|Each year the
UK produces quite literally a mountain of waste - over 400 million
tonnes of it - and household waste continues to grow at a rate
of 3% per year.
Virtually everything we use creates varying degrees
of waste throughout its lifecycle. There is waste associated
with the extraction, harvesting, manufacture or transport
of materials, waste associated with using a product, e.g.
a car using oil, or a toy using batteries, and finally the
negative impacts of waste disposal.
The extraction of resources often impacts negatively
upon Southern countries through mining or logging for example.
Yet the people of Southern countries themselves are often the
Our increased wealth and prosperity have come at a price. We have built
mountains of waste in the North and left scarred environments and societies
in the South.
Managing our waste
Most household waste in the UK ends up in landfill sites,
rotting down to produce methane - a powerful 'greenhouse'
gas - and poisonous liquids. As spaces for landfill sites
run out, an increasing amount of our waste is incinerated,
producing health-harming dioxide emissions. Burning waste
actually only reduces its weight by two thirds and leaves
behind toxic ash. This must then be got rid of - usually
it is landfilled.
So, step up recycling?
Recycling reduces pollution, saves energy and reduces costs while slowing
down the rate at which non-renewable resources are depleted. The UK
currently recycles only 8% of all household waste. The Government has
targets to recycle or compost 25% of household waste by 2005. Switzerland
meanwhile has already achieved 52%.
Recycling saves resources. One tonne of recycled newsprint
is equivalent to almost a dozen trees.
Recycling saves energy. It requires 20-25 times more energy to make aluminium
by smelting bauxite than it does to melt and produce 'new' aluminium
creates jobs. At least 30,000 people are involved in recycling
aluminium in the US; twice the number employed in primary aluminium
Yet, despite the obvious benefits, recycling is in fact
the lowest priority in the '4 Rs waste minimisation hierarchy'.
The most important priority is to reduce the amount of
waste we create in the first place. Next comes re-use,
followed by repair and finally recycling.
See more about the 4 Rs in 'waste:
the 4 Rs' on this site
The South - already there
Some of the lowest levels of waste and highest levels of recycling are
achieved in some of the poor countries of the South. This is because
thousands of poor people earn a living by collecting materials dumped
at public waste-disposal sites or in the streets for turning into something
Resources also tend to be reused and repaired to a much greater extent.
Malawi for example, like many poor African countries,
still operates a return/refund/refill scheme on bottled drinks
while Cuba is famous for keeping its ancient fleet of American
Most significantly Southern countries tend to produce much less waste
in the first place and use considerably less energy. Mexico produces
just half as much waste per person per year as the US and Bangladesh
has the lowest consumption of energy per person per year in the world.
Most Southern countries haven't deliberately chosen to be low waste,
reuse, and repair economies. They have ended up as such due to poverty
and limited resources. But perhaps it is time for the affluent, and consequently
wasteful, economies of the North to learn some lessons in waste management
from the South.