Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Article: Boffin's Booming Bin Business

Recently I was approached to write about where we are at with recycling and sustainability in the UK by a rather lovely foreigner. Rather than scrawl something for someone else I've opted for the freedom of my more wry take on the subject which I hope suits our British sense of humour.

First though I should like to point out that in my view all forms of recycling are a route toward sustainability, and with modern innovation I believe it offers huge possibilities to safeguard our future in terms of the raw materials that enable us to function in business and indeed financially. The money saved could, and I think should, be invested in community services by way of a safety net against any misfortune that any of us might encounter - not least health care provision, housing, emergency services and national security to support our armed forces. What follows is very much my overall impression of how we in the UK are responding so far with regard to recycling with an strong hints of what else we could consider trying.

Recycling UK style

Here in the UK we are very quaint about everything we do and recycling is no different.

On the domestic front our local councils collect our rubbish once a week; in recent years once a fortnight it is recycled rubbish that is collected where I live. We are asked to separate out our paper from our tin and aluminium cans, our compost from our plastics and I think most of us do so now. Some councils collect glass, some do not. Our councils have dumps for when we have a major clear out. We cart a lot of rubbish to these (usually on a Sunday) from old mattresses, to batteries and rubble. If you go there with a van you will be charged for dumping rubbish more often than not so sadly some small businesses end up fly-tipping (dumping it in the countryside) which costs millions of pounds a year to clear up. Some members of the public at the council dumps separate out their rubbish, some still do not. Council staff, having no time or remit to sort it for them have to resort to unsorted rubbish being buried in landfills as of old which is what happens to all rubbish we don't know how to sort.

What happens to the recycled things the average British citizen is not quite sure. We are told it all goes to recycling plants, but we seldom hear of new ones being built. There are many complaints when they are as despite there being many disused industrial site throughout the UK, recycling plants along with new power stations seem to regularly end up being built somewhere brand new on virgin soil as the cost of cleaning up the pollution of disused industrial sites is often deemed too expensive. It probably seems so... in the short-term. We Brits don't seem to like to think about anything long-term if we can avoid it. 

Most of our supermarkets have overflowing glass recycling bins. Our local Fire station has a bin for clothing to raise money for its charity. And every week arriving through our letterboxes are plastic bags to fill to donate clothing and shoes to other many other charities from Air Ambulances, the NSPCC to Cancer Research and Disaster relief - we are not short of choice. We also have many charity shops who will gladly accept furniture, ornaments, DVDs, shoes and clothing. Some, but not all, will accept electrical equipment and try to get it to work again to raise money and to equip homes for our poorest residents - those that have a roof over their heads, many don't. Many people use Freecycle to donate items for free to any who want them or to ask for items they need but these are usually not antiques.  If things are vintage, retro or antique then items get taken to specialist shops and auctions. 

It would help if packaging of every kind was more easy to sort and not a mix of materials such as plastic, card and foil we find in juice cartons, as many of us are baffled as to which recycle bin such items belong in. The sheer size and quantity of packaging used to protect foods has become ridiculous with containers the size of a fry pan for a single Chelsea bun. Apparently we need it for the increase of information that is required. The fact it is often incomprehensible and that you need a magnifying glass to read it is neither here nor there. There was a time when no such labels existed on packaging at all but with an increase in allergies of all kinds everything merits warnings these days, so much so that soon what the food item is likely to get missed off the packaging some day soon. A sensible option would be to highlight food ingredients on a notice board where it is in the shop in legible type, but sensible ideas don't seem to be fashionable just now.

Industrial innovations

In the building sector there are superb innovations for using eco-friendly products and for building with recycled materials but these are often cost prohibitive for many and not used as standard. Most of our construction industry would need to be retrained to use these products. Old skills are slowly being revived such as building houses with modern versions of wattle and daub, straw, wood, clay and lime. Other modern innovations include sips (boards filled with a special foam) for insulation and strength and insulation from recycled paper.

We have dumps for old cars, and I assume aircraft, boats and trains. What we don’t have are people working as they do in developing countries to extract gold and other elements from mobile phones and other IT equipment. This is not surprising as we don’t believe in sweat shops and are not that keen on working conditions with no health and safety precautions whatsoever even though we complain when they are in place. That’s just part of being British though. We like moaning, queueing, talking about the weather, sport, food, music and fashion – it’s a tradition we like to maintain along with drinking tea.

