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    Recycling rates have fallen in half of the capital's boroughs and more rubbish is being burned

    Almost half of London's 33 London councils recorded a fall in the proportion of household waste they recycled in 2012-13 compared with the previous year, with a further five boroughs flatlining.

    Annual waste statistics from the department for environment and rural affairs also revealed that more than 40% of waste was incinerated, an increase of 17 percentage points over two years. Over the previous decade it hovered just over the 20% mark.

    Sadly, this is not surprising as the much-needed recycling and composting infrastructure such as anaerobic digestion, the natural breakdown of organic materials, for dealing with food waste has not come on stream fast enough. This is despite nominal backing from the previous mayor of London and the current mayor, whose revised strategy identified it as the optimal treatment method for food waste, after waste reduction.

    With landfill taxes costing Londoner's about £300m and the much lower costs of recycling particularly with segregated collection compared to incineration, it is surprising that some local and waste authorities are still opting for this quick-fix option.

    The downsides are numerous. Valuable natural resources that could be recycled are incinerated and more desirable waste technologies blocked.

    London's average recycling rate of only 34% of its household waste is dire and keeps us firmly rooted as the worst region in England. This discredits the commendable work of the London boroughs, which have gone to great expense and efforts to improve this, with at least 10 achieving over 40% and Bexley top with 54%.

    How Boris Johnson, the city's mayor, expects to exceed his London plan recycling target of 45% by 2015 is anyone's guess as a significant number of boroughs continue to lag behind and his target slips further away from his grasp. Under his administration (since 2008), London's recycling rate has improved by only 5%.

    Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea recorded unprecedented reductions of 7%, followed by Lambeth and Wandsworth with 5% reductions.

    The proportion of London's household waste incinerated in 2012-13 was 40.9%, an increase of more than five percentage points on the 35.7 recorded in 2011-12. This is on top of the 12% increase the year before. These two years represent the fastest increases since annual data started to be published 13 years ago.

    The mayor's waste arm, the London waste and recycling board, set up in 2008 and originally chaired by Johnson, has since been chaired by one of his representatives. While it has helped to deliver a number of new and desperately needed waste facilities, its business plan clearly acknowledges that London is facing a serious waste treatment capacity shortfall. By 2015, the city will be facing a shortfall of more than 4m tonnes, increasing to 8m by 2030.

    There is only one operational anaerobic digestor plant in London. The mayor and his waste board must put far greater resources behind this technology, which turns food waste into biogas for generating heat and electricity, or into bio-methane for injection into the national gas grid or conversion into transport fuel, and rich fertiliser for garden and agricultural use.

    I have consistently argued that only genuine "residual waste" – the element that cannot be recycled or composted – should be considered for energy generation. This should be no more than 30% of household waste. The Scottish government and Welsh assembly are well on the way to reaching 70% recycling rates.

    Unless this growing waste crisis is dealt with intelligently and with effective leadership from our mayor, the preferred waste treatment options outlined in his waste strategy and London plan will continue to remain as mere policy and speech aspirations, as modern-day incinerators fill this void and come to dominate London's waste landscape for the next two or three decades.

    Jenny Jones is a Green party member of the London Assembly.

    View from Ealing

    In Ealing a lot of progress has been made since 2007 when we transformed how we collected waste following out largest ever public consultation. By 2010 we had doubled Ealing's recycling rate. But the challenge remains as to how we push on from plateauing percentages in the low 40s.

    I am working on a campaign to persuade residents to recycle more with the target of reaching a recycling rate of 50% by 2020. We are going to be using unusual and innovative approaches to encourage recycling.

    Part of the approach will be launching a residents' rewards scheme, which will incentivise people to recycle. Participants will get points for the amount that they recycled, which they can then use to claim local discounts in shops or donate them to a community project.

    Keith Townsend is executive director of environment and customer services at Ealing council.

    • Want your say? Email to suggest contributions to the network

    Not already a member? Join us now for more comment, analysis and the latest job opportunities in local government.© 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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    At Agbogbloshie, young people scavenge for scrap metal amid the smoke from plastics fires. The health risks are obvious – but the money is too good to ignore

    The orange flesh of a papaya is like an oval gash in the landscape at Agbogbloshie, Ghana's vast dumping site for electronic waste, where everything is smeared and stained with mucky hues of brown and sooty black. A woman kneels among the carcasses of discarded computer monitors, scooping the fruit's flesh for workers hungry from a morning's work scavenging to eat.

    If the appliances at Agbogbloshie were not being dismantled – plucked of their tiny nuggets of copper and aluminium – some of them could almost be technology antiques. Old VHS players, cassette recorders, sewing machines, computers from the 1980s and every period since lie haphazardly on large mounds in the dump, which stretches as far as the eye can see.

    "Electric waste comes here from all over the world – but especially from Europe," says Karim, 29, who, like almost all the scrap dealers at Agbogbloshie, originally comes from northern Ghana but has been salvaging, buying and selling at the dump for 10 years. "We get a lot of health problems here, but we manage, because we need the money."

    Last week, the UN's "Solving the E-Waste Problem" initiative (Step), which was set up in 2007 to tackle the world's growing crisis of electronic waste, warned that the global volume of such refuse is set to grow by 33% over the next four years. Much of it will be dumped in sites such as those in Agbogbloshie, increasing the risk of land contamination with lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants.

    Agbogbloshie seems chaotic, apocalyptic in places, but there is an order to the large, desolate, rubbish-strewn site. At one side, boys and young men gather in groups, picking their way through piles of old hard drives, untangling wires, and breaking up old air-conditioning units and even irons.

    Abdoullaye, 19, and a group of other teenage boys sit under makeshift iron shelters on the upturned cases of old PC monitors, working at a pile of e-waste with chisels and pliers and by hand.

    The boys are surrounded by rows of rusty chest freezers, each one dangling a heavy padlock. Inside them, they store the fruits of their labour – piles of copper and aluminium – until the metal is bought by traders.

    "I came here from Tamale five years ago," said Abdoullaye, who wears turned-up blue jeans and a blue and white striped polo shirt smeared with dirt. "I make between two and five cedis (£0.50 to £1.30) each day, and each month I send 50 cedis (£13) back to my family in the north. I would like to go back home, but my family needs the money, so I stay. We get too many problems here – sometimes I have to go to the hospital. It's not good for us."

    Deeper into the heart of Agbogbloshie, huge plumes of foul-smelling smoke rise up from three large fires, where the dismantled items are burned to remove traces of plastic, leaving the metal behind. The fumes are head-pounding, but the men, women and children weaving in and out of the fires seem oblivious. Goats sleep deeply beside the upturned remains of a tree, now strewn with plastic rubbish.

    Roles are gender divided at Agbogbloshie. Women and girls wander the sprawling site, hawking peeled oranges, water sachets and cooked food. Many have tiny babies wrapped in cloth tied tightly to their backs, all inhaling the toxic fumes. There are special jobs for children, who trawl the site with magnets tied on to the end of a piece of string, picking up any tiny scraps of metal left behind in the dirt.

