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23 October 2017

The Circular Economy in ONE word...

circular economy...DEMAND.

I grow ever more frustrated with Sustainability pronouncements on Twitter which have more in common with a sappy old 'inspirational' Athena poster than hard economics. Recently I challenged a tweet which said that the 'circular economy' was being held back by a lack of public awareness. I couldn't disagree more (the tweet and tweeter have since disappeared, strangely).

Joe/Jo Public generally wants to know "what should I put in each bin?" They get frustrated that they can't recycle, say, expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging. This is technologically possible, but there's little or no demand so there is no point in collecting it. Once you create demand, the supply chains, technology and awareness will all mature rapidly and the stickers on recycling bins will change to say they can take EPS.

A great example of how demand works is how M&S went about building a supply chain for high-grade recycled polyester. They increased demand for low grade polyester fibre for bulk uses such as stuffing cushions. This brought economies of scale to the shared elements of the supply chain and helped bring the cost of high-grade fibres down to a reasonable level, so recycled fabrics became feasible. As they ramp up the number of products made from high-grade material, that unit cost will drop further and quality will improve.

You can't push material through a circular economy, you have to pull it through. That must be the fundamental principle for all policy, design and awareness developments.

 

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16 October 2017

The Joy of Composting

Compost recycling

On Saturday I started a garden job I love – plundering my multifarious (5!) compost facilities for brown gold. Normally I would do this in the spring, but a planned extension to our house means they've got to move. Unfortunately we will lose compost capacity in the new set up, but I don't think my boys would be happy if I told them they had to keep sharing a tiny bedroom because I needed a two garden compost bays, a food bin, a leaf mould bag and a wormery...

I love composting as it is the only true recycling that all of us with a modicum of outdoor space can do. And there's something fascinating about the processes involved – setting the right conditions for all those mini beasts, microbes and fungi working together to turn waste into, literally, a nutrient which is returned to soil from whence it came.

The downside, physically and emotionally, is the amount of plastic I have to sieve out of what should be in theory 100% biodegraded material. Small bits of polystyrene, baby wipes, envelope windows, errant bits of Lego, fruit labels – it's amazing what works its way into the compost.

For those of us who encourage organisations to go zero waste, there's nothing like a few hours of hands-on waste processing to remind ourselves of the practicalities. It's very satisfying to boot.

 

 

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1 September 2017

Sustainability is becoming 'The New Normal'

rusty car

Last week I chuckled at a typical silly season column in the i newspaper about Ford offering a scrappage scheme for older models of their cars. The author, Esther Walker, was justifying holding on to her old Fiesta on the (evidence-free) grounds that keeping it is greener than replacing it with a new model. She also quoted her other environmental efforts in her 'defence':

And – worse – I consider myself to be on the vanguard of modern environmental responsibility! You can hardly move in our kitchen for different recycling bins, colour-coded and stacked neatly. We break down our boxes tidily and use compost bags in our food waste caddy so’s not to traumatise the bin men with our grotesque food leftovers.

Sorry, to break it to Ms Walker, but this is not 'the vanguard of environmental responsibility'. With 43% of the UK's household waste recycled or composted (bearing in mind at least a third of household waste cannot easily be recycled at present), this is simply normal behaviour, replicated in kitchens across the country and across all demographics. My Dad recycles and he's no eco-warrior, it's just what people do now.

I remembered this week when I visited the factory of a potential client. What really impressed me was the way this pretty normal, well established engineering company had identified an important link in the low carbon economy to which they could apply their technology. They had built working demonstration models and were seeking investment to develop a fully commercialised version. They didn't see themselves as Elon Musk-style green evangelists, they were just identifying future market developments and working out how to exploit them. Normal entrepreneurial business behaviour, in other words.

Sustainability won't come from mindfulness, hugging trees or green evangelists. It will come when normal people, normal organisations and normal Governments see a sustainable economy as our normal way of life. And it appears to be happening.

