reuse and recycle. You turn down plastic and paper.
You avoid out-of-season
grapes. You do all the right things.
Just know that it won’t save the tuna, protect the rain forest or stop global
warming. The changes necessary are so large and profound that they are beyond
the reach of individual action.
You refuse the plastic bag at the register, believing this one gesture somehow
makes a difference, and then carry your takeout meal back to your car for a
carbon-emitting trip home.
Say you’re willing to make real sacrifices. Sell your car. Forsake your
air-conditioner in the summer, turn down the heat in the winter. Try to become
no-impact man. You would, in fact, have no impact on the planet. Americans would
continue to emit an average of 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year; Europeans,
about 10 tons.
What about going bigger? You are the pope with a billion followers, and let’s
say all of them take your advice to heart. If all Catholics decreased their
emissions to zero overnight, the planet would surely notice, but pollution would
still be rising. Of course, a billion people, whether they’re Catholic or
adherents of any other religion or creed, will do no such thing. Two weeks of
silence in a Buddhist yoga retreat in the Himalayas with your BlackBerry checked
at the door? Sure. An entire life voluntarily lived off the grid? No thanks.
And that focuses only on those who can decrease their emissions. When your
average is 20 tons per year, going down to 18 tons is as easy as taking a
staycation. But if you are among the four billion on the planet who each emit
one ton a year, you have nowhere to go but up.
Leading scientific groups and most climate scientists say we need to decrease
global annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least half of current levels by
2050 and much further by the end of the century. And that will still mean rising
temperatures and sea levels for generations.
So why bother recycling or riding your bike to the store? Because we all want to
do something, anything. Call it “action bias.” But, sadly, individual action
does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it
doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces
noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as
individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the
Every ton of carbon dioxide pollution causes around $20 of damage to economies,
ecosystems and human health. That sum times 20 implies $400 worth of damage per
American per year. That’s not damage you’re going to do in the distant future;
that’s damage each of us is doing right now. Who pays for it?
We pay as a society. My cross-country flight adds fractions of a penny to
everyone else’s cost. That knowledge leads some of us to voluntarily chip in a
few bucks to “offset” our emissions. But none of these payments motivate anyone
to fly less. It doesn’t lead airlines to switch to more fuel-efficient planes or
routes. If anything, airlines by now use voluntary offsets as a marketing ploy
to make green-conscious passengers feel better. The result is planetary
socialism at its worst: we all pay the price because individuals don’t.
It won’t change until a regulatory system compels us to pay our fair share to
limit pollution accordingly. Limit, of course, is code for “cap and trade,” the
system that helped phase out lead in gasoline in the 1980s, slashed acid rain
pollution in the 1990s and is now bringing entire fisheries back from the brink.
“Cap and trade” for carbon is beginning to decrease carbon pollution in Europe,
and similar models are slated to do the same from California to China.
Alas, this approach has been declared dead in Washington, ironically by
self-styled free-marketers. Another solution, a carbon tax, is also off the
table because, well, it’s a tax.
Never mind that markets are truly free only when everyone pays the full price
for his or her actions. Anything else is socialism. The reality is that we
cannot overcome the global threats posed by greenhouse gases without speaking
the ultimate inconvenient truth: getting people excited about making individual
environmental sacrifices is doomed to fail.
High school science tells us that global warming is real. And economics teaches
us that humanity must have the right incentives if it is to stop this terrible
Don’t stop recycling. Don’t stop buying local. But add mastering some basic
economics to your to-do list. Our future will be largely determined by our
ability to admit the need to end planetary socialism. That’s the most
fundamental of economics lessons and one any serious environmentalist ought to
October 20, 2009
The New York Times
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not
your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve
magically when heated for more than a few minutes.
At Ecco, a popular restaurant in Atlanta, waiters no longer scrape food scraps
into the trash bin. Uneaten morsels are dumped into five-gallon pails and taken
to a compost heap out back.
And at eight of its North American plants, Honda is recycling so diligently that
the factories have gotten rid of their trash Dumpsters altogether.
Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from
the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks,
restaurants, stadiums and corporations.
The movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less
waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not
biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can.
Though born of idealism, the zero-waste philosophy is now propelled by sobering
realities, like the growing difficulty of securing permits for new landfills and
an awareness that organic decay in landfills releases methane that helps warm
the earth’s atmosphere.
“Nobody wants a landfill sited anywhere near them, including in rural areas,”
said Jon D. Johnston, a materials management branch chief for the Environmental
Protection Agency who is helping to lead the zero-waste movement in the
Southeast. “We’ve come to this realization that landfill is valuable and we
can’t bury things that don’t need to be buried.”
Americans are still the undisputed champions of trash, dumping 4.6 pounds per
person per day, according to the E.P.A.’s most recent figures. More than half of
that ends up in landfills or is incinerated.
But places like the island resort community of Nantucket offer a glimpse of the
future. Running out of landfill space and worried about the cost of shipping
trash 30 miles to the mainland, it moved to a strict trash policy more than a
decade ago, said Jeffrey Willett, director of public works on the island.
The town, with the blessing of residents concerned about tax increases, mandates
the recycling of not only commonly reprocessed items like aluminum, glass and
paper but also tires, batteries and household appliances.
Jim Lentowski, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Conservation
Foundation and a year-round resident since 1971, said that sorting trash and
delivering it to the local recycling and disposal complex had become a matter of
course for most residents.
The complex also has a garagelike structure where residents can drop off books
and clothing and other reusable items for others to take home.