    In the centre of the dump, a clearing has been turned into a football pitch, and two teams are in the midst of a match. Agbogbloshie is not just a site for trading, burning and dumping electrical waste; it's also home to thousands of people, who carry on their lives and raise their children in the midst of its filth and fumes. There are shacks dotted throughout the central area of the dump. In the doorway of one, next to a large heap of discarded computer hard drives, is a large, grubby cloth poster of Thomas the Tank Engine.

    Ghanaians have nicknamed Agbogbloshie "Sodom and Gomorrah," after two condemned Biblical cities, but its residents take a less hostile view.

    "This is not a good place to live. But we don't want the people in Europe and all those places to stop sending the waste," said Karim. "This is a business centre, and we are using the money we make here to help our families to have a better life."© 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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    Millions of tonnes of old electronic goods illegally exported to developing countries, as people dump luxury items

    Millions of mobile phones, laptops, tablets, toys, digital cameras and other electronic devices bought this Christmas are destined to create a flood of dangerous "e-waste" that is being dumped illegally in developing countries, the UN has warned.

    The global volume of electronic waste is expected to grow by 33% in the next four years, when it will weigh the equivalent of eight of the great Egyptian pyramids, according to the UN's Step initiative, which was set up to tackle the world's growing e-waste crisis. Last year nearly 50m tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide – or about 7kg for every person on the planet. These are electronic goods made up of hundreds of different materials and containing toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants. An old-style CRT computer screen can contain up to 3kg of lead, for example.

    Once in landfill, these toxic materials seep out into the environment, contaminating land, water and the air. In addition, devices are often dismantled in primitive conditions. Those who work at these sites suffer frequent bouts of illness.

    An indication of the level of e-waste being shipped to the developing world was revealed by Interpol last week. It said almost one in three containers leaving the EU that were checked by its agents contained illegal e-waste. Criminal investigations were launched against 40 companies. "Christmas will see a surge in sales and waste around the world," says Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of Step. "The explosion is happening because there's so much technical innovation. TVs, mobile phones and computers are all being replaced more and more quickly. The lifetime of products is also shortening."

    According to the Step report, e-waste – which extends from old fridges to toys and even motorised toothbrushes – is now the world's fastest growing waste stream. China generated 11.1m tonnes last year, followed by the US with 10m tonnes, though there was significant difference per capita. For example, on average each American generated 29.5kg, compared to less than 5kg per person in China.

    By 2017, Kuehr expects the volume of end-of-life TVs, phones, computers, monitors, e-toys and other products to be enough to fill a 15,000-mile line of 40-tonne lorries. In Europe, Germany discards the most e-waste in total, but Norway and Liechtenstein throw away more per person. Britain is now the world's seventh most prolific producer, discarding 1.37m tonnes, or about 21kg per person. No figures are available from government or industry on how much is exported.

    Although it is legal to export discarded goods to poor countries if they can be reused or refurbished, much is being sent to Africa or Asia under false pretences, says Interpol. "Much is falsely classified as 'used goods' although in reality it is non-functional. It is often diverted to the black market and disguised as used goods to avoid the costs associated with legitimate recycling," said a spokesman. "A substantial proportion of e-waste exports go to countries outside Europe, including west African countries. Treatment in these countries usually occurs in the informal sector, causing significant environmental pollution and health risks for local populations," he said.

    Few countries understand the scale of the problem, because no track is kept of all e-waste, says the European Environment Agency, which estimates between 250,000 tonnes and 1.3m tonnes of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU every year, mostly to west Africa and Asia. "These goods may subsequently be processed in dangerous and inefficient conditions, harming the health of local people and damaging the environment," said a spokesman.

    A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that the US discarded 258.2m computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones in 2010, of which only 66% was recycled. Nearly 120m mobile phones were collected, most of which were shipped to Hong Kong, Latin America and the Caribbean. The shelf life of a mobile phone is now less than two years, but the EU, US and Japanese governments say many hundreds of millions are thrown away each year or are left in drawers. In the US, only 12m mobile phones were collected for recycling in 2011 even though 120m were bought. Meanwhile, newer phone models are racing on to the market leaving old ones likely to end up in landfills. Most phones contain precious metals. The circuit board can contain copper, gold, zinc, beryllium, and tantalum, the coatings are typically made of lead and phone makers are now increasingly using lithium batteries. Yet fewer than 10% of mobile phones are dismantled and reused. Part of the problem is that computers, phones and other devices are becoming increasingly complex and made of smaller and smaller components.

    The failure to recycle is also leading to shortages of rare-earth minerals to make future generations of electronic equipment.© 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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    A huge amount of waste is produced over the holidays, Leah Borromeo visits an e-waste facility to find out just how green recycling really is

    Christmas is a time for giving, receiving –and chucking packaging and unwanted stuff in the recycling box.

    The UK produces nearly 300m tonnes of waste each year. It's estimated that every Christmas tree bought in the UK this year put end to end, would be the equivalent of a return trip to New York City. Combine that with the 4,500 tonnes of tin foil, the 13,350 tonnes of glass and enough wrapping paper to go round the equator nine times, and we're talking about a huge amount of rubbish – and that doesn't even touch on the gifts and gadgets that are chucked away because they're broken, old or ugly.

    The recent launch of DEFRA's Waste Prevention Programme, produced in partnership with WRAP, is meant to instruct consumers and industry on how to reduce waste at whatever point they happen to be in the supply chain.

    I was recently invited by the United Nations university to view its e-waste Academy (EWAS) – a kind of bootcamp of academics and researchers specialising in what happens to all the gadgets and goods we use once we're fed up with them or a new model comes out.

    The aim is to lay the seeds for global solutions to a problem that has its roots in the supply chain of everything we encounter – everything we use has to be made somewhere and in that process articles are commonly disposed of.

    Waste issues go beyond the consumer, they start at the raw materials stage and continue after disposal stage. You even encounter "illegal transboundary waste flows", when one country lacks the capacity to get rid of a certain type of rubbish and sends it on for another country to deal with. This can either be done legally through export or illegally by forwarding it on to developing countries, sometimes in the guise of aid donations.

    We discussed the "urban mine" – the idea that electronic waste can serve as a very profitable source for stock metals such as copper, aluminium and iron. The UK produces around 915,000 tonnes of e-waste each year.

    "Instead of heading to countries to mine for precious raw metals, recyclers can extract already processed metals from the gadgets we throw away for repurpose," says Fanny Lambert a process engineer from Belgium on the EWAS programme who specialises in polymetallic wastes.

    WRAP estimates that by 2020, electronic items purchased in the UK would total 10m tonnes, including over 400 tonnes of gold, silver and platinum that has an estimated market value of £1.5bn.

    A visit to a recycling facility in Altdorf, Switzerland, run by defence company RUAG took us through how e-waste is processed. It is manually sorted by type and then funnelled through the factory where workers separate and sort what they can from each item. "We get some benefits from running recycling but the real money comes from waste byproduct," says RUAG's Daniel Keller who took us on the tour. "I can't really tell you how much it is worth to us."

    It's clearly a lot. A defence company that prides itself on low-emission munitions surely wouldn't get in on the game unless there was money to be made. He wasn't too keen on answering a question about whether metals extracted from domestic items in the recycling facility could end up elsewhere in RUAG's product line.

    So how much waste will Christmas produce? Swico Recycling– the not-for-profit electronics take-back scheme RUAG has partnered with to help with recycling e-waste – has an insight.

