“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, designed or removed from production.” – Pete Seeger
Like many of us, I try my best to do right by the waste my lifestyle inevitably produces. I try to shop responsibly to minimise the air miles my food racks up. I try to avoid purchasing anything that produces more waste than it must. I try to reuse and repair as much as I can (Ok, so my wife is better at repairing things than I am but still…). And I try to separate my waste into the appropriate bins when the time comes to throw things away. But I’m becoming increasingly exasperated with the limits of this. I can see the results in my bins just before they go out for collection which still contain far too much in the way of un-recyclable plastics and other materials.
So I was genuinely interested when Tesco announced that it was going to start collecting a lot of these “soft plastics” at its stores for recycling. Especially as it included a lot of hard to recycle products like crisp packets and clingfilm wraps. When they installed a collection bin at my local supermarket I applauded it. It’s a good idea – or at least it would have been if it had worked.
This article in Bloomberg is an absolute must read. They planted trackers in packages placed into these recycling bins and followed them on their journey. If you’re imaging a short drive to a local facility where they are reformed into new products then you’re about as wrong as it’s possible to get. Instead, some of these packages went on a long and multi-stage journey across Europe – passing through many stages of being bought and sold with brokers and middle-men skimming off profits at every stage either via arbitrage on the waste itself as it crosses borders (if it’s cheaper to pay someone to move the waste on than it is to pay a local landfill fee, then onto a truck it goes) or by exploiting government subsidies by trading the plastics for carbon and recycling credits. Most of the goods eventually disappeared off the grid but some of it was eventually, though not conclusively, traced to an energy-from-waste incinerator at a cement factory in Poland. This process is described in the article as being as bad for the environment as burning crude oil.
This is the ultimate limit of “customer choice” in action. Having fought hard to prevent an energy-from-waste incinerator from being built in my own community it seems I can do little to prevent the plastic waste I buy and dispose of from ending up in one elsewhere even when I do everything “right”. If it even does. I can’t know for sure. So how, then, do I even make the responsible choice in the first place? And what will that mean for the ongoing campaign in Scotland to ban all waste incineration if it just pushes it out of sight?
This is not how we solve the climate emergency. The “Net Zero” approach is failing. We need a proper, comprehensive and complete Circular Economy grounded in Producer – not Consumer – responsibility.
What will the journey of our products look like if we get this right?
One thing has to happen for a start – our Government(s) must ban the export of collected waste – especially when doing so results in the kind of arbitrage and harvesting of tax credits that we’re seeing. The reason for an export ban is quite simple. We don’t have time to wait for a global treaty on waste or even on a bilateral treaty between Scotland and Poland. We can solve a lot of these problems with domestic standards and regulations. But we can only do this while the products and waste in question are within our legislative domain. As soon as we ship them somewhere else and lose sight of them, we can no longer control what happens to them.
Second, we must enforce total Extended Producer Responsibility on all parts of a product – including its packaging and any byproducts created by it (such as emissions or pollution generated by its use). Scotland and Wales have started to move in this direction but we need to move further and faster. Essentially, it should stop being up to me and my Council Taxes to pay for the disposal of waste but up to the producers of it (and this should include the rectification and repair of land damaged by fly-tipping and the littering). If a company’s products are found in the waste stream, it will be billed proportionately. If clear markers of origin have to be placed on packaging to facilitate this, then so be it – it’s not like many of these companies have been shy about advertising their logos up till now so I’m sure they’ll be fine with that continuing.
Next, there has to be a concerted effort to dematerialise the waste chain entirely. Companies must be compelled and encouraged to reduce the waste they produce through packaging and product end-of-life. This can start with, again, better regulation such as has been used to eliminate some waste like plastic straws but also by ensuring the fees for waste disposal mentioned above are set high enough that they don’t become the “cost of doing business” but actually do make redesigning products to be more Circular the only economically viable option. This is where a lot of these “soft plastics” will disappear. Shopping for groceries and the like must move in the direction of “zero-waste” to the greatest degree that it can. Shops like this used to be “normal”. They still are in many places like open air markets. Only the modern plastic-wrapped supermarket is the anomaly and it should be treated as such.
Only at this point do goods enter the consumer supply chain, though not – crucially – necessarily “the market”. The IPCC made it quite clear last week that a world that averts the climate emergency is a world in which extractive, growth-based capitalism no longer exists. We simply cannot afford to keep buying things and throwing them away.
