Discussion Paper on Waste and Re-cycling

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Discussion paper on Waste and Re-cycling from 2000


Comment on a Blue-Green approach to waste and re-cycling.  The waste document could be used as an opportunity to examine the broader context. These are some suggestions on how to do this.


The economy and the environment are linked


"Economic and environmental performance are often spoken of as though there is necessarily a trade-off between the two. The two are fundamentally linked , and poor environmental performance can rapidly destabilise the economic (performance of an organisation)" (1).  A business policy example is the Bhopal tragedy where Union Carbide's share price fell sufficiently to trigger a hostile takeover attempt. A public policy example, is the Byker incinerator in Newcastle. It is stated that "environmentally related activities such as waste disposal will limit opportunities for economic growth". However, this argument seems to have been ignored in Newcastle. Rather than paying the full price of taking the incinerator ash to landfill it was put on allotment paths. The council is offering to pay compensation to allotment gardeners for their eggs (2). Chickens are threatened with a cull (3). The Environment Agency is taking The Council to court (4) which assume could ultimately cost the council taxpayer. A report to be published provisionally on the 22nd of January will outline the environmental and health impact. It may have national implications. The waste industry faces a difficult issue over ash (5). For example, its use in roads. However, if alternative, re-cycling businesses can meet the public's needs, better than they should be encouraged. Re-cycling may have an adverse environmental impact (6) but surely it is less than the it of toxic incinerator ash and waste burner emissions etc.


The economy and the environment can be linked


I expect that waste operators will learn from Newcastle's example and make sure that incinerator ash goes to licensed landfill. But there are less tangible issues which could affect people e.g. in Guildford. The effect on property prices needs to be considered.  For people living near an incinerator or potentially toxic ash landfill site. Also, business may not want to invest near an incinerator. Indeed, in Newcastle, a major software company is being encouraged to re-locate to former green belt land.  Not surprisingly, this is well away from the city's incinerator (1).

"An economic system in which ... pollution disaster ... makes a contribution to society's principal objective (economic growth) would not appear to be operating in the best interest of society or the environment". The Government may say that economic growth will fund The NHS. However, the dioxin from incinerators could cause ill-health. Consequently, jobs are needed to deal with this illness. But jobs contribute to economic growth. So you have an absurd situation where pollution (something we don't want) may be leading to economic growth (something which apparently we do (want).  We need to think about whether economic growth should be about quantity or quality.

 

A shift in the health debate is needed


Perhaps, we need to give more emphasis to the increasing incidence of cancer (1) relative to the funding (2) of cancer treatment. You may be able to reduce the incidence of ill-health and the spending on disease through less incineration. For example, Dutch scientists have shown the    terrible effects on pregnant mothers who are exposed (to incinerator pollution). The immune system of the mother's babies is lowered leading even to brain deficiencies (3).


Waste Policy is following food policy up the political agenda


Many new products like plastics, paints and batteries have been developed. Many of these products become toxic when incinerated. Waste scares, like food scares are generating a new environmental politics.  Newcastle provides an example of both. In the 19th century a new sanitary order was established because of the threat of disease e.g. cholera. Today waste has re-emerged as a political issue because of the threat of toxicity (1)

A builder's ideology (1)

"Investment must be seen as, not a cost to be avoided, but as a direct generator of utility to be embraced" (1). Investment in infrastructure e.g. re-cycling is needed. The economic growth that has been experienced may e temporary because the external costs of growth have been overlooked. For example, waste has suffered from decades of neglect.  Waste has only hit the headlines now that it has gone wrong (2). Burning rubbish could hinder the economy. For example, increases in taxes may be needed to pay for the ill-health from incineration. Alternatively, ill-health from incineration could be "crowding out" other public spending which may be less avoidable. For example, on the ageing population e.g. hip operations.

Changing the whole culture surrounding waste (page 1)

 

Waste policy is a misnomer. It should be re-labelled "resource policy": People may not buy re-cycled products while it is still seen as "rubbish".

