Christmas is a time for giving, receiving –and chucking packaging and unwanted stuff in the recycling box.
The UK produces nearly 300m tonnes of waste each year. It’s estimated that every Christmas tree bought in the UK this year put end to end, would be the equivalent of a return trip to New York City. Combine that with the 4,500 tonnes of tin foil, the 13,350 tonnes of glass and enough wrapping paper to go round the equator nine times, and we’re talking about a huge amount of rubbish – and that doesn’t even touch on the gifts and gadgets that are chucked away because they’re broken, old or ugly.
The recent launch of DEFRA’s Waste Prevention Programme, produced in partnership with WRAP, is meant to instruct consumers and industry on how to reduce waste at whatever point they happen to be in the supply chain.
I was recently invited by the United Nations university to view its e-waste Academy (EWAS) – a kind of bootcamp of academics and researchers specialising in what happens to all the gadgets and goods we use once we’re fed up with them or a new model comes out.
The aim is to lay the seeds for global solutions to a problem that has its roots in the supply chain of everything we encounter – everything we use has to be made somewhere and in that process articles are commonly disposed of.
Waste issues go beyond the consumer, they start at the raw materials stage and continue after disposal stage. You even encounter “illegal transboundary waste flows”, when one country lacks the capacity to get rid of a certain type of rubbish and sends it on for another country to deal with. This can either be done legally through export or illegally by forwarding it on to developing countries, sometimes in the guise of aid donations.
We discussed the “urban mine” – the idea that electronic waste can serve as a very profitable source for stock metals such as copper, aluminium and iron. The UK produces around 915,000 tonnes of e-waste each year.
“Instead of heading to countries to mine for precious raw metals, recyclers can extract already processed metals from the gadgets we throw away for repurpose,” says Fanny Lambert a process engineer from Belgium on the EWAS programme who specialises in polymetallic wastes.
WRAP estimates that by 2020, electronic items purchased in the UK would total 10m tonnes, including over 400 tonnes of gold, silver and platinum that has an estimated market value of £1.5bn.
A visit to a recycling facility in Altdorf, Switzerland, run by defence company RUAG took us through how e-waste is processed. It is manually sorted by type and then funnelled through the factory where workers separate and sort what they can from each item. “We get some benefits from running recycling but the real money comes from waste byproduct,” says RUAG’s Daniel Keller who took us on the tour. “I can’t really tell you how much it is worth to us.”
It’s clearly a lot. A defence company that prides itself on low-emission munitions surely wouldn’t get in on the game unless there was money to be made. He wasn’t too keen on answering a question about whether metals extracted from domestic items in the recycling facility could end up elsewhere in RUAG’s product line.
So how much waste will Christmas produce? Swico Recycling – the not-for-profit electronics take-back scheme RUAG has partnered with to help with recycling e-waste – has an insight.
“We have peak seasons, such as Christmas and when people tend to move house,” says Roland Haberamecher, Swico’s technical auditor at Altdorf. “We don’t have actual figures, but on the ground we see a jump from the end of December until the beginning of February. Lots of consumer electronics, televisions, unwanted stuff.”
“Because a recycling fee is paid when you buy a new product in Switzerland, people are encouraged to bring unwanted items back to where they bought them for recycling,” says Swico’s Anna Keller.
“All societies produce waste,” a DEFRA spokesperson told me. “Our first priority is to prevent waste, but where waste does arise we need to deal with it in the best way possible, and that often involves recycling.”
They argue that prevention and recycling are not at odds. Packaging regulations require that a proportion of packaging can be recovered and recycled, and their Sustainable Electricals Action Plan seeks to eliminate the “built-in obsolescence” we get with most consumer products (the reason why new toasters last a couple of years and the one your mum had in the 60s is still going strong).
Just how green is recycling? A recycling facility like RUAG’s produces around 3 tonnes of dust everyday. They have a process that extracts metals from that dust and then they burn the rest. So as good as a conventional recycling plant is, it still produces waste.
A step up from this is closed loop recycling – where waste and by-products are used to make something new. It’s a fascinating process that could mean manufacturers would never have to rely on extracting virgin materials from the earth. So your drinks bottle will be shredded to make another bottle, or a carrier bag and so forth. But all of this takes energy – and what powers green energy is another supply chain rabbit hole altogether.
With the UK’s national waste and recycling industry worth ￡23bn, you can make the case that overconsumption underpins outwardly eco-friendly measures. Will encouraging and legislating in favour of recycling make people more wasteful? After all, you can buy and dispose of whatever you like because someone is going to renew it in the waste stream for you, right?
Actual conservation and sustainability requires a systemic shift in how you view things of value and how you value things. To paraphrase the eminent popular culture philosopher Jessie J, perhaps it “ain’t about the price tag”.
This article was first published in The Guardian, 17 December 2013.