10 August 2018

Straws don’t kill turtles, people do

Economic truths might be hard to hear – but they are the reality of recycling says Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management.

According to The Guardian, the latest way to bait a liberal is to post an image on Instagram of someone beautiful drinking through a plastic straw – you can imagine Charlton Heston growling the words ‘you can take away my guns but I will never surrender my straw’.

I have a certain sympathy for this world view. You can say what you like about Trump and his supporters (and many people do) but guess what, they won’t care.

Unlike our politicians, I would describe Trump with that lovely old British phrase ‘he knows how many beans make five’, and likewise his faithful followers are firmly in touch with economic reality.

They know that once China closed its doors and some paper and plastics ceased to have a value, waste companies and local authorities would take the next cheapest route of disposal which just happens to be, in a country as vast as North America, in a controlled sanitary landfill.

US

Neil Grundon, deputy chairman, Grundon Waste Management

US waste disposal is governed by the economic laws of Adam Smith, so the option that costs the least will always win out.

America has a well-established plastic recycling industry, consumers are well versed in polymer types and which containers they can and cannot recycle, although this has waned over the years as China began to accept lower and lower grades of material, and local authorities demanded waste firms collect different materials.

America does not yet tax landfill, have feed-in tariffs, PRN’s, or contracts for difference. There are no recycling credits or targets, just the power of the consumer and that is why many Americans (unlike their European counterparts) know where their rubbish ends up and why.

Sometimes you have to just do what works for you. While I’m not David Attenborough, I do know that turtles rarely visit US landfills, so the chances of them inhaling a straw while crawling ungainly across one is slight.

That is not to say American straw manufacturers should be absolved of their responsibilities of selling their turtle snares to other countries around the world who have not invested in waste management systems. Not by any means.

‘America First’ should not mean that their (and our) oceans come second; we should never consider the environment in isolationist terms. Manufacturers and brand owners have a global duty of care to supply packaging appropriate to the markets in which they operate or otherwise we will all one day be eating Tuna a la PET.

UK

In the UK however, we could do with a good dose of that Trump practicality. Instead, EU recycling targets and policies have driven our legislation without regard to common sense or geography.

As an island nation, we should be harnessing our own resources to deal with our own waste, yet British politicians seem to care little about where our waste ends up and are more concerned with towing the line than taking a ‘deep dive’ (you’ll need more than a snorkel) into understanding what is really going on in our industry.

We don’t have the luxury of plenty of space like our American friends, we have more in common with densely-populated Japan and we should adopt similar practices. One Energy from Waste (EfW) facility takes up just five acres of land – contrast that with the 100+ acres needed for landfill.

Our waste policies needed to be rooted in geographic and economic reality rather than EU diktat.

Manufacturers

And while I rail against the politicians, I must also take the product manufacturers to task. The Local Government Association’s analysis of recycling and its subsequent call to manufacturers to stop producing a ‘smorgasbord’ of different recyclable materials must not go unheeded.

Perhaps some of those manufacturers would like to invest their money mountains in more sustainable packaging – or maybe they are planning to follow America’s lead and invest instead in more landfill sites in countries where land is cheap and plentiful?

As recyclers, the economic truth is that in an ideal world, if we entirely focused on profit, all we would really want is paper, cans, plastic bottles of limited polymer type, and glass. The smorgasbord of plastics referred to by the LGA makes life much more difficult, yet the general public has been persuaded that anything with the familiar ‘swoosh’ logo can be recycled, so into the recycling bin it dutifully goes.

Bodies like WRAP do a great job of promoting recycling, but I believe they are also guilty of not understanding enough about how our industry really works and what makes us tick.

In the UK, the price of taking waste to landfill is so high that sending it oversees to the lowest cost provider will be the inevitable economic consequence.

Anyone who saw last Saturday’s Daily Mail’s exposé of what it calls the exploitation of the waste industry by criminal ‘trash mafia’ gangs in Poland (cue unsightly pictures of burnt out waste tips apparently full of British recycling) must surely wonder if their recycling has ended up there.

Those householders who dutifully separate their recyclables and whose councils use reputable contractors should be assured that their recyclables are being recovered.

“We have to start taking care of our own waste instead of putting up with this law of unintended consequences whereby avoiding landfill tax means buying dubious overseas services based on market prices.”


Neil Grundon
Grundon

Yet the nature of the business is that many ‘unrecyclable’ recyclables are effectively turned into waste as they leave our shores, taxed and tariffed out of the country and sent on a journey to never never land. Either that or the local authority has spent 75 squillion quid on a hurdy gurdy machine that they thought would turn waste into gold, but instead it is shredded and shipped overseas.

We have to start taking care of our own waste instead of putting up with this law of unintended consequences whereby avoiding landfill tax means buying dubious overseas services based on market prices.

Changes

To move us on from this mess, questions need to be asked. Householders must demand changes, the LGA must be more transparent on how it tells councils to manage recycled plastic waste, and in how it spends its money, and the manufacturers themselves must start to take more responsibility.

Which leaves me with the politicians. Why should they care if our waste is left rotting in a pile in Poland?

If it wasn’t there, then it would be back here and we would have to have a plan of what to do with four million extra tonnes of it, and we all know that our politicians don’t like making plans for something that might never happen.


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