Does Britain have a rubbish crisis in the making?

Filed in Blog by on October 11, 2011 13 Comments
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Morland Sanders and Karen Cannard investigate Britain's rubbish for C4 Dispatches

Morland Sanders and Karen Cannard investigate Britain's rubbish for C4 Dispatches

Oh heady days!

I’ve just finished watching last nights episode of Dispatches where the wonderwoman of zero waste herself, Mrs Average (Karen Cannard) of the Rubbish Diet, challenged a Mum of four to live without her landfill bin for 2 weeks!

And if that’s not enough to get me excited, I have 50 minutes to write this up before Karen shares a set of headphones with Liz Godwin (CEO of WRAP) and Bob Gordon (Head of Environment at the British Retail Consortium) to discuss our favourite topic; waste and recycling; over on Radio 4s Woman’s Hour.

Last night’s Dispatches began with the startling information that we’re dumping 44 million tonnes of rubbish in landfill every year. People across the island are ‘battling’ with their local councils over heinous crimes such as positions of wheelie bins, confiscated bins and the fact councils seldom actually take the law into their hands regarding fly tippers…

In one example a business woman was cautioned for giving away cardboard boxes to customers. Apparently one of the boxes she donated had been “illegally dumped” and the business owner was summoned to court under the environmental protection act for giving waste material to someone who didn’t have a license to handle it. The case cost her £10,000 to defend herself and the judge stated the case was “a monumentous waste of time and money”.

I should say!

While Mrs A helped our family of 5 reduce their weekly landfill waste from 13kg to 6kgs, other householders were exclaiming frustration and confusion over what they could and could not recycle. When Dispatches called one council to ask about local recycling information, they were told things that were contradictory to the information available on their website…If the councils don’t know, how can we expect the householders to know? .

The programme highlighted serious concerns over the favoured method of recycling – co-mingled collections. Charles, CEO of Resource Media (I think, I was trying to pack a school lunch while watching the programme I’m afraid) told us many Local Authorities don’t know where material they’ve collected is ending up or even if it’s being recycled and we were shown how figures could be adjusted to make our recycling rates seem favourable.

To begin with recycling plants estimated the only up to 4% of the materials they received through co-mingled collections were rejects (ie non recyclable materials). However the Environment Agency estimated it was 11%.

Once these materials were sorted, bailed and sent to end processors, a further 15-20% could be rejected because of contamination. In these cases they were sent back to the recycling facilities and sent to landfill. Only they weren’t then taken off the recycling figures that had already been recorded…

More worrying is that 55% of our paper and 70% of our plastic is sent to China and India. Once its left our shores there is little Will to follow up where it goes or what happens to it…It really is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

On a happier note we were shown a working model with “presteigne and norton recycling” where residents recycle 74% of their waste each week. The company sorts it at the kerbside and sells it direct to buyers. Last year they made £10,000 which was put back into community projects, so residents benefit directly from ‘doing their bit’.

It’s tempting to feel pessimistic after watching programmes like this. It’s tempting to think ‘what’s the point?’ and to feel our efforts are worthless, but I don’t think they are. Yes things need to change, and they need to change quickly, but I remain optimistic that we have changed monumental things in the past and we can do it again.

Dispatches is available on 4OD for the next 28 days, so be sure to check it out.

Phew! That’s me done; I’m off to stroke the bunny for ten minutes before settling down to listen to Woman’s Hour.

What about you – did you watch Dispatches and what did you think? Over on Facebook we’ve got viewers frustrated with the negative attitudes of many and some disheartened about co-mingled recycling wondering whether it’s worth it. As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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 (13)

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  1. Julie Day says:

    Have yet to watch it. Sounds v interesting and can’t wait to see it.