 

Page 3 talks about special collections. But, re-cycling doesn't fully occur until a consumer buys the finished product. That is after the "resource" has been processed. While separation of "resources" is a first stage; this is squandered if there isn't a market. Also, to encourage purchase; the quality of the final product needs to be improved. In other words, "up-cycling" where re-cycling adds value so that the final product is worth more than the original item (2). To reduce   the number of resources to be dealt with consumption needs to be cut back on.  Perhaps leasing and hiring rather than buying are the way forward. This would have to be followed by repair but again it would need to be of a high quality.

 

The Significance of the Private Sector

 

Public sector procurement is needed (p.10). The main issue though is the private sector. In 1971, a soft drinks manufacturer phased out returnable (glass?) bottles (1). So, have alternative (plastic?) bottles been burnt instead? Only by examining the manufacture and use of resources by the private sector, including consumer behaviour, will the issue of waste be addressed.

 

A moratorium?


This may be unrealistic. The incinerator in Newcastle will probably have to be closed and a new one opened up perhaps, in South East Northumberland in the next 5 years. Also, limited space for landfill in South-East England may lean policy towards incineration. Also, it may take several years for the markets of re-cycled materials to be built up.  My major concern is that a moratorium could provide a return to 1980's policies.  In 1989, it was apparently stated that "the UK has a first class technology for dealing with waste" (1).  But while incinerators can be labelled     as safe but they are still bonfires (2). Britain may not have "first class    technology". The old (1979) incinerator in Newcastle blew ash over peoples roofs and windowsills (3).  A newer incinerator in Dundee had a fire (4). Also, I understand that incinerators in Sweden separate the most harmful waste before burning it (5). Moreover, the moratorium ploy doesn't address existing incinerators and contracts which last 25 years. Apparently, councils are fined if they do not provide enough waste for their contractor.        Stockton (next to Middlesborough) Council says that "penalty clauses mean that ... we are fundamentally into waste maximisation" (6).  Therefore, a change of government  would have little impact on "resource management" on Teesside.

 

Progress will not be as quick as hoped

 

It should be admitted that the government is in a difficult position. Particularly as it will find it difficult to intervene in the private sector and "modify the market". Page 3 mentions failing councils but Gateshead Council is apparently the most efficient in England (1). Yet it doesn't have separate collections of re-cycleable materials. However, it isn't really failing because the main issue is markets for re-cycled products. What's needed is a proper dialogue with the private sector about solutions. Taxes on products which can't be aren't re-cycled ? Subsidies on re-cycled products ? Or the consumer pays the landfill, incineration, re-cycling cost as part of the retail price?  Although this idea could be supported with discounts for people who segregate their "resources" for processing.

 

A change of administration could only make constrained progress. With long-term waste contracts; policy has become intractable. They can make alternative environmental policies on re-cycling in some areas virtually impossible.  Incinerator ash and cattle waste cannot be ignored (2).

Conclusion : Policy implications


"When the water level goes down , everyone sinks a bit " (1).

Waste or "resource" policy isn't so much the issue; it's health. Although, trust and accountability are embedded in health concerns too.  Rather than trying to attack the Government the aim should be to have a more positive agenda. To invest in "preventative health". Massive investment in re-cycling rather than incineration. Reducing or banning toxic chemicals. The aim should be to set the agenda (2) • In health terms the potential gains are clear but economically this strategy may also be beneficial. You save The NHS money.  Although, economic debates over public or private health treatment may decline if the actual incidence of disease is reduced.      


This is difficult. There is the question of where the money is going to come from for re-cycling. Or that it may not lead to much of a reduction in future cancer rates. Also, there is the financial impact a ban on toxic chemicals may have. But to defend the "investment strategy" and challenge The Government:


Where is the money going to come from to deal with the increasing cancer (if incineration continues) ?


