Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Want not, waste not

It's not my area of expertise, but waste seems to be one of the big issues relating to Bristol's alleged greenness, so a few thoughts. We are producing unprecedented levels of material waste, much of it packaging of sometimes dubious utility. The costs of disposing of this waste is rising as attitudes towards what is environmentally acceptable change. It all reflects our growing levels of disposable (aptly named) wealth, so the wealthier dispose of a lot more than the less wealthy, yet what we each pay towards the cost through Council Tax only varies slightly with our wealth and bears little relationship to the amount of waste produced on an individual basis.

The old Friends of the Earth mantra was reduce, reuse, recycle (in that order!). We seem to have completely ignored the first two and focused instead on the last, where the benefits are often marginal. It is so typical of government to ignore the difficult fundamentals and focus on peripheral issues where token gestures can be made. We are endlessly told how much more of our waste is being recycled but rarely told how much more waste we are producing overall, and certainly not how relatively little the amount of non-recycled waste has reduced.

So let's consider a fundamentally different approach, one based on the polluter pays principle. The person generating the waste should pay for its disposal according to the amount and type of waste produced. We all then have a financial incentive to minimise our waste and to reuse and recycle. OK in principle but by what practical means can it be applied? Attempting to charge people at the point of waste collection is fraught with problems and the unscrupulous can easily evade such charges by dumping their waste elsewhere (e.g. in someone else's bin).

But there is another way of charging for waste, at the point of purchase. Yes, all waste is originally purchased with a cash transaction so how simple to add to the price a sum to reflect the likely cost of disposal, not only of any packaging but of the item itself. In the modern world few items purchased are not thrown away within a decade or two, even items of furniture which would once have been handed down through generations are now regarded as disposable.

The beauty of such an approach is that it could deal with the ultimate safe disposal of hazardous waste. Products that contain environmentally harmful materials could attract a larger initial disposal charge at the point of purchase to provide for a suitably large "deposit" to be refunded when the hazardous waste is finally disposed of in an approved manner. Refundable deposits could also boost reuse and recycling rates, as in the old days of deposits on soft drinks bottles. Well, that's my tuppence worth (or twenty pence worth with Advanced Disposal Tax included).


David Hembrow said...

Dare I post again so soon. You may be aware that deposits on bottles are still used in the Netherlands, and that recycling rates are high here (the link on my name goes to a webpage which shows some of the ways this is done).

However, there's more. Cars are sold with a "deposit" on them to pay for disposal too. So, the scourge of burnt out old cars as we seemed to suffer in the UK a few years ago when steel wasn't worth so much hasn't happened here, at least since the 70s when that policy was introduced.

Chris Hutt said...

I'm very grateful for your comments David. I'm by no means an expert on waste issues so appreciate informed comment. That bin emptying machine on your site looks impressive, but I don't suppose it would work with on-street parking.

In general I would say that we have a lot to learn from the Netherlands so any further links and comments based on your experience of living there will be very welcome.

David Hembrow said...

Actually, the bin emptying machine does work with on-street parking. We don't have cars on the street where we live, but other parts of the city do.

The machine has a longer reach than you might imagine. The driver has video cameras on the side of the vehicle which he uses to align fairly accurately with the bin.