    "We have peak seasons, such as Christmas and when people tend to move house," says Roland Haberamecher, Swico's technical auditor at Altdorf. "We don't have actual figures, but on the ground we see a jump from the end of December until the beginning of February. Lots of consumer electronics, televisions, unwanted stuff."

    "Because a recycling fee is paid when you buy a new product in Switzerland, people are encouraged to bring unwanted items back to where they bought them for recycling," says Swico's Anna Keller.

    "All societies produce waste," a DEFRA spokesperson told me. "Our first priority is to prevent waste, but where waste does arise we need to deal with it in the best way possible, and that often involves recycling."

    They argue that prevention and recycling are not at odds. Packaging regulations require that a proportion of packaging can be recovered and recycled, and their Sustainable Electricals Action Plan seeks to eliminate the "built-in obsolescence" we get with most consumer products (the reason why new toasters last a couple of years and the one your mum had in the 60s is still going strong).

    Just how green is recycling? A recycling facility like RUAG's produces around 3 tonnes of dust everyday. They have a process that extracts metals from that dust and then they burn the rest. So as good as a conventional recycling plant is, it still produces waste.

    A step up from this is closed loop recycling - where waste and by-products are used to make something new. It's a fascinating process that could mean manufacturers would never have to rely on extracting virgin materials from the earth. So your drinks bottle will be shredded to make another bottle, or a carrier bag and so forth. But all of this takes energy - and what powers green energy is another supply chain rabbit hole altogether.

    With the UK's national waste and recycling industry worth £23bn, you can make the case that overconsumption underpins outwardly eco-friendly measures. Will encouraging and legislating in favour of recycling make people more wasteful? After all, you can buy and dispose of whatever you like because someone is going to renew it in the waste stream for you, right?

    Actual conservation and sustainability requires a systemic shift in how you view things of value and how you value things. To paraphrase the eminent popular culture philosopher Jessie J, perhaps it "ain't about price tag".

    Join the community of sustainability professionals and experts. Become a GSB member to get more stories like this direct to your inbox© 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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    I bought a new 32-inch TV online. Currys promised free recycling on its website, but did not take the old one on delivery

    I bought a new 32-inch TV online from Currys. We live in a semi-rural location without a car so I was drawn to the fact that the website stated that: "Unlike other retailers, we'll take away your old product for free recycling, with any packaging, when we deliver your new one." But when the new TV was delivered the driver refused to take the old one away.

    Currys, when we rang, said that if the new TV was delivered by one of its contracted delivery drivers rather than a Currys driver it will not take away the old set. Since this is nowhere mentioned on the website we asked to speak to a manager who advised us that if the new TV is under 39 inches it will not take away the old set. I have hunted high and low on their website. I have checked the terms and conditions in my contract and I cannot find anywhere where this is stated. RS, London

    No more can I. The website clearly states that if you order a new appliance the old will be taken away and the only mention of TVs over 39 inches is in the part that requires customers with larger appliances to ensure they are fully disconnected.

    Extraordinarily, however, Currys insists to me that the website explains that old TVs are taken away only if the replacement is over 39 inches. "We are happy to review the website to see if we can be more clear," says a spokesman. And within a couple of days someone has the brainwave of adding a line to the top of the webpage explaining that the removal offer applies only to large appliances. Currys has now offered – too late – to collect your old set and is offering you goodwill vouchers so you can experience its customer service again.

    If you need help email Anna Tims at or write to Your Problems, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Include an address and phone number.© 2014 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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    Why we need a national throw-out day

    Our area has recently been urged to recycle madly smelly compost in a small brown thing, alongside our regular dustbin and a vast green wheelie bin for just about everything else. But there are major forms of mess untouched by it all. Anyone who has lived in the same place for ages (unlike diplomats, Gypsies and fugitives from the law) is usually surrounded by far too many things that don't fit any such categories; not necessarily useless but certainly not used. Everything from torn pillowcases to books you'll read one day, old discs which nobody plays, bits of kitchen equipment for which you've long lost the instructions… I could go on.

    But how to get rid of them? Some people simply put the unwanted chairs, half-broken tables, even TVs and fridges out on the street to be scooped up by people who never furnish their apartments any other way. I know I'm not alone in feeling surrounded by far too many things, of which not more than 5% at most are either useful, beautiful or of sentimental value – but when is dealing with it going to be the most urgent thing to do next?

    What is wanted, I'm beginning to think, is National Throw-out Day. Charities could go round with carts, books could be left out to be collected by Oxfam, heaps could be burnt in the streets, and we'd all feel much better. Won't some influential politician or celebrity name the day?

    What do you think? Share your thoughts below© 2014 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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    Some rot in landfill, others are gobbled up by chipping machines to become compost or weed suppresant

    Shorn of their baubles, tinsel and twinkling lights, the Christmas trees in a south-east London park have come to meet their end.

    "As long as this thing behaves itself, we could probably stick a hundred trees through it in an hour – it does eat them pretty quick," says David Chapple of the bright orange chipper in front of him, as it gobbles up a tree, sending a scent of pine into the air and a pile of woodchip into the waiting van.

    The Norway spruce and Nordmann fir being chipped here in Mountsfield park are just a handful of the seven thousand or so that will be recycled in the borough of Lewisham in south London this year alone, up from fewer than two thousand a decade ago. This weekend many of the estimated six to eight million real trees bought by Britons last year will join them, as the 12 days of Christmas draw to a close.

    A Nordmann fir, the 'non-drop' variety that was popularised over a decade ago and now accounts for around 80% of the Christmas trees bought in the UK, takes eight to 10 years to grow to 6ft. After its brief decorative turn in a festive front room, many are then flytipped rather than recycled. Altogether, the government's waste agency Wrap estimates that the nation's dumped trees weigh in at around 160,000 tonnes.

    If they end in landfill, each tree costs the local authority around £2.32 in fees and landfill taxes, according to the Local Government Association's calculations. That figure will go up from April, when the price councils pay for every tonne of waste sent to landfill rises from £72 to £80.

    Councillor Mike Jones, chair of the LGA's environment and housing board, said: "Christmas can be an expensive time, but councils are helping to keep costs down through increasing the range of things which can be recycled to save money and minimising expensive landfill."

    It can take well into February to chip all of the Christmas trees in Lewisham, though trees have been dropped off as late as July. A lot are dropped by wholesalers, still with their nets on, which slows down the chipping, while some left by householders are still adorned with baubles.

    But the trees have a useful life after they have been shredded. Vanloads of the chippings are taken up to a nearby depot, where they are left to rot for months. "Then it goes back onto the beds, like those rose beds over there, mixed up with other tree waste, and works as a weed suppressant," says Chapple.

    While most are composted like this before being used on beds, some of the chippings go straight on to woodland paths, and some is processed before being used as soil conditioner. Some local authorities, such as Brighton & Hove, turn Christmas trees into soil conditioner that they then sell back to residents. Other councils give the bags of soil improver away.

    If they do end up in landfill, trees have an environmental as well as economic cost. The Carbon Trust calculates the carbon footprint of a 2-metre tall tree at 16kg carbon dioxide equivalent because of the methane released as it decomposes (the average Briton's carbon footprint is around 10,000kg each year).