 

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19 July 2017

Game of Thrones and the Sustainability Vision Thing

Great excitement chez Kane on Monday as, as soon as the junior members of the household were safely asleep, we could head back to Westeros and caught up with Arya, Jon Snow, Cersei and the rest of the huge, disparate but now converging cast of characters that populate the Game of Thrones universe. I'm not going to give anything away – one innocent click on Monday spoilt the opening for me, thank you very much Independent – but it did make me think about some of the Sustainability debates I've been having recently.

There's a strong fan theory that the overall story – tribes of people fighting to the death over the smallest of short term political gains while ignoring the existential threat of the White Walkers – is an analogy for our own short termism in the face of the threat of climate change. And of course, as the lengthy winter starts in Westeros, we can see the implications: food shortages, mass migration of threatened peoples etc, etc. And yet most of the characters are caught up in their own web of lust, hatred, envy, power and vengeance and pay little regard to the big threat.

So far, so good.

But I am still amazed at those who believe that the solution to climate change is to regress to some kind of pre-industrial state. Going 'plastic-free' seems to be the new 'gluten-free', seen as somehow inherently good despite a complete lack of evidence to back the idea up (the number of people who think they are gluten intolerant is many times the number who actually are). The Guardian ran a plastic-free piece on Tuesday, memorably including a 'pig hair toothbrush'. Nice. Read the rest of this entry »

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17 July 2017

Plastic isn't evil

Six pack rings

Every morning I walk up the hill to the newsagent for the morning papers and milk for breakfast. I try to pick up at least one piece of litter en route, just a tiny token effort towards keeping the neighbourhood and the environment clean. As I'm using my bare hands, I am rather selective about what I choose to pick, but I always go for six pack rings (usually four pack, but, hey...) as they are most likely to end up in our local river or green areas and strangle wildlife.

I've seen quite a few groups urging people to go 'plastic free' and individuals pledge to try to go 'plastic free' for a set period of time – by buying loose veg and drinks in glass bottles etc. We see beaches covered in litter and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a stain on the history of humanity. The message is clear – plastic is evil and we should get rid of it.

But, hold on just one darn minute.

OK, think about this. Glass bottles mean greater weight, means more carbon emissions in the supply chain. Loose veg means shorter shelf life, means more food waste, leading to more carbon and more land use to support the same population. If we went further in phasing out plastics, cars and aeroplanes would be heavier, less fuel efficient, and have shorter life spans. The very characteristics that make plastics an environmental problem – low density and durability – are those which make them part of the solution.

I think of plastic waste like the old gardeners' definition of a weed – a plant in the wrong place. As we shift to a circular economy, collection and recycling of plastics will be incentivised, meaning that litter will fall. That's not just wishful thinking – the UK's plastic bag tax incentivised the reuse of plastic bags, including heavier 'bags for life', and beach litter quickly halved. In other words, it's not plastic that's the problem, it's how we use it.

 

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26 June 2017

Heinz need to ketchup on customer engagement

HZK_3D_38oz-Ketchup-smallLast week I was chatting with a local authority recycling officer, checking exactly what I could put in my recycling bin (and if I'm not 100% sure...). We got on to the Lucozade Sport problem, then he mentioned his bugbear was Heinz, who, he said, don't even label their plastic bottles with recycling codes.

So, in an idle moment I thought I'd try the power of social media and tweeted to Heinz UK to ask why not. They promptly and politely replied that the bottles do have recycling codes, but they're hidden under the cap. I checked and they were right.

But.

But, but, but.

What's the point of hiding away your code? Everybody else puts it on the bottom of the bottle, and those members of the public, like me, who know that code 1 or 2 on a bottle means it can be recycled, will look for it there. Recycling plant operatives will certainly look for it there. And if a guy with decades of experience in household recycling doesn't know where it is, what chance do the rest of us have?

One of my Green Jujitsu principles is that Sustainability information must be placed where people expect to find the information they need. I often quote the example of a client who labelled all the machines in their production lines which should be switched off when idle, but didn't include any guidance in the formal manufacturing instructions which are held as gospel by operatives and their line management. The labels got ignored because, even though they were in plain sight, the information wasn't in the right place.

I've asked Heinz why the stamp isn't on the bottom of the bottle, but they haven't got back to me yet.

