Friday, August 21, 2009

Use opportunity 
offered by rubbish

Research by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research has found that, in Ireland and the UK, the average person creates over 869 kg and over 603 kg of rubbish a year respectively. To deal with this, households in the UK and Ireland are expected to separate their rubbish, leaving it in appropriate colour-coded bins for collection and recycling.

Comedian Jack Dee categorises the current approach to recycling in the UK as more like filing than waste management. Nonetheless, and despite some criticism that not all recycled waste is used, the recycling drive has contributed to a shift in the amount of waste in landfills.

In 2000, some 90% of waste ended up in landfills in the UK. In 2008 just under 60% of rubbish was deposited there. This is a significant change, but still behind countries like the Netherlands and Austria, where over 60% of rubbish is recycled.

In South Africa, formal recycling schemes are less common. I have noticed that most South Africans who visit us in Belfast are perplexed by our recycling rituals.

In the majority of areas in South Africa, if you want to recycle your waste, the onus is on you to sort your rubbish and then take it to the appropriate site. Most local councils do not collect rubbish, or demand that rubbish is sorted at home and left in differently 
marked receptacles for collection. As the South African website, Going Green SA, notes, recycling in South Africa “can sometimes be quite an effort”.

However, I would not want to paint a picture of Europe as being superior when it comes to recycling or reducing waste. When plastic bags were sarcastically referred to as the ‘national flower’ in South Africa, in 2003, government moved swiftly to charge for them. South Africa was one of the first countries to do this. The UK has still not adopted this practice.

Effective recycling can also rely on a degree of privilege, that is, having regular refuse collections, space to have multiple bins, running water to clean containers and mass education campaigns. The need to recycle can also be influenced by the amount of material thrown away, in the first place. The developed world produces masses of refuse with its ravenous consumer culture and tendency to dispose of goods that might be reused in other countries.

Households in the UK throw away about 6,7-million tons of food every year. A study carried out by the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, which analysed 250 000 lb of refuse, found that it was paper, and not disposable diapers or fast-food packaging, that dominated landfill sites. Paper is largely used by industry and consumed by the better-off.

The poor are often the best ‘recyclers’. In fact, in South Africa, the more you look, the more you realise people are recycling all the time. Squatter camps are built from recycled waste. Toys and ornaments common in flea markets are often made of recycled wire, glass and bottle tops, and old machine parts, food and clothes never go to waste.

So the problem is twofold.

The developed world has more entrenched recycling awareness and better facilities, especially in countries like Holland and Germany. However, this is often limited to sorting rubbish for recycling. A more developed consciousness around reducing disposable waste by buying less and more appropriately, and reusing goods, is needed, especially in the UK and the US.

In the developing world, the recycling consciousness needs to take root, and adequate formal facilities to deal with this need to be put in place. At the same time, the poor’s ability to develop informal and imaginative processes for reusing waste needs to be harnessed. The garbage business in South Africa remains a vast, untapped resource. Creatively using rubbish could be another aspect of building the economy and creating jobs, with the positive spin-off of environmental protection.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on  21 August 2009. as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.