    But real trees still appear to be a greener choice than artificial ones, which would need to be kept for 10 years to be lower carbon, because of the oil the plastic is made with, according to the trust. A better option, for homeowners with space, is to have a potted living tree that they use year after year.

    Unlike fake trees, real ones provide a habitat for wildlife too, says Harry Brightwell, secretary of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. "You've got some people saying it's not very green to chop down forests for Christmas trees. But they're not realising it's grown as a crop, and that it has wildlife including birds that live in them as they grow."© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A journey around the world's scrapyards is far more gripping than you might expect

    By 2017, according to the Solving the E-Waste Problem (Step) initiative, a UN-supported project, each person on the planet will discard a third more electronic waste than in 2012, a grand total by then of 64.4m tonnes. Much of it will be shipped from the affluent world to developing countries for cheap reprocessing, a pattern of trade that Step defines as a problem. Adam Minter, a journalist and son of a US scrapyard entrepreneur, would disagree. Minter does not see the global scrap trade as a morality tale of villain and victim, but a vibrant and eco-friendly business, a core component of the world economy.

    Most people want to throw away and forget, saving their excitement for the new. What happens to the waste we discard is banished to society's margins. People with better options, as Minter acknowledges, do not go into waste processing: it is an outsider's profession, the first step on the ladder for recent arrivals, people with few marketable skills, or those excluded by prejudice from other professions. In the US, the largest group in the business is Jewish, like the Minter family.

    Minter's accomplishment is to take his reader through the secret gate into this teeming world of giant machines, self-made millionaires and barefoot rag pickers, all in different ways tenacious entrepreneurs in a business that is worth $500bn a year. Junkyard Planet is a gripping odyssey around the world's rubbish mountains and the men and (occasionally) women who mine them and turn them into money.

    Adam Minter is an intimate of the junk world's trade fairs and global networks and a wholehearted evangelist for junk. It is a passion born between eating kosher hotdogs with his grandmother in the family junkyard in Minneapolis, and one that compels him to seek out and visit junkyards even while on holiday. (His wife merits a sympathetic aside here.) Minter loves it: the giant car crushers and ingenious conveyor belts that progressively separate out components; the rag pickers sorting different colours of plastic in a shed in China; the complexities of the trade's taxonomy and its terms of art, terms such as mill scale (a steelmaking residue), Barley (clean wire), Talk (aluminium copper radiators) – shorthand terms for scrap's infinite varieties.

    Statistics tumble out: the global trade in junk is the biggest employer on the planet after agriculture, a high-volume, low-margin business in which success depends on an ability to recognise the precise ratios of trash components, understand how to separate them and to know where the customers are. In the US, its economics depend on technology; elsewhere, on low wages.

    The town of Shijiao in China's Guangdong province is entering its busy season: that is because it is the world centre of discarded Christmas tree lights, processing some 22m pounds of them a year. Shijiao was once a little rural town with nothing to offer the booming Chinese economy but space and cheap labour. Its one strategic advantage was proximity to what was rapidly becoming the world's factory, with its thousands of manufacturing plants hungry for copper. Burning off cable insulation to release the copper required nothing more than a place to do it and a tolerance for dangerous fumes. By the year 2000, 74% of China's demand for copper was fed by scrap.

    As the economy grew, demand for plastic also expanded, making recycling the wire insulation also profitable. Today, that component of discarded Christmas tree lights will probably end up as the sole of a pair of slippers. If they had not come to Shijiao, shipped in containers that would otherwise return home empty from delivering China's exports, the lights would have gone to landfill in the United States and elsewhere, and fresh copper mines would be needed to meet the demand. As Minter shows, waste harvesting works not because it is ethical but because it makes money.

    Minter's enthusiasm does not blind him to the problems. In the town of Guiyu, for instance, in southern China's unspeakably polluted centre of e-waste, he acknowledges the consequences of irresponsible reprocessing, of workers unprotected from hazardous contaminants and grossly polluted land and water. But he makes a robust case for the trade as a better alternative to more mining or landfill, extracting value at the least cost through ingenuity, expertise and technology.

    He meets young men who can tell at a glance how much extractable metal any model of mobile phone contains, or what reusable components a discarded computer contains. They are recent recruits to a profession that made millionaires of men such as Leonard Fritz, who began as a nine-year-old, grubbing in the rubbish dumps of Detroit, pulled off a deal for 3,000 tonnes of mill scale at 15, and built one of the world's largest recycling businesses. Then there is Joe Chen, a Taiwanese American in his early 70s with an encyclopaedic memory for past and present prices, necessary skills in a trade in which a small price moment can mean ruin. Without men like him, we would be neck deep in our own rubbish.© 2014 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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    Chief executives said biggest barrier to progress is ingrained mindset of 'manufacture, use and dispose'

    The concept of the circular economy is so simple and attractive that if we were now building our society from scratch, we would integrate it into everything we do. But unfortunately, because the economy has been built on the false notion that there is an endless supply of cheap materials, moving towards a cradle to cradle system is proving fiendishly difficult.

    Meetings of the world's experts at Davos highlighted the many reasons why the circular economy has not moved beyond only a few initiatives. They all agree the biggest problem is the established mainstream business mentality, which is still locked into the idea of manufacture, use and dispose.

    As Kingfisher chief executive Sir Ian Cheshire said: "The biggest barrier is the mindset of reimagining your business. Companies tend to concentrate on optimising the current business model with incremental improvements.

    "Changing to a circular model is uncomfortable and not an easy process, although there are examples of moving from product to service; Rolls Royce for example does not sell engines but flying hours."

    Chris Dedicoat, president Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Russia at technology giant Cisco, said that it was important to bring young talent into businesses, who are not constrained by the thinking of the past.

    "If you ask a group of engineers for a 100% recyclable product, they will think you are mad," he said. "But if you mix up student designers with engineers, they soon come to believe it is possible."

    Feike Sijbesma, chief executive of Dutch life sciences and material sciences company DSM, agreed that there needs to be a fundamental move away from selling products to offering the benefits those products can offer.

    "The mind thinks it's totally impossible until it is done – our own brain is the limit," he said. "If you actually stop to think, there are no scarce materials; what we do is we take them and we put them somewhere else – nothing leaves the planet except for a small amount of helium. Rare metals still exist but they are spread in polluted waste products."

    Several chief executives in Davos were keen to show that the circular economy is not about corporate social responsibility but about good business sense as a scarcity of raw materials, combined with a rapidly growing global middle class, puts pressure on the current linear model.

    Not only does it offer the possibility to reduce costs as the price of raw materials rise, but also to grow and increase profit margins.

    Dame Ellen MacArthur, the former round the world yachtswoman, who is a key figure driving the circular economy movement, gave the example of Renault's engine remanufacturing plant outside of Paris.

    "When Renault looked at it, they realised it is their most profitable factory in the world," she said. "The engines that come out have the same warranty as a new one but the embedded energy that goes into the remanufactured engines is only 20% that of a new engine."

    Moving towards a circular economy allows companies to maintain control over their stock of raw materials. Alexander Collot d'Escury, chief executive of Desso, which makes carpets and artificial grass, is already experiencing the benefits of this through a combination of leasing out its products and making them easily recyclable, and predicts "we will see this happening much more often".

