a talk to the 6th Annual Scottish Waste Management Conference, Glasgow, 10 October 2007
Thank you. Like a good opening speaker, I've tried hard to find a good joke about waste, but I failed. All the waste jokes I found on the internet were, well, rubbish. And one I was sent by the consultant George Niblock, who may be known to some of you, was, well, unrepeatable. So I've slightly adapted a joke mocking engineers instead. Forgive me if you've heard it.
A mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, a waste engineer and a computer software engineer are all travelling along the road in an old banger when all of the sudden the car backfires loudly and comes to a juddering halt.
"Ah!" says the mechanical engineer, "I know what the problem is - it'll be the valves, or the piston in the engine."
"Nonsense!" says the electrical engineer. "It'll be a problem with the spark plugs or the battery!".
"No, no, no," says the waste engineer, "there's bound to be something wrong with the exhaust."
As they argue, they notice that the computer software engineer hasn't said anything, so they turn and ask what should be done.
"Errr," says the computer software engineer, "how about we all get out of the car, count to ten, get back in again and just try to restart it?"
It's good to be here. This is an important conference, dealing with a vital subject at a good time. I have two roles today. First I am going to give you a short scene-setting presentation. Then, after you've heard Richard Wakeford from the Scottish Government and had a short coffee break, there are almost 20 varied and interesting sessions on offer before and after lunch. These look to me like a kind of inspired pick and mix of vital topics including a few poachers-turned-gamekeepers, a nascent TV star and a man from a consultancy talking about waste incineration - sorry thermal treatment - apparently named after the ultimate movie hardman, Rambo. Maybe that's how thick-skinned you need to be if you're selling incinerators. At the end of the afternoon, suitable charged from all the sessions you've attended, I hope you will come full of questions to the final session, which I shall be chairing, due to start at 3.45. I shall be mediating what promises to be a compelling discussion between five experts on 'Consumer responsibility - how do we make it happen?'
But first, now, my task is to give a short scene-setting presentation, with the aim of giving you just a taste of the issues to come, and perhaps pose a few questions that might be discussed in the course of the day. My plan is to talk first about landfill, then about recycling and the progress that's been made. Then I'll say something about a few of the problems that remain - waste minimisation, consumer attitudes, charging, incineration, and keeping our own house in order. I would stress at the outset that I am merely a journalist, an observer and a lay commentator on events, rather than any kind of expert. I am, of course, like everyone else, a consumer, a waste producer and a waste disposer. But I am no specialist. Forgive me if I'm telling you things you already know, and please be kind if I make mistakes. Also forgive me if I steal others' ideas and pass them off as my own - but, as a journalist, that's what I do.
We all know what the problem is - waste, mountains of it. The every-increasing amounts of rubbish that our consumer society produces have to go somewhere. In the past, it has mostly been dumped in holes in the ground, but this is now widely recognised as unsustainable. Sooner or later we'll run out of landfill sites. They can also be dangerous, and are ugly, unpopular and sometimes very smelly. Crucially, left to themselves they generate significant amounts of methane, one of the most powerful of the greenhouse gases that we now know are responsible for disrupting our climate. Most people now agree that the climate change that is being caused by global warming is one of the most serious problems that Scotland, and the world, now faces, threatening storms, floods, droughts and worse. It cannot be ignored. At the moment it is one of the greatest challenges facing humankind.
