Dr Paul Connett’s “Zero waste and sustainability”

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Dr Paul Connett gives a compelling talk on zero waste and sustainability

Dr Paul Connett gives a compelling talk on zero waste and sustainability

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?


About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (16)

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  1. Layla says:

    WOW, it’s great you got to hear Prof. Connet speak!!

    I’d love to hear him speak here in Slovenia too!!

    I’ve known these things pretty much already (researched them while researching the blasted incinerators!) but it’s different if an internationally recognized chemistry professor tells them and people may take them more seriously!
    (That said, Prof Connet was in Slovenia about a decade ago and that incinerator got stopped then, so wishing you the same luck over there! Unfortunately, incinerators in other locations got pushed then, so it’s important to be watchful!)

    I wonder if his talk was recorded by any of the TVs, local or inter/national? (Maybe your new links at BBC etc could help?) And covered by press etc?

    I love it how you say ‘resource management’ – you have to know what you’ve got to see what you can do with it!

  2. Poppy says:

    Thank you for this report Mrs G. The meeting was on my wish list, but Mr P had something on as well 🙁

    I hope Mr Mean puts a good piece in the paper.

  3. John Costigane says:

    Paul has long been a spokesman for sustainable practice including the avoidance of EfW Incineration with its many negative outcomes. As well as the toxic fly-ash, 5% of residual ash, the larger bottom ash component, 20%, has recently been excluded from foam concrete production, due to explosions associated with hydrogen release in the waste material – article on LetsRecycle.

    Video coverage of better practice in the USA, Canada and Australia shows what can be achieved. This adds to our UK Zero Waste trend where consumers have been forced to take the lead in waste reduction. The Green family’s successful year’s effort shows the way for other families. If everyone followed suit the waste problem would diminish quick style.

    The recent setback in Pear’s soap packaging is another challenge to overcome. Lush provide all kinds of home cosmetic bars, all suitable for unpackaged container purchases. I currently buy shampoo, deodorant and bath salts bars with each good value for money. Soap can easily be added to this list to avoid the plastic waste altogether. As consumers, we can choose Zero Waste options to reward good practice. Tetra Paks are another good example, where the Swedish based manufacturer is willing to take back the whole used package, giving us all a Zero Waste result. Other companies will eventually see the value of these activities and adjust to better practice.

  4. Jane says:

    We have to trust that ‘recycled’ means just that and that it is not just collected separately to reduce landfill and create another waste stream. When are we likely to have more than just collection points for paperboard cartons in this country? We have been told not to put these cartons in with the cardboard but in special recycling banks and in the kerbside collection yet it appears that a proportion of it or perhaps some types of it can be recycled with other cardboard. Meanwhile yet another paper mill in the UK has just gone into receivership.

  5. Great to at last meet you folks – this piece is an excellent summary of some of the key points from this inspiring evening – I’ve taken the liberty of pinching it for my blog and adding it to my blog post on the evening – of course heavily credited and linked back here to your site – hope you don’t mind – can remove if you want. What was good in the talk was the linking back to consumption – but that was also the area Paul didn’t really address – how do we encourage and support people to reduce consumption? Yes taxes on packaging etc can help but there is alot more to it…..

    Just got your comment on my site – thanks for letting me off this time for using your stuff!

  6. Joe K says:

    That was an impressive summary, Rachelle, especially if you penned it yourself. What gets me about ‘experts’ like Paul Connett is the way they punch out the soundbites, but skim over the less convenient statistics. If you swallowed everything the ‘opponents’ of ‘incineration’ (not so opposing when the issue is their own party building an incinerator in the next county), you would think all our rubbish was going up in smoke, rather than the bit that *can’t* be recycled. If so much waste is going to go to an incinerator, it’s scary to think what a huge task the recycling of the rest is, but I rarely hear the campaigners of SWARD and GlosAIN (who you managed to credit above when the Citizen didn’t) telling us we should stop making waste all together. I hope the best, most sustainable, ecological option is selected, but I won’t rule out incineration any more than I will stop considering the other options.

  7. Mrs Green says:

    @Layla: Layla, he was fantastic – so passionate and articulate. You’re right; we can all read about things, but to hear somebody speak with such enthusiasm (and he only claims expenses, the actual talks come free) was a great experience.

    @Poppy: Did you see the piece in the paper today, poppy – Little miss Green is in the centre of one of the pictures too; we didn’t even know it was taken. Shame you missed it; it would have been great to meet up.

    @John Costigane: thanks John; it’s thanks to Rob and yourself that I first heard of Paul, so I was not going to miss an opportunity to hear him speak. I remember watching his you Tube vids and being glued to the screen.

    @Jane: As far as I am aware, Tetra Pak are working with councils to step up kerbside collections, but I don’t know the latest news. I can try and find out some figures if you like.