Shouldn't more money be put into reducing the incidence of ill-health ? 


Why hasn't more money been put into re-cycling and training people in composting?

 

Why aren't more investments in the future being made?

 

I don't think economics is really the issue. It's about politics and science. The political will to deal with the health issues surrounding incineration has been inadequate.  A "scientific" assessment of an expansion to The Newcastle Incinerator suggested 800 deaths and 17600 hospital cases over the next 20 years (3). Ignore the forecasts but consider the political implication:

 

What does the Government think the health impact from incineration is ?

 

How does the Government's predictions fit in with The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's estimates ?

 

As I've said investments are needed and yes there will a price.  "The (halcyon days of) easy politics are now over and the hard politics are about to begin" (4) . The easy politics is apparently about re-cycling (5) . In the context of waste, the hard politics, may be about less consumption. Or regarding health, it may be about fewer chemicals.

 

Perhaps, "there are fewer win-win options available" (6) now. The aim is to choose the option which results in the least loss ; investment in "preventative health" 2 That is, reducing incidence of disease, through environmental protection. "Protecting the environment is simply an extension of the logic of our desire for national and personal security because without a healthy environment, our health and our very lives are in danger" (7)- But what about the money (7).   In Newcastle, there is controversy over The Environment Agency (8). Perhaps, it needs to be given a more powerful role in the hope that it can deliver better value for money. Or; if there were fewer incinerators then perhaps its activities could be scaled down and so savings could be made.

 

To conclude, it may be a mistake to try and beat the government. To simultaneously criticize them for not offering "tax reductions or incentives for more recycling" (p.3). Better, might be to nullify them and concentrate only on the environmental ; in other words the preventative health agenda. But this only has credibility if it is, said in a way that is/difficult to go back on. The moratorium on incineration ran be interpreted as a ploy. And ploys may not work repeatedly. What's needed is something deeper. Many other examples of "investments" are needed e.g. in renewable energy. And even then there may not be widespread interest.

 

I'm not offering a panacea here.  There doesn't seem to be much clear evidence on health impacts from incineration etc. And anyway much cancer is due to smoking which to a large extent is outside the scope of the state. Also, offer too much investment and you could concede the economic territory on tax.  But the stakes are high. The last election may have only shown how volatile the country has become.


Notes

 

Firstly, I would like to stress that the Newcastle incinerator and ash cannot be compared with Bhopal. Indeed, it would be difficult to measure the effect of a British incinerator on cancer rates. Although, a journal article has suggested a higher incidence of childhood cancers within 5 km of incinerators.

(G. Knox (2000) International Journal of epidemiology 29: 391-7).

1.1.    K. Peattie, Environmental Marketing Management, p.68

1.2.    Newcastle Journal 08/9/00 ( re - dioxin gets into fatty tissue)

1.3.    Newcastle Evening Chronicle 20/12/00

1.4.    Newcastle Environment Agency, News Release, 14/12/00

1.5. ENDS report . 307, August 2000, Byker affair increases sensitivities about bottom ash recycling                                

1.6.    Friends of the Earth conference report 1999

"Releases from incinerators ... in some cases may be less than releases from some recycling plants"

2.1.  Newcastle Great Park bulletin no. 6, Newcastle Council, The Government let Newcastle Council build on former green belt land despite criticism Mamba national level.(Times leader article "Newcastle's Green Land" 7/5/99)

3.1,  K. Peattie, Environmental Marketing Management, p.12


4.1. Independent 10/11/00, Doctors baffled by 50% cancer rise since 1971... "cancer is rising faster than can be accounted for by the ageing of the population". There is potentially a crucial point being made here. The health debate should be wider than just funding of treatment.

4.2.  Northern Echo 3/1/01 "(Alan) Milburn's best care in the world promise".  (He was) "at Newcastle General Hospital to launch the £ 100m investment programme (which) would help place Britain at the forefront of treatment. Despite the planned investment, the Darlington MP, has admitted that it will take until 2008 for access to treatment for all types of cancer to compare with the best of Europe".