    The circular economy also provides an incentive to create products that last longer, thereby offering the possibility of eradicating built-in obsolescence. Frans van Houten, chief executive of Royal Philips, the healthcare, consumer lifestyle and lighting multinational, pointed out that "because we sell light as a service, we design for longevity. We are starting to apply this concept to our 40 businesses but we need to take it to the next level".

    Like other transformational ideas, business leaders were quick to point out that there needs to be a systems-based approach if there is any hope of the circular economy reaching scale. This is because relying on toxins being eradicated from products, and complex global supply chains combined with a mind-boggling number of materials, makes this extremely difficult.

    Antoine Frérot, the chief executive of Paris-based transnational Veolia Environment, said his business was moving away from water and waste management to solving the problem of a scarcity of raw materials, water and energy.

    "We can create innovations and technology for this circular economy," he said. "If I do it alone, it will need much more time to scale up which is why I am convinced of the need for business alliances, where companies can co-create new solutions, new technologies and new business models."

    To build momentum, the business leaders agreed that it is vital to showcase successful initiatives and focus on key "signature" products, which can have a major impact.

    This is the purpose behind the World Economic Forum teaming up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and management consultants McKinsey to launch Project Mainstream.

    McKinsey managing director Dominic Barton says the work of this collaborative venture is urgent, given that the global economy is growing 1000 times quicker than during the last industrial revolution. "We have to demonstrate this is a win win, that you can make money and help use resources more sustainably," he said. "This is not CSR or a sideshow, but is fundamental.

    "The world economy is $72tn in size and if we applied the circular economy, this would lead to at least $1tn in savings now – and it can become significantly higher.

    "Every day we are losing the equivalent of $3-4bn worth of materials. If that was a financial loss, it would represent a continuous series of black Fridays, but we accept that value loss."

    What all business leaders who support the circular economy are certain about is that the current system will at some point have to fundamentally change – and so those companies which find early solutions, will have a commercial advantage.

    Dedicoat said rare earth materials, such as indium needed for smartphone touch screens, europium used for lightbulbs and erbium, which is essential for fibre optics, were all due to be exhausted within 5-10 years.

    "There will come a point when a manufacturer will not be able to make product that goes into landfill," he warned.

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    Unofficial scrap dealers get richest pickings from items left out for collection, forcing city councils to change strategy

    Every year Paris city council collects 90,000 tonnes in bulky household waste, including some 43,000 sofas, 930 stoves and 4,600 dishwashers. But the return on this service is very poor as unofficial scrap dealing becomes more common. Growing numbers of bounty hunters and semi-professionals are scouring the streets in search of valuable goods, before the council trucks have time to collect them. In France there is no law against picking up waste on the public highway. Anywhere else it counts as theft.

    Some categories of inorganic waste, which cannot be picked up by the usual vehicles due to size or weight, have almost completely disappeared, upsetting the business model underpinning waste disposal systems. "Items of furniture in good condition no longer get as far as our trucks," an official at Paris city council explains. "Most of what we collect cannot be used. It's just rubbish."

    According to the most recent available figures, 86% of bulky items collected in the city is "mixed waste", which is hard to process. The rest is timber (5%), metal (3%), electrical or electronic waste (2%), rubble (2%) and paper (1%).

    In Rennes, Brittany, the council trucks pick up mainly old mattresses, beds and scraps of plywood furniture. In 2012 they collected almost 600 tonnes of large waste, either by appointment, through special neighbourhood schemes or from illegal tips.

    "Wooden pallets soon vanish from the roadside, much as metal and cartons," says Fabien Robin, head of waste collection at Rennes metropolitan council. "Timber sells well or can be used for heating. Metal is recovered for resale to scrap dealers."

    The council, which set up a system for collecting cardboard once a week at an appointed time, soon realised that this material was popular too. "A large share of the potential tonnage disappeared. Semi-professional scavengers were helping themselves before the contractor got there," Robin explains. As the firm was paid according to the weight it collected, this posed a problem.

    At first sight this sudden interest in bulky waste might seem providential. With the drop in the volume of waste collected, local councils should be able to cut the cost of the service. But in practice things are not that simple. In the Rennes metropolitan area a third of all the appointments made to recover large items are fruitless, the relevant goods having already vanished when the vehicle turns up. This obviously entails unwanted expense.

    Another problem is that the remaining bulky waste is more difficult to recover or recycle. Lille metropolitan council takes care of waste disposal for the 85 municipalities it comprises. Large items amount to 62,000 tonnes a year. The council has recently introduced a new system to cut costs. "We're gradually replacing monthly door-to-door collections, which have been in force for years, with an appointment-based approach," says Denis Castelain, the metropolitan council's senior vice-president in charge of urban ecology.

    The new system, which has been adopted by almost half the municipalities, is producing much better results, particularly in terms of recovery. Up to 40% of bulky waste is either reused or recycled, compared with only 10% before. "Residents who call us must be present when we collect their large items," Castelain adds. "That way, our operators don't go out for nothing. It's also an opportunity for a bit of education, explaining what sort of objects qualify and telling them about existing waste collection centres."

    A further advantage to the new approach is that it involves less cleaning up afterwards. With the old system, "there was a steady stream of scavengers who would pick up anything of value", Castelain asserts. "Not only were we left with waste of little value, but above all it was scattered all over the place and we had to tidy up."

    Household waste disposal is a complex issue and urban authorities are increasingly looking for new ways of coping with bulky items. Many are keen to encourage the use of waste collection centres, with residents bringing in unwanted goods themselves as and when necessary. This costs half as much as door-to-door collection, even if it does deprive scavengers of their main source of supply.

    This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde© 2014 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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    Transforming old industrial areas into urban woodland may look nice but can be conterproductive in the long run

    For a lot of people in the 20th century, the future of the city was simply a better, shinier version of what ancient cities looked like after they had been abandoned. There's a link between the visions of the Roman city, overgrown by vegetation that you can find in the etchings of Piranesi, and the vision of the "garden city" or "Radiant City" once so cherished by architects and planners.

    Now, after a period in which real cities with all their asphalt, brick and concrete were reclaimed, the city-overtaken-by-greenery has returned, this time with a post-industrial spin. The abandonment of industry in most innercities left large areas free for grass, weeds and all manner of more exotic things to grow on them, and in recent years, those spaces have been reclaimed rather than simply built over; both the London Olympic Park and, much more impressively, the New York High Line are the transformation and decontamination of these verdant wastes, turning them into verdant parks.

    After these, the deluge: in Sydney and Chicago, there are proposals for turning old freight viaducts into parks; in Cape Town, architects have issued plans for the remodelling of an unfinished flyover into a combined park, recycled energy power station and museum; and in London, Fletcher Priest won a competition for a London "High Line", which would take the form of a mushroom farm in a disused mail tunnel.

    Also in London, a Garden Bridge proposed by Thomas Heatherwick would be a new structure rather than an intervention in old space but it has a similar rus-in-urbe approach. How did all these projects come about so quickly, and why are they so popular for city authorities? Are they likely to be a major presence in cities in the future?