  2. Hi Mrs G – that’s a fabulous write-up. I totally agree that things WILL change. It feels like a dinosaur is moving at snail’s pace and it will speed up. In the meantime, it remains up to us to vote with our pockets and common sense choices. Thank you for all your support honey. Great to catch up today. Will speak

  3. Julie Day says:

    Watched it yesterday and I agree, I think we do have a crisis going. Esp from what I saw with that man who didn’t know that you could recycle plastic milk bottles, one of the things that is most common to recycle. Our council comingles our recycling, so don’t know how effective that is now.

  4. Poppy 2 says:

    (forgotten my log in!)

    I watched and rather than feeling dispondent, I was left feeling quite cheered that my local council have done the right thing by sticking to their guns with the kerbside collections!! Many people grumble about it and point to the comingled collections offered by a neighbouringf authority, but this proved that it is the right and best way to go,

    Happy, happy 🙂

  5. how very active your councils are; in the US, we have spotty activity…the small town of Albany Missouri has recently implemented a recycling endeavor—cardboard, paper, plastic of all numbers and tin cans…to be collected at a centralized location on Saturday mornings…there are 2 local metal recyclers as for a town of less than 200 people–it is a major effort…the central part of the country is indeed awakening to the need to use all products to the maximum…

    any waste is a shame or an insult upon its maker, its perpetrator or its poor user…i applaud all good works anywhere, anytime…it just feels great to UN-waste.

  6. oops population less than 2000, correction…

  7. Jane says:

    Dispatches – a great programme which I finally got around to watching. Very good to see different schemes. I do hope our Council will stay with the kerbside sorted collection. It works very well. I noticed that huge recycling wheelie bin with good clean recycling in it – but look at the amount -v- the size of the bin! I don’t understand how anyone can really consider this so much easier for the householder than putting the same things in a green box. Why have an enormous bin like that being trundled around for such a small amount and for just in case you have a lot? Isn’t it time that the Government made sure that some central advertising was done to make sure that everyone knows that we should be recycling? Fancy not knowing that those plastic milk bottles are not recycled. I would love to see Eric Pickles put on the spot in deciding what can be recycled where he lives – and then what can be recycled at Westminster.

    It was good to see more about that Judicial Review.

  8. Poppy 2 says:

    “Fancy not knowing that those plastic milk bottles are not recycled.” I presume you had too many nots in that statement Jane?

    Mr Pickles was on TV last night being very arrogant with a member of Bristol council. He really doesn’t get it and in my opinion, it’s quite disgusting that he is in a position to influence people.

  9. Jane says:

    @Poppy 2: Definitely! So much government effort has gone into creating a closed loop system for recycling those plastic milk containers or jugs or bottles or whatever you choose to call them that it is surprising that there haven’t been memorable national advertising campaigns about what has been going on. Maybe it is precisely that confusion (when is a bottle a bottle?) that has caused the problem!

    When I think of how that work has affected the traditional daily delivery and collection of milk or empties from the doorstep it makes me want to cry. Anyway we have compromised and use both and try for mainly the milkman. We reckon we save money by not going out shopping so often.

  10. Mrs Green says:

    @[email protected]

    You were brilliant Karen; I’m just annoyed they didn’t give you more airtime as the consumer side of things is one of the most important.

    @Julie Day

    Yep, seeing people who didn’t know they could recycle milk bottles was pretty worrying; it seems councils just aren’t getting the messages to their residents.

    @Poppy 2

    Glad you’re from happy camp Poppy. It’s good that some councils are sticking to things rather than changing them about. It seems Glos are not going to take up the offer of going back to weekly collections either…

    @nadine sellers

    Gosh that’s a huge community effort for such few people; very encouraging. I loved what you wrote at the end “any waste is a shame or an insult upon its maker, its perpetrator or its poor user”, that’s so true. I really feel it if the last piece of cake or bread is allowed to go off in the tin – something I’ve laboured over, poured my love into and that’s just something small in the grand scheme of things…


    We have kerbside sorted collections as well. Next year our collections are all set to change so it will be interesting to see what we get…

  11. Mrs Green says:

    @Jane: Ah lovely; sounds like a great field trip for all those children 🙂

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