I’ve just got back from an excellent talk by Dr Paul Connett, Professor of Chemistry, St Lawrence University, New York.
Dr Connett has researched waste management issues for over 14 years and is a world leading expert in incineration. He has given over 2000 talks in 52 countries with the aim of bringing clarity to the issue of incineration and sustainability.
The meeting was hosted by Ian Mean, Editor of our local paper “The Citizen” who opened the meeting by saying that waste was one of the two biggest issues we currently face in Gloucestershire. The meeting was organised by supported of four local campaign groups – Glosain, Glosvain, SWARD and Gloucestershire Friends of the Earth.
Incineration: A poor solution
DR Connett’s opening line was “Incineration: A poor solution for the twenty first century” and I knew we’re in for a riveting 1 1/4 hours.
One and a quarter hours is a long time to talk, and an even longer time to listen, but this flew by and before we knew it, people were queuing up to shake his hand, ask questions and Little Miss green had her head resting on my lap for sleep.
Paul covered the arguments against incineration, told us why gasification (and other technologies) were not the answer and covered the zero waste strategy solution.
The talk was compelling; not one to dwell on the negative, the thrust was to focus on the solution – a call to action for a zero waste future. The message bought to us was that what we do as individuals has an impact on the world. Paul pointed out that during the 20th century, the focus was on waste management and how to get rid of waste efficiently and with minimal damage to our health and the environment. The 21st century focus needs to be on RESOURCE management and sustainability for future generations.
Consumption is key
The real problem, as Paul sees it, is fighting everyone’s over consumption. By the time a child is 16, they have watched 350,000 TV adverts; all telling them they can be sexy, intelligent, popular and happy if they buy x,y, and z. He pointed out that Development is measured by how quickly we can extract, produce, consume and waste something. See Annie Leonard’s “The story of stuff” below for a dynamic 20 minute talk on this.
Incinerators still need landfill!
Incinerators don’t challenge our consumption and they sabotage genuine moves towards sustainability. Incinerators also stifle innovation because you have to feed it. The shocking statistic I wasn’t fully aware of was that for every 4 tonnes of stuff you burn in an incinerator, you still have to LANDFILL 1 tonne of toxic ash.
Dioxins and toxins
We were then told about dioxins, and all the other toxins given off by incinerators such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic and shown that dioxins accumulate in animal fat. This means you don’t even need to be living near an incinerator to suffer some of the negative effects. You simply need to eat the animals that have been grazing on nearby land to ingest dioxins. Once you get these dioxins in your system you can’t get rid of them; except for women, who can get rid of them by having a baby. Apparently any dioxins stored in your fat goes into your baby when you get pregnant.
Zero waste solutions
After all the facts about why we should avoid incineration, the rest of the talk was on the solution – the zero waste model. Comprising of things you would expect such as kerbside collections, home composting, recycling, reusing, repairing and moving into other lesser thought of areas such as de-constructing, economic incentives, waste reduction initiatives and better industrial design, Paul showed us how a zero waste future was possible.
He talked about many inspiring communities all across the world in Nova Scotia, Japan, Spain, California and Italy who were virtually sending zero to landfill and incinerating nothing. Areas where recycling programmes were in place, community composting was commonplace, refills were the norm and new parents were given free reusable nappies! To see some of these inspiring stories visit the American Environmental Health Studies videos page.
Quality of life
The message we were left with was that we had to teach the future generations how to separate their quality of life from material consumption; reiterating that if we continued as we are living now we would need another 2 – 4 planets to sustain us. He also optimistically told us that a threatened community is a strengthened one if people work together. He reminded us that change begins with every person talking to their friends and neighbours.
Spread the message
I hope you all feel great about that, because I know many of you talk to your friends and colleagues and you must keep doing that – you have no idea how far those ripples will spread in time.
At the end of the talk, Ian Mean called Dr Connett’s talk “Inspirational” He said “We really know why the UN wants him back and what I got was that we can all do something.”
Indeed we can all do something; right now. What will you do today to make a difference?
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