 

 

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19 May 2017

Pringles and Lucozade still don't get it.

prod_img-2927296_pringles_original_190g_enI love it when serious Sustainability issues hit the mainstream and yesterday's public shaming of Pringles and Lucozade Sport for difficult-to-recycle packaging across mainstream media channels really hit the button. What brought my initial excitement down was the begrudging response from the companies (quoted from The Guardian):

A Pringles spokesman said: “We take our responsibilities to the planet we all share seriously and are continuously working to improve our environmental performance. All parts of a Pringles can act as a barrier to protect the chips from environmental contamination and to keep them fresh. The freshness of our chips means a longer shelf life, which minimises food waste.”

This is indeed true, but there is an implicit 'or' in there (I don't like 'or's, they suck). Many manufacturers produce packaging which protects against food wastage AND are easy to recycle. Try harder!

Lucozade said it recognised its environmental responsibilities and had reduced its use of plastic in bottles by 540 tonnes over the last year. A spokesman added: “We welcome any technological breakthroughs that support this ambition.”

Two problems here. First, how significant is 540 tonnes? How many tonnes of Lucozade Sport bottles are produced every year? Without that context, this statement is greenwash.

But it's the final quote that really bothers me – the plastic sleeve which renders the bottle hard to recycle is a design choice by Lucozade, it is not an inherent property of the bottle. It is Lucozade's social responsibility to design that problem out, not anybody else's as implied by the quote. Get your finger out!

Hopefully both these defences are just that and the campaign will have both companies' (and others') product designers working overtime to square these circles. I'm always optimistic...

 

 

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17 May 2017

Are you curious?

questions

Yesterday I was interviewed by a geography student for his dissertation. He was asking about the reasons for my participation in a climate march in 2015. I had to tell him I am not a natural activist and, frankly, I'm not convinced that my marching amongst the tie-dyed ranks made any practical difference whatsoever to those we were marching past.

Why did I go? Well, I had my political hat on and felt that myself and colleagues had to turn up represent our party, particularly given the impressive Sustainability legacy of our seven years running the City. We needed to 'get the optics right' in political parlance, but, whichever hat I have on, my priority remains doing stuff rather than shouting slogans or waving placards.

I coined the phrase 'pragmatic environmentalist' to distinguish sustainability practitioners who live in the real world from those who see the environment as a kind of moral litmus test. In practice, pragmatic environmentalists try to lower the price of admission to the world of sustainability; dogmatic environmentalists keeping pushing the price up until a chosen few make the grade.

I gave the student the example of the blue recycling wheelie bins we could see from our coffee shop window. When we introduced these, the green movement denounced us as sell outs as most of the dry recyclates get mixed together in the bin, rather than separated out by the householder. But we were proven right as the recycling rate went up by 50% overnight because we made it easier for everybody to recycle, not just the green-minded few.

Another way to think of the difference is the comprehension gap between those who don't 'get it' and those who think that 'getting it' makes them better human beings. The pragmatic environmentalist builds sustainability in that gap, rather than clinging to the green comfort zone.

And one of the characteristics that sets the effective pragmatic environmentalists apart from their dogmatic cousins is curiosity. Curiosity about what makes people tick, how to find the right buttons to press to engage with them, why things are the way they are, how things could be made better. This is where the sweetspot of engagement and innovation lie, so we need to keep questioning ourselves, others and the status quo.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, stay hungry, stay foolish, stay curious!

 

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15 March 2017

Sustainability Masterminds on Waste

Baltic view

Last week saw the seventeenth – seventeenth, blimey – meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (an amazing venue, see above). Due to a couple of members being called away at the last minute, we postponed our proposed topic of maximising the value of accreditations, and did a series of short sharp sessions on topics that were bothering those in the room. The first of these was 'waste' and I thought I'd share some of the learning points arising:

  • Understand your waste streams, volumes and disposal routes
  • The true cost of waste is 10-30x disposal cost – and it ramps up from goods in to goods out as value is added
  • Use the 80:20 Rule – go for the big issues first eg product damaged at the end of the process
  • However, need to be cognisant of 'iconic' waste streams such as coffee cups. They may not be significant in practice, but laypeople often believe otherwise
  • General societal culture change in domestic recycling helps with recycling at work
  • Because it is tangible, waste can be used as an effective ‘entry drug’ for wider employee engagement for Sustainability.
  • Make sure reducing waste is always incentivised eg in tenancy agreements
  • Involve employees in developing waste solutions – you get better solutions and buy in
  • Don't empty recycling bins containing ‘wrong’ materials – makes the point very clearly
  • Make segregation easy and use a standard colour/logo scheme
  • Seeing somebody have to sort out mis-segregated materials can lead to a positive guilt trip (eg show the consequences)
  • Educate employees including understanding the benefits (eg £ per bag)
  •  Be careful with Waste Transfer Note terms & conditions – you could be signing an ongoing contract
  • Supermarkets are particularly good at waste reduction from suppliers – much to learn from them
  • Reduce ‘bought in waste’ from suppliers
  • Lean manufacturing techniques target and eradicate waste
  • Order dimensions and quantities carefully to avoid waste
  • Construction Site Waste Management Plans may not be legally required by law any more, but you can still insist on them in construction projects
  • Can use objective-oriented procurement and forward commitment procurement to drive innovation in waste management services

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18 January 2017

The Sustainability bar is rising – fast

Athlete compete in paul vault

There has been a raft of big Sustainability announcements from Corporations recently:

  • Ikea achieving zero waste last year;
  • Google saying they'll be 100% renewable-powered by the end of the year;
  • Unilever's pledge to make all its plastic packaging ‘fully reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025.

These are BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) and a half. And what's more they're being delivered. That's because big stretch targets such as zero waste or 100% renewable energy make you think in a quite different way to incremental targets. Business as usual will not do the job, neither will Sustainability as a bolt on.

Go large or go home.

 

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9 November 2016

Is zero waste really possible?


The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers whether Zero Waste is truly possible. Having working for many years in this particular field, I give the lowdown on zero waste and its true importance.

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions here.

 

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18 November 2015

Cast off the recycling blinkers!

blinkers

Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum annual conference, which believe it or not is one of the very few events I attend as a punter (all those commercial conference promoters are wasting their time). Why? Because the speakers are uniformly great and there's always plenty of food for thought.

However, the focus of the 5 speakers was almost entirely on the supply side of recyclates. So I stuck up my hand in the Q&A and asked should we not focus on the demand side - after all in a circular economy, demand will have more influence over supply than vice-versa. The speakers agreed and gave some really good ideas, such as dropping recycling targets altogether and shifting them into producer responsibility legislation to drive the use of secondary materials.

Great, but why aren't we talking about this more? Well, because we still largely see recycling as a way of keeping material out of landfill rather than as a way of creating raw materials. For a circular economy, we've got to cast off those blinkers and see the bigger picture. Basic economics.

There were other, positive, examples at the conference where casting off a narrow focus produced great results. For example, Andrew Gadd of Link2Energy pointed out that while it was standard practice to turn Energy from Waste ash into building blocks, but nobody was extracting the precious metals therein first. So we're locking valuable material up in our walls. Why? Because we are obsessed with quantity over quality which encourages down-cycling (and ultimately impacts on quantity). Recovering those metals first not only boosts the economics of the recycling process, it also removes the need for all the environmentally destructive mining of those metals in the first place.

And such recovery is often cheaper than mining – yesterday the press was reporting that a Chinese municipality has found that its sewage sludge ash has 50-100 times the concentration of gold that you get in the most productive Chinese gold mine. Where there's muck, there's brass.

As we walked to lunch, another delegate was musing on why we don't do this stuff. It's the blinkers we decided, we need to cast them off and think differently about the material we currently call 'waste'.

 

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18 September 2015

Goldflush!

plan b

Something I missed earlier in the year was the discovery that when we sit on the toilet, we are literally sitting on a goldmine. US researchers found that the amount of gold in our faeces is about the same as that in mineral deposits. Another study estimated that, by extracting all metals, the annual excrement of a million Americans could be worth $13 million. There are over 300 million Americans, and a further 900 million plus living in OECD countries whose consumption patterns are broadly similar. You do the math.

