the UK, we have the dangerous situation where food waste is being dumped in landfill up and down the country, creating a potentially huge health hazard from the possible spread of disease from gulls, rodents and other vermin that feast on it.

    The ban is also having a negative impact on the business of rearing pigs. Prevented from feeding swill to their pigs, farmers are now left to buy soy, maize and wheat on the global market. As food prices soar, so does the cost of their feed. Unfortunately for the planet, the majority of this feed is grown halfway across the world in places as precious as the Amazon basin and the Cerrado grasslands. Thus the pressure to destroy ecosystems is exponentially increased while in the UK we throw out about 15m tonnes of waste a year.

    Meanwhile, we are worrying about how to grow enough food for the world's population and simultaneously using almost 40% of the grain we grow to feed animals instead of humans. If we diverted all the food waste that is being ditched to be treated and fed to animals, we would save enough grain to feed about 3 billion people.

    This is the argument of The Pig Idea. Stop wasting food; instead, fund research into regulated processing plants. In this way, we can safely cook food waste and convert it into nutritious animal feed. Not only would we be lowering the cost of feed for pig farmers, but we would also be saving the planet's precious resources.

    Restaurateur Thomasina Miers co-founded The Pig Idea, a campaign to lift the ban on feeding food waste to pigs


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