A Better Way to Recycle?

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  • Energy
  • Guidance
  • Research
Co-operatives UK
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This publication arose from work led by the Sustainability Working Group of the New Ventures Panel. The New Ventures Panel is a committee of individuals drawn from across the wider co-operative movement charged with the task of thinking about innovation in existing co-operative businesses, new opportunities for co-operative colonisation and ways in which the co-operative advantage can make a difference to business performance and the delivery of services. Its aim is to identify new opportunities in appropriate areas of the economy that have the potential to be successful co-operative ventures. For further information contact helen.seymour@cooperatives-uk.coop.

The author of A Better Way to Recycle is Erik Bichard assisted by his colleagues Liz Martin and Lee Allman, and Nick Dodd of URBED. URBED were commissioned to input case study information into the report.  IntroductionWaste management is fast becoming a key political issue. The debate about waste spans the entire sustainability agenda. If we get it right, we protect the environment, provide jobs and maintain social harmony within all our communities. If we get it wrong, we face higher tax bills, create inequality and contribute to degraded environmental conditions.

For centuries the UK has dropped its waste into large holes in the ground, called landfill sites. Landfill was convenient and relatively cheap. But now that option is fast disappearing. European laws are requiring more waste to be disposed of in a different manner and we are at last waking up to the hidden costs associated with landfill. Some European countries burn their waste instead of burying it, using large-scale incinerators capable of generating energy from waste. While this solution is also practised in the UK, it accounts for a very small proportion of waste disposal. There is widespread opposition to incinerator plants by local communities. Furthermore, incineration is not judged to be the Best Practicable Environmental Option (BPEO), defined as ‘the option that provides the most benefit and the least damage to the environment as a whole, at acceptable cost, in the long term as well as in the short term’.

Another option is to export waste materials. This practice has emerged in response to rapidly growing economies that are hungry for raw materials and have relatively cheap labour costs. In 2004 over half of Britain’s waste paper, and much of its waste cans and plastic, were sold to developing countries such as China, which use these materials in products that are often exported back to the source countries. But there are problems here too. Recycling should take place close to where the waste arises in order to limit transport distances and related carbon emissions. There are also questions about how sustainable these export markets really are, especially where their viability relies on poorer standards of environmental health and safety. So, if we can’t bury our waste, burn it or export it, then what are we to do with it? It is a dilemma that will not wait for an answer but will simply pile up outside our back doors until we figure it out.

But while some think of waste as an intractable problem, others see it as a golden opportunity. The key to this optimism lies in the way we look at waste. If waste is treated as a raw material, the issue is not how to get rid of it, but how to bring it back into useful production. Economic conditions currently favour the use of first generation or virgin raw materials over the recycling and re-use of secondary materials. But current conditions are changing fast. The cost of oil, metals and minerals will increase over the coming decades, and the cost of waste disposal will spiral upwards. This, in tandem with tougher laws on disposal, will produce large volumes of waste materials that need to be managed in some other way. These waste materials have the potential to support a new and lucrative recycling, re-use and recovery industry. Those that capitalise on the opportunities at an early stage in the development of this sector are likely to prosper in the future.


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