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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 least wasteful.
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 from scrap.

Recycling also creates jobs. At least 30,000 people are involved in recycling aluminium in the US; twice the number employed in primary aluminium production.
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 useful.
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 cars running.
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.




Project originally funded by EU and DfID with support from Tower Hamlets LEA