    One obvious answer to these conundrums is increased focus on "sustainability", along with the questionable notion that because something has a lot of vegetation on it, it must be good for the environment. Accordingly, urban farms are part of this peculiar trend. As early as the mid-1980s, Prince Charles advocated turning the depopulated streets of central Liverpool into farmland, something which seemed connected to his war against modern architecture around the same time; but not all urban farms or ex-industrial parks would please the prince architecturally.

    Among the many speculative urban farming projects is MVRDV's "Pig City", a proposal for a vertical pig farm designed as a highrise office block. Someone that knows their architectural history, looking at their image of a steel and glass grid filled with greenery, might recognise it as a parody of a much older design – Le Corbusier's Immeubles Villas project of the mid-1920s, where each balcony on a concrete grid is filled with a miniature garden. Le Corbusier, like many of his generation, was fixated by the idea that the "street" was an unhealthy, ugly, chaotic thing to live on, and advocated instead that buildings should be scattered across winding paths among trees. In this, however advanced his buildings may have been, he was completely a man of his time – more conservative architects and planners were then building "garden cities" and suburbs, where the noise, stink and clutter of the metropolis would be replaced by a world of green squares, parks and clean factories.

    A lot of this was built, in the UK particularly, with its long tradition of picturesque planning. Before the war, Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City were the first of their kind anywhere, giving rise to new garden suburbs like Wythenshawe. Post-war, the new towns, Chamberlain Gardens in Birmingham or the Alton estate in London were attempts at Corbusian "Radiant Cities". Rather than being seen as lovely places full of singing birds, dappled light on falling leaves and other such delights, however, these were often rejected by the generation of the 1960s – precisely those who would go on to create the green movement.

    Nobody scorned the rusinurbe quite so much as the American writer Jane Jacobs, who considered the "Radiant Garden City Beautiful" amalgam as a moronic space where "Christopher Robin goes hippety-hoppety" – an image of the ideal city that had little to do with the messier spaces in which the city was lived. Jacobs' disciples would reclaim the treeless innercity spaces of Manhattan, Berlin, Glasgow and many others that had been demonised for decades. She implied that the environment – in terms of local economies, walkability, legibility – was best served by a dense, properly urban city. Places like the Elephant and Castle in south London, which had been replanned so that tall slab blocks formed squares around dense thickets of trees, had made mistakes about how cities "worked".

    It is maybe unsurprising, then, that many of Jacobs' disciples have had nothing but scorn for the High Line. The New Urbanists, a movement who elevate Jacobs' ideas into dogma, have often attacked it in print. One of their number, James Howard Kunstler, blasted the High Line as "decadent", "a weed-filled 1.5 mile-long stretch of abandoned elevated railroad", where "mistakes are artfully multiplied and layered", such as "the notion that buildings don't have to relate to the street-and-block grid ... instead of repairing the discontinuities of recent decades, we just celebrate them and make them worse". Kunstler is elsewhere an advocate of a new agrarianism, so his problem is not greenness per se, but its use just for the sake of it, for contemplation rather than production – a return, as he sees it, to the old Corbusian ideas.

    But is it really the case that these radiant cities don't work? Those defending the now-cleared Heygate estate in London pointed out that they actually liked, enjoyed, and used the green space between their flats. The area around breaks every Jacobs rule, but Elephant and Castle, where the estate sits – being demolished as we speak – is a far more diverse, unique part of the city and features London's only shopping centre not dominated by chain stores, a street market, and other essentials of city life.

    Nonetheless, building on the untamed green space and moving out the poor will happen in tandem . The Heygate may be the "wrong kind" of green, but it's hard to say that its park-like spaces are inappropriate to an innercity site when architects propose to block one of the great urban set pieces with bridge-cum-park, as in the staggeringly whimsical, flamboyantly pointless Garden Bridge proposal.

    If the Heygate proves that the greening of the city is a long way off in London, turning industry into a strange kind of rurality may play oddly with those who once worked in that industry. In an interview at the Unsound festival in Krakow last October, Mike Banks, founder of the techno collective Underground Resistance was asked about the expansion of urban farming in his hometown, Detroit. He pointed out they weren't so popular for those hired to work in them.

    "If they called them urban gardens, that would be fine, as gardening is a hobby. Farming is a job. I know a lot of people in Detroit who call those urban farms 'urban plantations'."

    Le Corbusier's city plans were full of vegetation not because he thought people would grow things in them – on the contrary, he imagined that the future would entail less manual labour. It was more because he thought it would be pleasant, that people would enjoy it. If the future of cities means a proletariat turning back into a peasantry, we ought not to expect them to be happy about it.© 2014 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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    Discarded plastic shoes litter beaches across the world, but environmental project transforming them into animal ornaments and jewellery has seen sales soar

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    Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Next join Stella McCartney and charities in bid to cut 15% of clothing waste by 2020

    Britons are being urged to extend the life of their clothing to avoid 350,000 tonnes of garments worth an estimated £140m ending up in landfill.

    High street fashion outlets including Tesco, M&S and Next, fashion designer Stella McCartney, recyclers and charities have joined forces to pledge a 15% reduction in carbon, water and waste going to landfill by 2020.

    In the tradition of the wartime Make Do and Mend campaign, the Love Your Clothes campaign will open up consumers' wardrobes to see what is lurking in them and how people can extend the life of their clothes, save money and keep them out of landfill.

    The campaign's research showed that British households were hanging on to £30bn worth of clothes which have not been worn in the last year, while 350,000 tonnes of clothing worth £140m is binned annually. The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothing and buys around £1,700 of clothes each year.

    The campaign has been developed by Wrap, the organisation behind Love Food Hate Waste, which helps consumers waste less food.

    Wrap chief executive, Liz Goodwin, said: "Clothes cost money. Not getting the most out of them by mixing and matching garments, repairing favoured items, selling them on, or giving to charity shops means we're not getting the most out of that hard earned money, and wasting scarce resources."

    The Love Your Clothes website has advice on choosing clothing designed to last longer, buying second-hand clothes, using energy-efficient laundry methods that keep your clothes looking good, repairing and altering clothes, as well as donating, swapping or selling unwanted items. The site also shows how clothes too damaged or worn can still be donated for recycling rather than ending up in the bin.© 2014 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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    Recovering metals from lithium-ion batteries has a 90% smaller ecological footprint than primary mining – so why are recycling rates so low?

    Few smartphone batteries end up in a landfill. In part this is thanks to strict UK and EU landfill regulation and directives on battery disposal. But even countries without regulation tend not to throw away the lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones and the majority of portable electronic equipment, due to their reusability and the salvageable metals they contain.

    The bad news is that the current recycling rate of lithium-ion batteries is poor. Friends of the Earth reports that the amount collected for recycling in the EU in 2010 was an estimated 1,289 tonnes, accounting for only 4-5% of the lithium-ion batteries sold that year. Instead, rather than recycle our old mobile phones we tend to keep them unused in drawers, trapping within them the precious metals they contain.

    When Sony introduced the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery in 1991, it rapidly replaced the more toxic alternatives on the market such as nickel cadmium. The main metal component of lithium-ion batteries is cobalt, accounting for 10-20% of the battery, plus small amounts of nickel, copper and aluminium enclosed in plastic, and a liquid electrolyte solution. These can be and are recycled.