Progress on recycling
Faced with the growing mountains of waste, and bound by European laws aimed at cutting the amounts that can be disposed off as landfill, Scotland and the Scottish Government have been making progress. A £375 million investment in facilities and infrastructure over seven years has led to a major improvement in recycling. The average levels of household waste being recycled has risen from just 7% in 2000/01 to over 28% now. That is a major achievement in just a few years, for which the previous Scottish Executive has to take credit. The difference for millions of people across the country has been dramatic. In my case, the difference has been astounding. I lived and worked in Germany for three years in the 1990s. There we had six different waste streams all with different pathways - paper, glass, plastics and metal, organic waste, batteries and waste to be dumped as landfill. We had to pay for each landfill waste bin to be emptied with a token. No token, and it wasn't emptied. When we came back to live in Edinburgh, shockingly, the system wanted us to go back to one waste stream - everything in the bin, and get it collected every week. Having become accustomed to the German way, that felt so wrong. We tried to recycle what we could, and German friends who came to visit were appalled. I remember them standing in our kitchen holding up yoghurt pots or tin cans and asking which bin to put them in. Embarrassed we had to tell them - the one rubbish bin. But in the last few years, that's happily all changed. Funded by the Scottish Executive, like other local authorities, the City of Edinburgh Council has revolutionised its recycling. We now have a chart on the wall in the kitchen telling us that paper in blue bags along with bottles and cans in a blue box must be put out every other Wednesday, with cardboard and drink cartons in a red box out every intervening Wednesday (this morning before I left in fact). A brown bin containing garden waste goes out fortnightly on a Friday, though not throughout the winter. We've also installed, with the help of the council, a garden composter for our kitchen waste. And our landfill bin is meant to go out every Monday morning, though I have to say that ours is usually so empty these days we don't bother putting it out every week. I didn't this week. It's been a big change, and in my view, a big change for the better.
Remaining problems: waste minimisation
Naturally the picture is not all so rosy. There are a number of remaining problems - serious challenges that we need to face. Perhaps the most serious is the ever-rising amount of waste being generated, and the need to reduce it. A report last month by Audit Scotland said that average household waste in Scotland, currently at 1.1 tonnes a year, has been growing by 1.25% every year. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has predicted that the total annual waste generated could increase from 3.3 million tonnes in 2003/04 to 4.3 million tonnes by 2020, though it has pointed out more recently that the rate of increase has been going down, falling to one per cent last year. Audit Scotland concluded that Scotland will be unlikely to meet the targets to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill set by the European Union for 2013. In theory this could result in the Scottish Government being fined. So we are good at recycling more, but at the same time bad at producing more waste. There are a complex series of factors involved here - marketing, consumerism, costs, packaging, economic growth, human aspirations etc etc. But alot comes down to our fundamental attitude to waste. To illustrate that, I want to show you some more pictures, that I found very striking. I am indebted to John Ferguson from SEPA for this picture.
T in the park
This is the aftermath of Scotland's biggest rock music festival, T in the Park in July this year. As you can see, it looks like a waste land, or as John pointed out, an abandoned refugee camp. What was striking, he said, was the amount of discarded goods that were in useable condition. They included tents, chairs, cooking gear, sleeping bags, bed rolls, including still inflated double air beds, Wellingtons, clothes and food. One of the girls in John's party scavenged a tent and a sleeping bag to use. There must have been thousands of pounds worth of abandoned goods, plus an unbelievable amount of rubbish. This was, as John Ferguson said to me, "throw away society at its worst". This scene, I would suggest, is symptomatic of the problems we've got to face. The awareness and attitude of young people like these festival-goers clearly needs to change, as does the awareness and attitude of the festival organisers.
There are other major barriers to overcome. Of course, as I experienced in Germany, one of the potentially good ways of persuading householders to reduce the amount of waste they put out for landfill is to start charging them directly for doing so. Personally I'm quite relaxed about this, but I'm afraid there are many others, epitomised by the Daily Mail, who are not. People don't like paying more money for anything, and it doesn't take a genius to see that any attempt to introduce waste-charging is going to be fraught with political difficulties. But the issue is definitely coming onto the agenda. Charging has recently been recommended by Audit Scotland. Tied in with that, is the reluctance of many householders to dispense with weekly collections, though that might be a logical outcome of increased recycling. That's another difficult political argument. Introducing waste charging and removing weekly collections - if that's what needs to be done - are going to require leadership, and a considerable amount of skilled public relations.
Another looming problem is waste incineration, or as some people prefer to call it these days, thermal treatment, or energy-from-waste plants. It's not just that incinerators have an image problem, which they most certainly do. Or that few people would welcome an incinerator in their backyard. The problem brings to mind acronyms from George Niblock: NIMBY of course, then NANMBY - not anywhere near my back yard - then NOTE - not over there either, then NOPE - not on planet earth - then BANANA - build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. It's also that environmentalists worry that incinerators, when built, create a demand for waste and so undermine efforts to minimise the amount of waste in the first place. Hence any attempt to build a rash of big new incinerators, as some are suggesting will be necessary, is going to be met with opposition and controversy. The question really, I suppose, is whether incineration is actually going to be necessary to meet the European targets for cutting the amount of waste dumped. On this, I just notice one thing. A Scottish Government briefing, circulated to delegates at last week's waste summit, seems to suggest that if we boost the recycling of biodegradable municipal waste to 60% by 2013 and 70% by 2020 we could could half the amount that goes to landfill and meet the targets. Some of you will have seen that briefing, but if you haven't it is available to download on my website.