My comment: While the investment in treatment has to be welcome; more emphasis on prevention of cancers is needed.  If this "investment in prevention" is insufficient then the 2008 target could be difficult. This is because there could be more cancer to treat.                   

4.3. Newcastle Journal, 27/5/00, Vivian Howard, Toxicologist Liverpool University, Incinerator Ash Use totally irresponsibility

5.1. Demos / Ecologika , "Creating Wealth from waste", p. 19   

6.1.  L. Thurow, The Future of Capitalism , p. 314-5

See also S. Lansley, Henley Centre, After the Gold Rush p 235, Could investment in public services like re-cycling offer "a new sense of balance between public and private priorities. This could produce a very different era with more moderate demands and expectations with weaker inflationary pressure".

See also W. Hutton, Observer 26/11/00, "Go on William dare to have a big idea". There are some interesting points but the deeper issues need emphasis. Pension increases, in the run up to the general election, are mentioned. But in the long run how these pension are increases going to be paid for? As Thurow (1996) says (p. 107) "When Bismarck set the retirement age at 65 in 1891, the average German lived to be less than 45. Today that would be roughly equivalent to saying that there is a government pension for all those over the age of 95. If this were the actual rule, there wouldn't be any problem". But, the pension age is still 65. And as Thurow continues "raising the retirement age will not be popular". The problem is that investments such as re-cycling are unlikely to be made on the grand scale that may be needed. As Thurow concludes (the elderly) "simply are not, and should not be, interested in investments in the future".

But, waste is, well down the political agenda well behind pensions, health (often treatment of sickness) and education. It is only topical if it can be made into a health issue. Trouble is, it can be dismissed as an environmental issue; and environmental issues don't become health problems for a long time if at all. And anyway, a few mass-burn incinerators can limit the subject to a few areas like Teesside.

6.2. Demos book p.18

7,1, C. Coggins (Sheffield University Waste Management research unit) quoted in Sunday Times 9/7/00

7.2. C. Coggins , Newcastle Environment Forum , 27/9/00

8.1. Friends of the Earth , "Don't throw it all away", p.7

9.1. Department of the Environment, News Release, 14/8/89

Although I would like to qualify this by saying that (a) events have moved on and that (b) policy seems to be better in opposition than government.

9,2   Greenpeace, July 2000; Pollution and health impacts of incinerating resources

9.3   Evening Chronicle, 16/10/96

9.4   Ends report, 9/00, Fire at Dundee incinerator hits efforts to rebuild confidence.

9.5   Collins (Ecologika consultant) at talk in Newcastle 20/9/2000

9.b.  Ends report, 11/1996, Emission deadline heralds new era in municipal: incineration

Gateshead Council News - Summer 2000. Although you could say that The Audit Commission should give greater emphasis to effectiveness (e.g. re-cycling / separate collection targets) rather than efficiency in waste collection ( low number of late collections) which Gateshead does well on.

10,2   Observer 29/10/00

"Infected ash leaks from cattle carcass incinerators"

11.1   Sunday Times; 4/7/93, In the City

11.2   As 11.1

11.3   The Guardian, 8/5/2000

11.4.  T. Burke , Independent, 6/5/96

11.5.  T. Burke , New Statesman 20/6/97

Concentrate on the policy issue i.e. the epidemiology

11.6.  As 11.5

See also L. Thurow - The Zero Sum (Game) Society p.10

"We not face a world 'of unsolvable problems. But ...'when the economic plusses and economic minuses are added up, the plusses usually exceed the minuses but there are large economic losses".

My comment: This seems to be at the moment but if investments are not made then even larger economic (and health!) losses could accrue.

11.7. K. Peattie, Environmental Marketing Management, p.56

11.8. ENDS 5/00 , Regulatory foul ups contributed to Byker ash affair

 

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