In addition, extracting toxic metals such as lead would make it more viable to use composted human waste as fertiliser – maybe extracting gas first – turning a waste material into a potential product.

I love this kind of thinking – urban mining in the true sense of the word where everything from road-sweepings to our own poo is seen as a potential goldmine. Where there's muck indeed...

 

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20 August 2015

Waste is a verb, not a noun

waste is a verb not a nounJust saying...

 

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22 May 2015

Circular Economics 101

circular economy

Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum in Darlington. NERF is one of the very few green events I attend as a punter as they have great agendas and I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces.

The speaker I most wanted to hear was Andrew Dickson from Zero Waste Scotland. During the Q&A, there was a debate over the circular economy. I said while I was pleased that Andrew had said encouraging things about the need for a circular economy, most of Zero Waste Scotland's efforts seem to be focussed on pushing decent quality recyclate into the loop, and that it wouldn't be sustainable without industrial demand for the material.

Andrew reiterated his position that quality standards were necessary to unlock demand, but a representative from a major waste company waded in on my side, saying "We could produce much higher quality material than current standards – if somebody wanted to buy it."

Interestingly, the next speaker, Jenny Robinson from WRAP, put up a graph showing the decline in recycling of newsprint due to falling newspaper readership, which she said would cause problems for hitting UK recycling targets.

"Do the recyclers in the room want more newsprint?" asked the Chair.

"No." came a firm voice from the back "Supply and demand."

And that, to me, sums up the challenge for the circular economy. We can set all the targets, action plans and quality standards we want, but the basic economic principle of supply and demand will make or break it. Demand will increase volumes, drive efficiencies, improve quality, cut costs and spur innovation – as it does in every other industrial supply chain. Focussing solely on the supply side – the default approach of most public servants and quangocrats – is doomed to failure.

In the circular economy we cannot ignore basic economics.

 

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29 April 2015

I am a Wasteman

I haven't been watching much scheduled TV recently, but I wasn't going to miss the  Wastemen documentary on the BBC last night. Not just because it was an insight into the sharp end of sustainability, or that it was set in my town; rather it's because (with my political hat on) I was part of the team who set up Newcastle's two bin waste collections, opened the Sita Materials Recycling Facility at Byker which featured and gave the mixed recyclables contract to O'Brien's. I have skin in this game!

It was a very entertaining programme with the various crews and operatives clearly enjoying having the cameras on them. Of course I was grumbling a bit about some of the impressions it gave, particularly about the level of public recycling (sampling has shown that 64% of recyclable material is recovered in Newcastle – good but with room for improvement.) Green pressure groups berated us when we introduced the semi-mixed recyclate bin, but participation shot up afterwards because we made recycling easy – which was a big lesson for me.

But the overall impression was the incredulity of the bin crews of how much decent resource goes to waste. Unlike us individuals chucking a bin bag in the wheelie bin every day or two, these guys see the big picture – both in sheer quantity of waste and also what does get chucked – day in day out. Unused electrical items, bikes with one flat tyre, wide screen TVs left the waste men scratching their heads.

You can get told these statistics and examples time after time, but to understand it properly, you have to experience it. I don't have the depth of experience of the bin crews, but I've been around enough recycling/incineration and disposal sites to get a real feel for what we do throw away.

If you want to engage people in sustainability, giving them first hand experience is often the best way to drive the message home. That could be a visit to a landfill, or it could be a drive in an electric car. But experience always trumps advice.

 

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16 April 2015

How the Manifestos Measure Up for Green Business

polling stationSo, the UK election rumbles on and this week we had the Party manifestos. So what do the parties offer on sustainability? Trying to be as objective as I can*, here's my quick and dirty review of the five national parties, in order of current number of seats in Parliament:

1. Conservatives

Big Headlines (ie mentions in key pledges):

  • None

Detail:

  • Reaffirmation to meet international commitments on climate change.
  • Pro-fracking.
  • Investment in renewables but with an emphasis on 'cost effectiveness'. Halting 'spread of onshore wind farms'.
  • Every vehicle to be zero emissions by 2050, double cycling, investment in railways.
  • 'Blue Belt' of marine reserves.