The news of course is not all bad, as I was saying earlier. The Scotsman last week had a report on the waste summit saying that recycling in Scotland nears 30%. Again as I said earlier that is an achievement. Though, forgive my journalistic habit of always looking on the dark side, I couldn't help noticing that the City of Glasgow Council is at the bottom of the local authority recycling league, managing only 16.8%, compared to the average of 28.5%. I know they say that's partly due to the large number of tenements in the city where it is more difficult to organise recycling, and I know there's some truth in that point. But - and I know this is a dangerous comparison to make, especially here- Edinburgh has lots of tenements and it's managed to achieve a recycling rate of 24.4%. And 18 authorities have achieved recycling rates of over 30%.
Talking of looking on the dark side, I also wrote a story in the Sunday Herald at the weekend which had a very different take on Scotland's recycling rate. A table pulled together by the Scottish Government in the briefing to last week's waste summit that I mentioned just now, shows that, despite all the efforts the nation has been making to boost recycling, we are still way behind almost every other country in Europe. More than 70% of our waste still goes to landfill, more than every other country amongst the original European Union 15, apart from Greece. Our recycling rate - 28% - also compares badly with more other countries, with Austria, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands all managing to recycle 60% or more of their waste.
The media is not always negative, however. Sometimes it can be harnessed for good, and can be a powerful ally in fighting a cause, such as waste reduction.
This is a front page from the Independent in January this year. As you can see it is campaigning powerfully against waste by tapping into many people's instinctive dislike of excess packaging. A shrink-wrapped swede is the example they've picked on. And, it seems, the paper got a strong response from readers, who wrote in in their hordes with examples of crazy packaging. We've all got our own examples. It's the individual, double wrapped CDs and DVDs that get to me. They are just so hard to get into! Being me, though, I can't help noting that on the same days as the Independent is urging us to cut down on waste, it is giving away free postcards of Britain. Will that have helped waste minimisation, I wonder.
Getting our own house in order
That raises a wider point, that I think is important, and I want to end on. We all have to get our own house in order. Newspapers of course are far from perfect. They create lots of waste, they probably don't use enough recycled paper in their production and they are often inconsistent. I dread seeing some of my articles alongside car adverts or cheap flight offers. But at least we can take some comfort in the old adage that today's newspapers are tomorrow's chip-wrappers. Surely a classic example of re-use. And in the long term, I think newspapers are likely to be replaced by electronic news media which could be less wasteful and less resource-intensive. Maybe.
But it is not just newspapers that have to get their house in order. It is everyone else. I couldn't help noticing, for example, that one of the former Scottish Executive's aims of cutting the waste being produced by civil servants has not been fulfilled. The most recent environmental report produced by the former Scottish Executive on its own performance in December last year said, and I quote: "The most concerning element here is that while we have increased the amount of waste we have sent for recycling our total wastes arising has also increased by 18% from last year’s level." So clearly, as the Executive accepted at the time, it has some way to go before it achieves sustainable waste management. We all have. Even, I would hesitantly venture to suggest, the good people who organise conferences such as today's have things to learn. As I mentioned at the start, saving waste is an integral part of the fight to prevent global warming. So we need to try and cut the pollution we cause as well as the waste we create. Why then, in the guide circulated on how to get here to the Hilton today do we find a very complicated and detailed diagram of how to drive to the Hilton from Edinburgh, the south, or Glasgow Airport. What about those who want to try and get here without a car, and the pollution belching from its exhaust? Here there is no mention of buses, no mention of trains, no mention of how to walk or cycle. Just airports and cars, that's all. If we are serious about wanting to cut pollution, surely we can do better than this?
Enjoy the rest of the day, the next speaker, Richard Wakeford, and the workshop sessions, and I'll see you at the end of the day for the panel discussion. Thank you.