    The metals are typically recovered in a high-temperature process that fuses them together as an alloy, sometimes using the plastic casing as a fuel. Umicore, the biggest recycler of lithium-ion batteries in Europe and also a major manufacturer of battery parts for Asia's smartphone manufacturers, uses this process and believes that recovering metals this way has a 90% smaller ecological footprint than primary mining.

    "The content of precious metals is something like 100 times that which you find in the ground", explains Sybolt Brouwer, head of battery recycling at Umicore. "Portable batteries contain 10% or more of cobalt, that's an amount that you do not find in nature as such. So you don't need to look further than the 'urban mine' to find very rich materials."

    The resources of urban mining – in this context, collecting the batteries we keep stored and unused at home – is woefully underexploited. The vast majority of metals in smartphone batteries come from primary mining, often from processes that cause great environmental damage and from countries with few environmental regulations. The world's biggest producer of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo, with stories of acid dumping and child labour commonplace.

    Another destination for unwanted smartphones is the valuable secondary market in Asia and Africa. "We take everything that comes to us, but there are certain streams that don't come our way because of the economics", says Scott Butler, managing director of UK-based European battery recycler ERP. "The amount of mobile phone and smartphone technology that we get back is incredibly tiny". He doesn't rule out some of it ending up in the bin either for the simple reason that, "if it fits in a bin, there's a good chance it ends up in a bin". Modern landfill sites should be sufficiently equipped to avoid toxic leakage from phones disposed of in this way, but the greater environmental damage is really caused through the subsequent loss of resources and the ongoing need for primary mining.

    Currently the recycling industry focuses on bring-back schemes and drop-bins for batteries. Some, albeit very few, smartphone lithium-ion batteries wind ERP's way through this route. However other market-leading products such as Apple's iPhone no longer have a removable battery and therefore are not suited to that route (there have been murmurings from the German federal environment agency that built-in batteries should be banned). Batteries technically do not fall under the EU's waste electronic and electrical equipment regulations (WEEE) but people typically view a phone as a single object and some do end up in WEEE pick-ups. If they do, Butler informs, the battery will be seperated out in a picking line and sent to the correct recycling stream.

    The softly-softly approach to phone battery recycling however may be set to change. "The WEEE directive is being re-booted and expected to increase targets to around 65% of sales", informs Butler. "On batteries, a sales-based target this year is [the recycling of] 30% of [all batteries sold], next year is 35%, right up to 2016 when it will be 45%."

    This year the UK met its 30% target, a significant improvement from levels of around 3-4% only 4-5 years ago. But bring-back schemes and battery bins positioned meekly in the back of supermarkets won't be enough to hit the respective 65% and 45% WEEE and battery targets.

    Meanwhile the future demand for lithium-ion batteries and the metals they contain is set to grow. It happens to be the same battery, albeit on a much larger scale, that powers electric cars. "The average weight of an electric car battery is around 100 kgs", informs Brouwer. "So if you sell 1m cars, which on a worldwide scale is not so much, that's 100,000 tonnes of batteries." That's an awful lot of mining if recycling rates are not greatly increased.

    "We haven't got to the next wave of urgency yet", says Butler, "but it will need to come. We're doing stuff with schools, competitions in various local authorities, even club nights, trying to motivate behaviour through reward but – and it's a big 'but' for any environment push – when you're trying to raise awareness you are competing with so many other messages. And some of those messages have a lot more money behind them and are far more attractive than recycling batteries." Perhaps now's the time to check your drawers.

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    Xeros's listing in March could bring pioneering, environmentally friendly washing machine technology to mass market

    Just as inventor James Dyson revolutionised our chores with hi-tech hoovers and fans, a new company is set to change the way we wash our clothes, with a pioneering washing machine that uses tiny plastic beads rather than gallons of water to rinse clothes clean.

    Sheffield-based Xeros has announced plans for a potential £100m stock market listing that could bring its pioneering technology to the mass market. Developed by Stephen Burkinshaw, a chemist at Leeds University, the appliance is aimed at commercial laundries, but the company has already developed a prototype for domestic use and is looking to sign a deal with a major manufacturer. Both Burkinshaw and Leeds University are shareholders in the company.

    The Xeros washing machine looks like a standard washing machine but washes clothes using thousands of reusable plastic beads, along with water and soap. The beads absorb dirt, resulting in an environmentally friendly wash that uses far less water and detergent.

    Run by chief executive Bill Westwater, whose career includes stints at consumer goods giant P&G and oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, the technology company is thought to be raising between £30m-£40m from the sale of new shares. The fundraising will potentially translate into a market value of up to £100m when it joins the junior AIM market in March.

    "Xeros's reusable and recyclable polymer bead cleaning systems offer an attractive customer proposition combining cost savings, efficiencies and superior cleaning performance," said Westwater. "I am delighted that our major shareholders are highly supportive of our proposed listing and associated fundraising."

    The company has already raised more than £15m. Existing investors include fund manager Invesco Perpetual and IP Group, which specialises in backing inventions developed in universities.© 2014 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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    Photographer Kevin McElvaney documents a former wetland in Ghana which is home to the world’s largest e-waste dumping site, and where most of the the boys and men who smash devices to get to the metals end up dying from cancer in their 20s

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    Schoolchildren on a trip to London's King's Cross found out how they could help the planet (and have a lot of fun) by composting, recycling and living without waste

    While we can all do our part to be greener, the future of our planet will depend on the next generation. That's why the Guardian invited schoolchildren to a day of workshops and activities designed to encourage them to think more about sustainability and their impact on the environment.

    The event, held at London's King's Cross Skip Garden on Saturday 15 February, was part of a joint nationwide campaign launched by the Guardian and Unilever called the Live Better Challenge, which is introducing a series of tasks to help inspire and motivate individuals and families towards creating a better and more sustainable life.

    Huddled in the Skip Garden's pop-up yurt, a storyteller transported the students back to ancient India where a princess discovered how using the natural goodness of compost on her crops produced the best harvest. It was the beginning of a journey around the community garden which shed light on how the food and items we discard as waste can find new life elsewhere. Indeed, the entire garden, run by youth charity Global Generation, has been planted using recycled materials, from upturned skips to a polytunnel built with spare water pipes, scaffold netting and old planks.

    The first stop was an unassuming shed with a pungent aroma wafting from two large black cylinders. Lifting the lids of the containers revealed what initially appeared to be a pile of rotting food waste covered with a dirty scrap of carpet. But after the students were encouraged to dig a little deeper and investigate closer with a magnifying glass, the secret was revealed. Wriggling throughout the layers of the container were hundreds of tiny worms whose excretions help break down the waste into nutrient-rich compost for the nearby vegetable plot.

    While compost is an efficient use for food waste, the students learned that many of the ingredients we commonly throw away can be used to make a delicious meal. There's little in our cupboards which can't eaten – overly ripened bananas can be made into a sweet smoothie or delicious banana bread, unwanted pumpkin seeds can be toasted (they're a great source of fibre) and yesterday's leftovers can be made into a nutritious soup.

    Even the packaging can be used again with a little imagination. Using an old cardboard box, a plastic tube, some PVA glue and a handful of leaves, the students transformed unwanted everyday items into a caterpillar sculpture, among other works of art.

    "I've learnt that you can make anything out of anything," explained 12-year-old Dillon Sandhu. The student at King Edward VI grammar school in Chelmsford, Essex, was so inspired by the day's activities, he vowed to become a green activist at his school.