    @Cllr Philip Booth: Hey Philip, great to meet you too! There were many issues not addressed, but I think we could all have stayed for a week to discuss things! I agree though, reducing consumption is a massive issue and I’m not sure how we would tackle that.

    @Joe K: Hi Joe, yes I penned it myself; I can’t afford a ghost writer 😉
    It’s good you are keeping an open mind and weighing up all the options. I think many people are, while there are others who are either pro or anti incineration.

    I think one of the challenges is that we are NOT yet reusing, recycling and composting as much as we can. If we did (rather than just pay lip service by saying ‘I’m doing all I can’) I think there could be a much brighter future where incineration was not needed, but that will take everyone from consumers to manufacturers to Govt to work together.

    This isn’t happening at the moment and all the while manufacturers are allowed to create unmarked plastic packaging and goods with inbuilt obsolescence, and while each authority has different recycling facilities and consumers are confused and time poor I guess sending it up in smoke is the ‘easy’ short term answer.

    We’ve found that things we were throwing away last year can, in fact be recycled. It’s just that manufacturers weren’t telling us what the packaging was so we were ‘forced’ to throw it away. Several companies I spoke to told me they didn’t mark it because the majority of authorities could not recycle it – what an arrogant assumption! If I know what the material is, I will find a way to recycle it, because I care enough to do it.

    However, I believe with some proper planning, education and living in a society where we view our rubbish as a valuable resource we **don’t** need to create waste. The bottom line is, we need to stop producing packaging and products that have to be destroyed – if the consumer cannot reuse, recycle or compost it then it’s a symptom of a design fault and industry shouldn’t be manufacturing it. BUT, as consumers we have to use our money to vote! If we keep buying the stuff then we are saying we support and endorse such products.

    The debate is huge, as you and I both know and I’m sure we could jostle this one around for the next month or so …

  8. Joe K says:

    True words, especially the last three and a bit paragraphs. Particularly annoying are the plastic dessert cups for things like chocolate sundaes that you get in Asda. I used a dozen of them last summer, in conjunction with cut off 2l plastic bottles, to make mini cloches for sunflower seeds, but there’s little other use for them. Still haven’t found a ‘killer ap’ for Pot Noodle cups.

    I *did* find a Youtube clip (in three parts) for the Connett talk, though – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Kf8lew6jFY. It was essentially a condensed version of many arguments I’ve heard before, and his aspirations stand or fall on the degree of public support for recycling that can be achieved. What stood out for me was that if recycling really is so much better as an option than recycling, no government, however ‘stupid’, could support the former. However, the biggest setback for Labour politicians who use the incineration issue against the Tory-led county council is that the government *won’t* rule out that technology, any more than Stan Waddington will. So when I hear/see these kind of arguments, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

  9. Layla says:

    Interesting discussion!

    Well, the reason the govt or individual counties are pro-incineration is there is A LOT of money turning around in this (millions and BILLIONS of Euros or pounds!!) So the industry is heavy with lobbying, and some very high officials (in UK too, I hear) may have vested interests!!

    There is also % that go into some people’s pockets, under or over the table, as legitimate % or ‘hmm?’. Also some businesses earn money (eg building industry that is currently in crisis otherwise, at least here, so they will lobby for work wherever they can too!)

    If you ask someone from a waste company, they will say incineration or refuse-derived-fuel are ‘interesting’ – but they do not know answers to the question if anyone is working with businesses, merchants, designers and general public to make less waste or design waste-free products and waste-free life. (This is wider than just designing products, it may include architects designing buildings differently, including shops and blocks of flats etc. Nurses educating future or new Mums on diaper-free or cloth diaper babies, etc!)
    Psychologists, scientists, engineers, designers, PR people, teachers, journalists.. a lot of people would be needed to make a ‘life-style change’.. It’s happening gradually, in some areas faster than others…

    Never underestimate stupidity of any government, individual people or masses. ‘If everyone is doing it, it must be good’ etc. If the sellers of incineration technology have a great powerpoint/video presentation, many will believe it. Few will go online googling for independent studies (and sometimes there will be none to see, manufacturers may conceal own data or play down some numbers and give false reassurances or plain lies etc. It depends what is burnt in these studies too.)

    Also never underestimate resistance to change. How many people have a vague wish to ‘live healthier’ or make New Year’s resolutions… There are lots of clear factors for healthier living, yet there are many profits in ill people! Pharmaceutic companies keep selling in EU forbidden poisons for cotton in India and then of course medicines to keep everyone ‘healthy’. If international and/or EU legislation prevented selling such toxics on other continents, and/or importing such cotton to EU, then maybe cotton would become more expensive again and people would buy less. It makes sense.
    Of course, many will lobby against this, as they only see cheap short-term profits. (They call themselves ‘libertarians’ online, pretty much.)