My verdict: Token effort – and a mixed bag at that.

 

2. Labour

Big Headlines:

  • None.

Detail: Read the rest of this entry »

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28 November 2014

You can't push a circular economy

Green ThreadYesterday I went to the North East Recycling Forum (NERF) Annual Conference, which as usual, punched way above its weight when it comes to speakers. We had Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM, David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SITA, Roland Arnison of AEA Ricardo and Mark Shayler of Ape giving a wide range of views from the waste industry through to the whole nature of consumption.

The broad theme of the morning was the circular economy and Steve and David started with the EU circular economy package which was adopted this year. What bothered me though, and I said so, is the provisions in the package revolve predominantly around the waste end of the linear economy - with the headline target of a recycle rate of 70%.

As Dwight D. Eisenhower put it:

Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.

The one factor which will make or break the circular economy is demand or pull. Without demand, you can try and push as much stuff into the recycling pipe as you want, but it'll be like trying to push string - or a shop full of unwanted and unsold toys. And, even indirectly, recycling target based on quantity, not quality, is unlikely to attract much enthusiasm from the manufacturing industry - the cart is being put before the horse.

If the EU changed their focus to setting standards for recycled material in products then it would create demand for high quality secondary materials. This demand, and only this, is essential to create the pull which would bend our linear economy into a circular one, driving up quality and pushing down cost. It's that simple.

 

 

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19 May 2014

Go Big or Go Home

Dilbert.com

I get a little frustrated with the obsession with the little stuff. People fretting over the best time of day to charge their mobile phone, or, like Dilbert, whether polystyrene or paper cups are better, or calling for a ban on plastic bags. Some of this navel gazing gives counter-intuitive results like when people buy a smoothie rather than bottled water when the latter has a lower carbon footprint, but social stigma forces their hand.

This is all displacement activity and won't make a damn difference to the state of the planet.

If you are serious about cutting your personal impact, then insulate your loft, cycle/walk to work and holiday at home. If you are serious about the impacts of your organisation, then identify the big impacts and tackle them. P&G famously did this with Ariel Excel Gel where their biggest impact by far was heating water in washing machines, so they developed a low temperature washing product.

We only have a certain amount of time, energy and goodwill to act. Wasting that limited resource on activity for activity's sake is a crying shame.

 

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3 March 2014

Rules are made to be...

redtape

I try and avoid the nitty-gritty of environmental legislation if I can help it, but occasionally I  dip my toe in the water to keep up with broad principles. For the latest on waste/resource I head to the North East Recycling Forum which really punches above its weight - one of the few events I attend as an audience member only. At the meeting last Thursday I noticed a worrying theme in the discussion - legislation which is trying to be helpful but ends up being prescriptive.

Exhibit 1: the waste hierarchy is actually written into some European legislation. While the hierarchy is a useful rule of thumb, it is just that and not a rule of Nature. For example, it is almost always better to recycle 100% of a waste stream than to reduce it by 20% and have to landfill the other 80% because it is not economically viable to recycle. The hierarchy cannot help you here.

Exhibit 2: the next update of the Waste Directive requires Councils to implement source segregation of recycles rather than co-mingled collection unless they can prove the latter is better. I know from my own experience as a Councillor that when we shifted from source segregation to semi-co-mingled, the amount collection collected shot up by over 50% as the system was much, much easier to use - it also cut litter, traffic congestion during collection and operative injuries. So why put the onus of proof on what is for many the obvious solution?

But this is not just about legislation - as human beings we have a terrible tendency to constrain ourselves by sometimes completely arbitrary mental rules. The green movement has its own shibboleths where, to take five examples, nuclear energy, biodiesel, GMOs, markets and carbon-offsetting are all clearly the work of the devil. This fundamentalism is not helpful when we face the scale of the challenge we face - we might just need some of these tools in our toolbox in some form or other. So it is important to challenge our own assumptions, listen to well reasoned dissenting voices and not jump to conclusions.

 

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