    He said: "Because there aren't many recycling bins at school, people throw most things away. But if I see someone at school throwing a banana skin in the bin, I will ask them, 'Why don't you use that for something else? You could take it home and use it to make compost.'"

    A drama workshop back at the Guardian's Scott room cemented the message that human consumption has a limit and we need to reconsider our insatiable hunger for the planet's limited resources.

    Alex Rowson, from Regent high school in King's Cross, admitted it was the first time he had thought about these issues. The 12-year-old said: "I've learnt that behind everyday objects, from water to chairs, there's a massive story. Just drinking a bottle of water might impact a lot of people. And buying a chair from a shop means cutting down trees which affects the environment. Green issues affect everyone, not just yourself."

    Pete Bains, a maths teacher at Regent high school, believes it is hugely important to educate students about the environment and sustainability, and campaigns such as the Live Better Challenge are helping teachers achieve that aim.

    The Skip Garden, he adds, has also been a vital resource for the inner city school whose students ranked sustainability among the top four most important issues to consider when the school was being recently rebuilt.

    Bains claims the school wanted to be a model for sustainability and they work regularly with Global Generation to run a combined BTEC in business and sustainability.

    "We think sustainability is a really important part of life," he explains. "Children should know about the environment and the impact it has on us. It's incredibly important to us.

    "We have something called the green week where every curriculum area has to have lessons which are focused on environment and sustainability. We ran a summer school based on that theme, with literacy and numeracy lessons."

    Making a difference to the planet is not necessarily about grand gestures and chaining ourselves to trees. As activist and Guardian journalist Emma Howard pointed out to the students at the beginning of the day, simple everyday actions such as buying Fairtrade goods or recycling can be a real force for positive change.

    "Who can change the world?" she asked the young eco warriors. "Us!" they belted back.© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A new book explores the massive global recycling industry and China's central role in transforming our rubbish into more stuff we want to buy

    Most of us have had the experience of rummaging in the attic at Christmas time for decorations only to find the Christmas tree lights are a jumbled mess at the bottom of a box. Every year many tangled sets of lights end up in recycling bins, but where do they go after that?

    There is a very good chance that they ended up in a small town called Shijiao in Guangdong province in southern China where they are taken apart and used to make other things such as slipper soles.

    What happens to Christmas tree lights is just a very small part of a massive industry that makes its profits from making things out of stuff we throw out. The global recycling industry is the subject of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by journalist Adam Minter.

    Minter takes a look at how the industry, in which China plays a central role, transforms our rubbish back into things we want to buy.

    It is a business that Minter knows well. He is the son of a scrapyard owner in the United States and spent much time working in the family business. He remembers that a lot of the scrap at their yard would be sent to China and he felt that when he came to China he was "hitching a ride on my family's junk".

    When he came to China working as a freelance journalist, he visited scrapyards and wrote about the industry and despite being many miles from home in a country with a different language and culture, he felt somewhat at home. "As someone who has grown up in the industry and around people who work in it, knowing my great grandfather and my great grandmother who did the very basic things like breaking brass from steel plumbing and I would see it in China and I felt a very deep kinship with the workers as well, right away I felt that these were my people in a sense."

    In the book, Minter follows the journey of our unwanted stuff as it makes its way from being rubbish to being recycled into something new. He travels from a sorting plant in Texas in the United States to Guangdong Province in southern China, which he describes as the "de facto headquarters of China's recycling industry".

    As China's economy has grown, so too has its need for raw materials to fuel the factories that make a vast array of products from smart phones to those slipper soles and the country's vast infrastructure from tower blocks to railways and roads.

    China now leads in the world as the biggest consumer of metals but doesn't have the resources to fuel demand. There has been much publicity about China's hunt for resources abroad, mostly in developing countries but not so widely known is that recycling plays a huge role in quenching its thirst for raw materials. Minter tells me that approximately half of China's copper supply now comes from imported scrap metal.

    While China imports huge amounts of recycling from Europe and the US, its booming economic has also created a consumer society which, just like us generates a lot of rubbish. In Europe we consider recycling to be a good deed and feel virtuous when we put our Sunday newspapers in the green bin and bring our bottles to the bottle bank. However in China there are no green bins, no bottle banks and no centralised recycling system. But despite this, a higher volume of waste is recycled.

    While there are no reliable statistics of how much of China's household waste is recycled, Minter tells me that nothing gets sent to landfill if it can possibly be recycled or reused. He says it comes down to money, recycling is driven by an economic imperative in China. This says Minter is why the recycling industry is so successful here and which is essential to ensure our rubbish is reused. "Without financial incentives, no ethical system is going to transform an old beer can into a new one," he says.

    The recycling industry in China is informal but extremely lucrative and employs a lot of people, more than in any other industry except agriculture, says Minter. A walk along any street in Shanghai shows a booming recycling chain in operation. There may be someone pulling plastic take away boxes from the rubbish bin, while someone else cycles past on a bike pulling a small trailer ringing a bell, the call for people to bring out their recyclable goods for which he will pay the equivalent of a few pence for. When he has a full load he will then sell it onto someone with a bigger vehicle and up and up the chain goes, everyone making money along the way. As Minter and I talk rubbish in a small café in the Former French Concession in Shanghai sure enough we hear the ubiquitous tinkle of a bell outside calling for recycling to buy.

    While ultimately it is providing an environmental service, recycling industries in China also have some negative impacts. In the book, Minter describes clouds of black smoke rising from junkyards as the plastic is melted to get to the wire inside. But he also points out that in his experience "the worst, dirtiest recycling is still better than the very best clear-cut forest or the most up-to-date open pit mine".

    He does not try to downplay the negative impacts but says it is a very necessary industry. "To be sure not every recycler is an environmentalist and not every recycling industry is the sort of place you would want to take kindergarteners for a field trip. But in an age of conspicuous consumption, the global recycling business has taken on the burden of cleaning up what you don't want and turning into something you can't wait to buy."

    There has been many media reports into recycling industries in Asia depicting toxic fumes and exploited workers. But Minter says this is a simplistic view and that rarely do these reports talk to the workers themselves about why they got into the industry. "I've been reporting a long time in China and I've yet to find anyone who has been enslaved in a scrapyard. One of the primary reasons that people go and work in this business s that the wages tend to be higher than factory wages," he says.

    Minter says there is some "ill feeling" about the industry in the west and that comes from our notion that recycling is a good deed. "I think people who look at recycling as this good deed find something really dirty about the idea that people want to make money from it. It's not supposed to be about making money from it, it's supposed to be about doing something from the earth.

    "It's one of the central messages of the book, whether we like it or not, nothing is going to get recycled without an economic incentive. Who is going to do it? That's a hard message for some people to take."© 2014 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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    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.

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    Recycling rates have fallen in half of the capital's boroughs and more rubbish is being burned

    Almost half of London's 33 London councils recorded a fall in the proportion of household waste they recycled in 2012-13 compared with the previous year, with a further five boroughs flatlining.

    Annual waste statistics from the department for environment and rural affairs also revealed that more than 40% of waste was incinerated, an increase of 17 percentage points over two years. Over the previous decade it hovered just over the 20% mark.

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