Recycling – a modern form of alchemy

Filed in Blog, Guest Posts by on September 30, 2010 8 Comments
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Environment minister, Lord Henley

Environment minister, Lord Henley

This week’s guest post is by Environment minister, Lord Henley. His portfolio includes Environmental regulation, Air quality, Climate change, sustainable development, Bee health and waste and recycling.

Today he explains how, in amongst all his briefing materials, one particular ‘inverted triangle’ caught his eye – the waste hierarchy – the cornerstone of the department’s waste policy …

Nowadays it’s difficult to find anyone who does not have an opinion on the subject of waste and recycling. The 100,000 plus hits myzerowaste gets each month underline the point.


It’s the first thing many people think about when they look to ‘do their bit’ for the environment. At a stretch you could say the process of recycling is a modern form alchemy – turning base metals into recycling gold – or at least turning old plastic bottles into brand new ones.

Saving money and creating jobs

But recycling does more than that. It saves energy. It also saves natural resources, which would be lost to the productive economy if they were consigned to landfill. It supplies valuable raw materials to industry. Recycling create jobs and save people money.

Waste hierarchy

Recycling is only part of the equation though. More and more, our policies are influenced by the whole waste hierarchy. It’s a useful framework to help people think about how best they can deal with their waste.

Waste policy

In fact it was one thing that stood out from the briefing material I received when I first joined the department in May of this year. In amongst the papers on Pesticides Regulation, Circus Animals and the EU’s Environmental Noise Directive stood one small inverted triangle – the waste hierarchy – the cornerstone of the department’s waste policy.

Dealing with waste

Businesses and local authorities have asked for help on how to apply the waste hierarchy in practice. In response, we have published draft guidance – and I hope some users of MyZeroWaste have had a look at it and given us feedback. It provides a checklist of what we can do with our waste to maximise the benefits I listed earlier. (the consultation is now closed; a final version of the guidance will be published later this year. It is intended to be updated yearly to keep up with technological developments.)

waste hierarchy

waste hierarchy


The first step in the hierarchy is waste prevention. We can all make a conscious choice to buy products that will last longer, or are made using fewer resources, keep them for longer or pass them to someone else who will re-use them. The simple use of consumer purchasing power will encourage retailers and manufacturers to stock and make items that reflect their customers’ expectations. Another area where we can all make a difference is food waste. Being a bit more careful about the way we store food, or planning what we cook better could save every family between £400 and £600 every year.

Reuse and repair

But at some point, inevitably, most items will become waste. We therefore have to continue to be a little creative and think about what we can do when we are done with something. This is where the next option comes in – preparing waste for re-use. Many unwanted items can be passed to organisations or businesses specialising in checking, cleaning or repairing them, so that they can be used again, or provide spare parts.


After reducing and reusing comes the alchemy option – recycling. Making an aluminium drinks can from recycled aluminium only takes 5% of the energy needed to make one from virgin ore. We have now got the technology and capacity in the UK to turn old drinks bottles back into bottles, and a whole range of other useful things. From mobile phones and other electronic products we can recover rare and precious metals. We can make good quality compost out of food scraps and garden waste, at home and in bigger facilities. More and more councils provide a wide range of recycling facilities; the alchemy works if we provide the raw materials.

Creating power

What we cannot recycle can often be used in other ways, for example as an alternative source of power. This has great potential and is in the vast majority of cases preferable to landfill. The technologies used here include incineration with energy recovery, high-temperature combustion (pyrolysis and gasification to give them their technical names) and of course anaerobic digestion, which harnesses the decomposition of organic matter to produce biogas.

Final disposal

Mentioning landfill brings us neatly to the last option under the waste hierarchy – disposal. Our default position here is that this option should be the last resort. In the past disposal was our first resort. I think this is partly down to history. Over the years we’ve dug a lot of holes in this country. When we exhausted the resources we were mining and we could dig no more we thought it a good idea to fill these holes in and what better way to do that than throw our rubbish in there – a win-win solution! Regrettably not. Not only does that produce methane (twenty times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), but it also means that we are throwing away a potential resource for the UK economy – just for these reasons alone disposal has to be the very last option.

Alternatives to waste

That’s the waste hierarchy. A straightforward concept – easy to understand and use.

So next time you are looking at those tired lettuce leaves, or that jumper you have not worn for several seasons, even the old mobile phone at the back of your sock drawer – think of that inverted triangle, be creative and find an alternative to throwing them in the bin.

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 (8)

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  1. Julie Day says:

    I do my very best to recycle as much as I can and not waste foods. I recycle mixed plastics now at my local Sainsbury’s, and empty ink cartridges I send to Recycling Appeal, and plastic wrappers mostly get taken back to Sainsbury’s too.

  2. Antonio Pachowko says:

    Nice article shame that Eric pickles is trying to take waste management back to the stone age.

  3. Nick Palmer says:

    100,000 hits a month? I’m jealous!

  4. Jane says:

    Yes it IS disappointing that Councils spend so much time on Recycling and so little on Reduction and the rest of the waste hierarchy. Anyone would think it was more important to increase the recycling percentage rather than reduce the waste!

  5. LJayne says:

    I’m having a big freecycle clear out at the moment. I’m lucky, I live in an active area for this. It encourages me not to hang onto stuff.

  6. Antonio Pachowko says:

    Jane figures from Defra and the other agencies around the UK (next one released in the first week of November) has shown that the recycling rates has gone up year by year , whilst the total amount of waste has gone down year by year. This is due to partly lighter package and partly due to people in general producing less waste. The government is trying to approach waste as awhole and not only recycling.

  7. Jane says:

    @Antonio Pachowko: Waste went down with the recession as people needed to take more care and spent less. Yes, government initiatives such as the WRAP ones working with companies to reduce packaging and people to reduce food waste are reaping benefits, as hopefully is tightening the laws regarding excess packaging making it easier to prosecute successfully. That is only part of the story though. WE need to be less accepting of the unnecessary packaging that we have to pay Council Tax to our Councils to dispose of when they could be spending it on more important things. We take it home with us and then have to dispose of it. The less there is the easier it is.

    Bravo Ben Bradshaw MP: and the ladies of the Womens Institute who campaigned publicly against excessive packaging.

  8. Jane says:

    LOL Better punctuation would have avoided any reference to reducing people!

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