As to saving energy, we seem to be busy building wind turbines and the additional gas and nuclear power station here and there. We could use water turbines under the sea with no danger to the wildlife because marine life is smarter than us anyway and avoid them, but I've not heard of us doing that. We’d rather carve up more of our countryside it seems until the whole of the British Isles hums and throbs to the unsettling noises of power generation. Modern nuclear power stations are said to be ‘mostly safe’. I think we’d prefer to know that they are totally safe but I guess we can’t have everything. I’m not sure that we’ve yet worked out how to get rid of nuclear waste but it seems we’ve decided to leave that one for future generations to deal with. We are exploring fracking now. Allegedly it’s safe. Funnily enough people said that about using fossil fuels and nuclear power so it remains a bit of a concern. The British people love being sceptical about just about everything. What we’re not so very good at is asking probing questions. We tend to leave that to the media and then panic when an issue comes up on the news after a problem has occurred.

Consumptive bad habits

Car usage does not seem to have gone down and most people still prefer petrol engines to anything else including using public transport, walking or cycling. We try to avoid sharing our cars when we can as we tend to chatter, party and argue in them as son as the engine is running. Our attitude seems to be that passengers in a car cause stress and potential injuries. Sometimes we get beyond running the engine when stationary and drive at great speed to the nearest traffic jam so that we can use our full range of expletives. It's a kind of protest against there being insufficient car parking spaces to create traffic jams. A few people insist upon driving under the influence of illegal drugs and alcohol to try to kill people when they find a traffic free road. Anyone who doesn’t use expletives when driving is considered an oddity and abnormal especially those who ride tandems with former news presenters. 

The mood is gradually changing toward recycling and sustainability but not very quickly. We Brits don’t have a tendency to change our habits very quickly unless it’s entertaining, profitable or in a national emergency e.g. because we’re under attack from foreign armed forces shooting bullets and exploding bombs on us...  much like America or any other democracy I believe. I think the best way to encourage people to recycle and opt for sustainable resources is possibly to turn it into an international competition to see who can save the most money and resources in the shortest possible time, but that’s my idea and they are seldom very popular. 

I recently suggested that people (particularly industry) should be fined for not recycling items which is not likely to be a popular idea at all. I also think manufacturers could do a lot to help reduce the amount of rubbish we generate by cutting down on packaging and entering into recycling things direct e.g. refilling milk bottles - as we used to when we had milkmen delivering to every household in the 1970s.  

What things are made from becomes a bigger nightmare for those in business and industry when we consider things like electronics, plastics, oils and metals. Are we to have labels informing us of what everything is made from soon? Our desire for everything to have a label was initially to document and help explain things, but the result is annoyance, apathy and confusion and no time to read anything at all. The fact that the latest technology uses some of the Earth's rarest commodities doesn't suggest that such things will be available for much longer unless we recycle what we have. Even commodities that are abundant such as iron come in many grades and forms, often mixed with rarer elements to become alloys and what we Brits don't know is how much of this ever recycled to prevent any of them running out.

It strikes me that it is only in times of global armed conflict that recycling becomes popular because then it is a necessity. Only then do we learn the value of each and every item and material we produce. Only then do we use our ingenuity to make the most of what we have. Sadly we have become a nation so used to our disposable items of luxury that it's become a massive undertaking to change our attitudes. We look to government to help but like so many nations, belly ache when it tells us what we could be doing ourselves to improve matters. Our parliament is beginning to move toward putting the matter back in our hands as it doesn't want the responsibility for which it is voted into office and paid handsomely for. It is well aware that our population of 60 million people never agrees on anything for more than five minutes and is looking forward to the day when we all beg them to take charge. In effect our politicians seem to be sulking because they don't feel loved or appreciated.  

To me the answer to becoming self-sustaining is to recycle and to use our ingenuity to maintain what we have already achieved. We just need to do so without being wasteful. In my opinion it would require a phenomenal collaborative effort from business, industry, our government and the public to do it, but I believe it is possible. It's preferable to moaning, bickering and worrying; it is preferable to running out of materials to work with. It is preferable to becoming poor - it is also preferable to entering into war again over the Earth's resources which I feel we should, after 2 millennium, all be sharing anyway. Have we forgotten the maxim "waste not, want not"?

 As any Yorkshireman knows... "where there's muck there's brass."

There are plenty of ways business and industry can take the initiative by ensuring that only recyclable products are on sale in the first place - a smart company is one that develops in that direction. I predict it is also set to be among the most profitable too. If nothing else, recycling, make do and mending saves money at every level and if we are to get clear of financial hardship for good it is prudent to invest in new products only when they are vital for a prosperous and secure future. 

PS: Boffin is a reference to a character from 'Our Mutual Friend' by Charles Dickens - his trade? Collecting rubbish.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.