    Those yogurt or sundae pots you mention may not be so good for your health either – check what artificial additives or sugar replacements they might have? Wouldn’t it be healthier to make your own sundae? 😉
    And pot noodle cups – hmm? My Grandma used to make her own noodles, in exchange for eggs for her relatives too. Either learn to make pasta or get a waste-free vendor? 😉 (Where you can buy with own boxes etc) We’re working on this, still not quite there either.

    If/when oil becomes more scarce, again there will be less cheap stupid throwaway products. There could be a tax or laws/regulations on this too. Why does the world need cheap flimsy (possibly toxic) plastic toys that break when kids take ’em into hands? You can see right away that something will break, some still buy it cause it’s cheap… If it were taxed it would be more expensive, and if it were banned, they couldn’t buy it. Why not only allow fully & safely recyclable or safely compostable things into shops?
    (That some things can’t be safely recycled is an argument some scientists use as pro-incineration. So why allow making or importing them? Laziness? Greed? Fear of uproar? There are lots of factors why any government might be afraid to go into that direction, unless it’s a grassroots movement from the people by the people for the people. If everyone or 80% people cheer for this, govt will happily jump aboard too! They mostly just want votes!)

    I have to say my Dad (older white male, similar to govts worlwide) is less aboard the whole make-less-waste plan than Mom. So partly it may be just demographics? (Then again, maybe he just needs to be lobbied more with facts and figures and alternatives? It must be so easy even he can do it. hmm..?)

    In an economic crisis, people buy less too… (Some lament this, environmentally it might be opportunity for change from old to better more sustainable products and technologies too…) So I think partly this may be a natural process..

  10. Rob Whittle, NAIL2 says:

    Layla, Mrs Green

    Paul’s /ivybridge video and ppt slideshare presentation at the following link



  11. Mrs Green says:

    Brilliant – thank you Rob! Hope you are well today 🙂

  12. Hallo!

    Greatings from Germany! I have made an informationpage about an german recycling- and waste- management- idea in german and english language (kryo- recycling). Pleace spread this information to all persons, you know, that many people get knowkedge about this idea and good alternatives to incineration.

    If you and others have some more or new information, pleace send the information to my adress under the text.

    Here is the link to my informationpage:

    With best Greatings, Felix Staratschek, Freiligrathstr. 2, D- 42477 Radevormwald

  13. Layla says:

    Thank you so much for the links, Rob & Felix!!

    LOTS of wonderful stuff there!!

    Haven’t heard about kryorecycling before, is it still in research stage or do some companies already implement it? (And with what results?) I would also be interested if there are also any toxic emissions with those procedures, how much and what kind?

    That cbs video about e-trash in China is simply a must-see for everyone!

    I think it would be great if computers etc were designed so that they could be easily and safely taken apart & recycled into new things. The question is how to design such computers and electronics and ensure safety of recycling procedures, and eg what to make out of lead glass from CRT monitors etc?

  14. Mrs Green says:

    @Felix Staratschek: Hello Felix, welcome to the site and good luck with your own work at raising awareness – I hope you will come back and add to our lively discussions 😉

  15. Rob Whittle, NAIL2 says:

    Of interest. Last month a select group of civil servants met.


    In Item 5 Joint EfW Project is was decided Points 12 i-iii that Defra/other departments felt they needed to con and hoodwink the Public better with regards getting guised incinerators through planning and permitting..more coordinated spin, more PR, more gloss via LGA/OGD media machines, more browntogreen wash, carefully spun ministerial announcements and avoid the “Incinerator” word.

    The board welcomed the project and efforts to clarify the role of energy from waste and in discussion made the following points:
    There would need to be careful handling of ministerial announcements. The public perception of energy from waste was often closely associated with incinerators and sometimes failed to recognise the advantages and technologies available.
    The LGA and OGD’s media teams should be kept informed of developments in order to ensure a co-ordinated approach to communication and joined up messages.
    It would be important to consider how EfW facilities can serve both municipal and commercial waste markets.

    These guys have been at it since 2000 promoting or appeasing burners. Groups have fought them and exposed their tactics at every stage for 10 years an more. It will probably affect the promotion of the Gloucestershire burner. Hope the Public can see through it and tell Defra to join to an incinerator free strategy for Gloucs and the UK.

  16. Jason Grant says:

    I would like to draw your attention to an alternative technology that is totally green, perhaps less than half the cost of an incinerator, processes 100% of the waste, separates the recyclables from the perishables, no odour, no fumes and no danger to anyone. This technology also generates energy to power a town, it also produces bio-ethanol as a bi-product from the waste on a commercial scale, it also can be used as a platform to teach school kids about renewable energy.
    I am sorry to introduce myself this way as a private company but incinerators are not the way forward and just paints a picture of the old days with tall chimney stacks and plumes of unfriendly smoke contaminating the air.

    Jason Grant
    [email protected]

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