Sunday, October 26, 2008

Waste Debate

On Thursday, I went along to the Darlington Friends of the Earth meeting at the Quaker Meeting House in Skinnergate.

It was convened by the FoE specifcially to give a presentation on recycling in Germany to councillors, in the context of Darlington Borough Council's own plans to overhaul domestic waste disposal next April. Of course I had a special interest in the debate, given my portfolio responsibility.

I counted 14 councillors present; 10 Labour, 3 Tories and a solitary LibDem. In all, about 40 people attended. People's contributions were listened to with respect, even when significant differences of opinion were aired.

On a positive note, I thought the presentation about recycling in Bremen and Bremerhaven was very illuminating. It demonstrates the strides made on the continent in this important area. Whilst we have lagged behind cities like Bremen, ambitious towns like Darlington are now striving to catch up.

It's fair to say that there wasn't a meeting of minds on the new waste contract. Darlington FoE don't believe that waste should be sorted for recycling at a processing centre (as will be the case for cans, for example, after next April) and instead feel that everything should be separated by the householder at the kerbside. So in Bremen, for example, we heard that each property has 7 recycling bins.

In my contribution, I pointed out that there were points of agreement between the Darlington FoE and councillors from all the parties in Darlington. There is a cross-party consensus, it seems to me, that climate change is a real threat and is having a demonstrable impact now on the environment. I pointed out that Darlington has a strong environmental record already (think of the twin Sustainable Travel Town and Cycling Demonstration Town initiatives, for example).

Therefore, I thought it was a shame that the FoE weren't able to acknowledge at all the enormous change for the better that the new waste contract represents, even given their reservations about some of the scheme's details. This year we will recycle about 25% of our household waste - next year that is projected to rise to 50% and we have ambitions to take the figure to 70% by 2020. The contract with Wades will revolutionise recycling in the Borough, and make us one of the top performing in the North East, if not more widely.

That's a remarkable increase. Given that material will be taken out of the black bags for recycling, it means that everyone in the Borough will be taking part in the scheme, whether they like it or not! Currently, about 50% of people in Darlington actively recycle, which means that a lot of material is going into landfill which could otherwise be reused.

Before I had to leave, FoE member Richard Grassick made a very useful contribution in which he pointed out that there certainly were areas where FoE and the Council could co-operate - on waste minimisation, for example. I completely agree - the "reduce" message is a key driver of our waste policy, and there are signs that this is bearing some fruit - the total tonnage of waste generated in darlington actually fell during the last quarter.

With councillors on the Environment Scrutiny Committee gearing up to meet with local supermarkets to see how they can help with the 'reduce, reuse and recycle' approach, I hope that last Thursday's meeting will be the beginning of a fruitful partnership that will advance the sustainability message in Darlington.


Anonymous said...

strange to talk about Partnership when in fact Friends of the Earth have led you! - and you are following in part,although it should be in full. Why are you not ahead of the game? You do not have to measure against the stragglers you could just be a shining example and not gloat - just modestly doing it, not cos youve been lobbied but just cos its the right thing to do for the world eh?

miketually said...

I'm only relatively new to FoE as a whole, and to FoE in Darlington in particular, which is why I stayed quiet on Thursday evening. I'm still not as clued up on the various systems available as I'd like to be, and I'm open to persuasion about the merits of the system proposed for Darlington.

However, I have lots to say about recycling in Darlington, and a lot of questions which maybe go beyond exactly what Darlington Council does and look more fundamentally at exactly what is meant by recycling.

I was really impressed by the Wades set-up when we visited. They have obviously thought out every aspect of their business, to minimise their spending and to maximise their profits. This leads to a very efficient system and efficiency is great as it means less fuel use. Unfortunately, Wades are limited by market forces and this doesn't necessarily lead to the best outcome for the environment and this is where the idea that the market and private businesses can make a real difference fall down.

Some of the outcomes of the process which will take place at Wade's site are not liable for landfill tax, but are not exactly what most people would consider to be recycling. If glass is ground down and put into a long thin hole in the ground, before being covered in tarmac, is that glass really being recycled? If food waste is turned into an inert material and is then used to cover over the top of a landfill site, is it really not landfill?

Perhaps central government need to look at a range of taxes for a variety of different level of waste treatment?

I, personally, don't have a problem with use of an MBT plant for separating residual waste, but it needs to be made very clear to the people of the town what is going to happen to their rubbish, and it needs a much bigger push from the Council to get people to reduce the waste they produce in the first place.

Many people fall into the mindset that so long as they're putting their water bottles into their recycling (or, in future, the black bag into which they stick all their waste), they're 'doing their bit' and being 'green' without considering that they'd have been much greener if they'd just drank tap water. (See also carbon offset car insurance, the Toyota Prius and reusable bags.) We need much better education of consumers to make greener choices, and we need a push from central government for this to happen.

Where I am concerned about the new system is how it makes it very difficult for a householder to get a handle on how much of their waste will be recycled and they may think that all of it will be recycled. Where I am in two mind on this is that it could make people think about their waste as a whole, rather than assuming that there's no problem with creating waste if it is going to be recycled. Is there any research into waste creation level when using a black bag system, compared to a kerbside separated scheme?

I'd be interested in seeing a breakdown of the figures for the increase in recycling expected under the new scheme. In particular, how much of this is actually an increase in recycling and how much is simply down to removing some of the water from the landfill, making it lighter, or from treatment of food waste which could, perhaps, have been treated differently to produce something which is useful for food production rather than soil stabilisation or landfill capping.

I'd also be very interested in knowing how the 5% reduction is waste produced in Darlington in the first quarter compares to waste produced in the whole country, since I would expect to see a reduction in waste produced in the run up to a recession anyway, regardless of what the Council is doing.

This has become much longer than I first intended :)