A lot of the goods we buy can be replaced with borrowed, rented or leased versions and this must become the default option. Tool and resource libraries must become commonplace. In the wake of the otherwise largely ignored Climate Assembly, the Scottish Government pledged to increase the number of such libraries in Scotland to 100 within the next three years. This isn’t anywhere near enough (and I know the Government knows this because they’ve told me so). They must become at least as common as book libraries should be (i.e. we need to reopen those where they’ve been lost too). Every community needs a tool library within a distance that you’d be happy to travel in order to borrow, say, a hammer. This model of borrow/lease must also extend to other products too. Baby clothes and kids toys are an obvious must have. Other clothes such as formalwear (or normalwear!) would be good too – many Scottish men are already willing to hire a kilt so there shouldn’t be a barrier to this. Indeed, in our Common Home Plan we suggest an annual national competition amongst Scottish clothing designers to create collections on a regular basis as this could be an excellent way of promoting our domestic clothing sector and giving everyone in Scotland the chance to demonstrate that a Green New Deal means the very opposite of wearing nothing but a hair-shirt.
The next stage of the circular economy is re-use and should already be implicit in everything above. Anything designed to be single-use should have already been legislated against and anything borrowed, by definition, can be borrowed again but this also extends to the same principle that has seen us move towards reusable rather than disposable cups though, for the record, the Scottish Government’s incoming ban on polystyrene cups doesn’t go far enough as it preferentially discriminates in favour of the large corporations who have already moved to plastic coated paper cups that are almost as bad. No-one wants their drink to leak before they can drink it but does your soda cup really need to be able to hold orange juice for over four months? [Warning: Linked video is not for the faint of heart]
Next is a right to repair. Too many goods, especially electronics, are essentially sold as semi-disposable black boxes where if one component breaks, the whole device becomes useless. Producers must be compelled to allow user and third party repairs where possible (including redesigning products to make it possible), should design products to be easy to repair (e.g. use screws rather than glues) and must supply parts in a way that makes the repairs economically viable. Planned obsolescence should be illegal and Extended Producer Responsibility means that products should be supported for as long as possible (advances in additive manufacturing and 3D printing mean that even things like phone cases and shells should be possible to manufacture on-site if producers licence or open-source the specs to do so).
This goes too for the next stage, remanufacture. Standardisation and modularisation of components allows for components to be salvaged and repurposed into different products (perhaps the CPU in your phone could be rebuilt into another electronic device or old EV car batteries whose capacities have degraded somewhat could be rebuilt into home or community energy stores). Entire houses can be not demolished but carefully dismantled and their materials rebuilt into the next generation of passive-grade eco-homes if only they are designed to do so from the start.
Only, finally, at this stage do we start to consider something to be “waste” but even here, the first step isn’t to ship it to Poland for incineration. Those soft plastics that we couldn’t design out of the system must be compostable – in home or community compost bins if possible, in local bio-reactors if not. Many other products currently made from plastic or metal can be redesigned to be made of bio-plastic, wood or other compostable materials (such as the PLA commonly used in 3D printers – though this is an example of a bio-plastic that isn’t home compostable so we either need to think again there or actually start building the bio-reactors capable of breaking it down). The soil produced can, of course, contribute to restoring that which we’ve lost through poor land use.
Only once a material makes it through all of the above, perhaps multiple times, do we even think about “recycling” – that is, breaking a component down to its basic materials and sending it back to the start of the cycles. In many cases, we skip almost all of what should be intervening steps and recycle something after it has been used once. In too many cases – as shown by the journey of our soft plastics above – we don’t even do that.
The demands of the climate emergency are stark and our responses to it must be equally radical. But radical need not mean privation and “sacrifice”. If we create a Circular Economy correctly then it will mean that we all have access to more and better goods than we currently have, it will mean better services and it will mean fewer resources being consumed by cleaning up the mess we currently create. But this will only happen if we do create that Circular Economy correctly. It can’t mean half-hearted attempts, a few showcase Tool Libraries in places that almost none of us can reach or us shipping “recycled waste” across a continent to be burned in a “Net Zero” incinerator. Doing this right is only a little more radical than doing it badly and each of the individual steps are only a little way ahead of where Scotland and many other countries are already moving towards. We’re almost there. Once we arrive, we’ll wonder what took us so long.