The 100-car parking lot at the landfill is a lively meeting place for locals,
Mr. Lentowski added. “Saturday morning during election season, politicians hang
out there and hand out campaign buttons,” he said. “If you want to get a pulse
on the community, that is a great spot to go.”
Mr. Willett said that while the amount of trash that island residents carted to
the dump had remained steady, the proportion going into the landfill had
plummeted to 8 percent.
By contrast, Massachusetts residents as a whole send an average of 66 percent of
their trash to a landfill or incinerator. Although Mr. Willett has lectured
about the Nantucket model around the country, most communities still lack the
infrastructure to set a zero-waste target.
Aside from the difficulty of persuading residents and businesses to divide their
trash, many towns and municipalities have been unwilling to make the significant
capital investments in machines like composters that can process food and yard
waste. Yet attitudes are shifting, and cities like San Francisco and Seattle are
at the forefront of the changeover. Both of those cities have adopted plans for
a shift to zero-waste practices and are collecting organic waste curbside in
residential areas for composting.
Food waste, which the E.P.A. says accounts for about 13 percent of total trash
nationally — and much more when recyclables are factored out of the total — is
viewed as the next big frontier.
When apple cores, stale bread and last week’s leftovers go to landfills, they do
not return the nutrients they pulled from the soil while growing. What is more,
when sealed in landfills without oxygen, organic materials release methane, a
potent heat-trapping gas, as they decompose. If composted, however, the food can
be broken down and returned to the earth as a nonchemical fertilizer with no
Green Foodservice Alliance, a division of the Georgia Restaurant Association,
has been adding restaurants throughout Atlanta and its suburbs to its so-called
zero-waste zones. And companies are springing up to meet the growth in demand
from restaurants for recycling and compost haulers.
Steve Simon, a partner in Fifth Group, a company that owns Ecco and four other
restaurants in the Atlanta area, said that the hardest part of participating in
the alliance’s zero-waste-zone program was not training his staff but finding
“There are now two in town, and neither is a year old, so it is a very tentative
situation,” Mr. Simon said.
Still, he said he had little doubt that the hauling sector would grow and that
all five of the restaurants would eventually be waste-free.
Packaging is also quickly evolving as part of the zero-waste movement.
Bioplastics like the forks at Yellowstone, made from plant materials like
cornstarch that mimic plastic, are used to manufacture a growing number of items
that are compostable.
Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, a
nonprofit organization that certifies such products, said that the number of
companies making compostable products for food service providers had doubled
since 2006 and that many had moved on to items like shopping bags and food
The transition to zero waste, however, has its pitfalls.
Josephine Miller, an environmental official for the city of Santa Monica,
Calif., which bans the use of polystyrene foam containers, said that some
citizens had unwittingly put the plant-based alternatives into cans for
recycling, where they had melted and had gummed up the works. Yellowstone and
some institutions have asked manufacturers to mark some biodegradable items with
a brown or green stripe.
Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to
think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is
to prevail, environmental officials say.
“Technology exists, but a lot of education still needs to be done,” said Mr.
Johnston of the E.P.A.
He expects private companies and businesses to move faster than private citizens
because momentum can be driven by one person at the top.
“It will take a lot longer to get average Americans to compost,” Mr. Johnston
said. “Reaching down to my household and yours is the greatest challenge.”
millions of trees and up to a billion cards
are heading to
– even though much of it could be recycled
Sunday, 28 December 2008
The Independent on Sunday
By Rachel Shields
This is a toy story, but it has no happy ending. As millions of households
wade through crumpled wrapping, plastic ties and discarded boxes, the sheer
weight of refuse in coming days is expected to smash all records.
Waste watchdogs warned yesterday that rubbish from the estimated 100 million
toys unwrapped last week is likely to burn big holes in the ozone layer as well
as in parents' pockets.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) said toy manufacturers are not
putting enough information about recycling on their packaging and, as a result,
most of it will be sent needlessly to landfill. Over Christmas 2008 alone, this
will lead to more than 400 extra tonnes of harmful C02. The news is a blow to
the Government's 2007 Waste Strategy, which aims to see 40 per cent of all
household waste recycled by 2010.
A survey by Recycle Now showed that while 89 per cent of British parents with
children under the age of 12 would like to recycle toy packaging, 53 per cent
found it difficult to know what was suitable for recycling.
"A large proportion of the packaging material from toys is actually recyclable
because it is made from paper or cardboard," said Andy Dawe, Wrap's head of
retail. "It is helpful for consumers to have labelling on the types of material
that make up the packaging and which of these can be recycled. It also makes a
real difference if different materials can be separated. For example, where a
box includes cardboard with a plastic window, it should be made as simple as
possible to remove the window."
The government-funded agency is now calling on toy manufacturers to improve
recycling instructions on their products, and for consumers to redouble their
"It's for manufacturers, government-led organisations and consumers themselves
to do this," said Natasha Crookes of the British Toy & Hobby Association (BTHA).
"Seventy per cent of toy packaging is now recyclable, so it is really about
getting people to recycle, especially at Christmas when everyone is busy
unwrapping their presents."
British households generate 20 per cent more waste during the festive period,
including one billion Christmas cards, eight million Christmas trees and 83 sq
kms of wrapping paper.
Toy manufacturers are required by law to carry safety warnings on packaging, but
are not obliged to include recycling instructions. The BTHA is currently drawing
up new packaging guidelines that will include recycling.
Many retailers have made steps towards reducing packaging. Boots reviewed its
gift sets and relaunched them this Christmas with reduced packaging. The online
retailer Amazon recently launched a "frustration-free packaging" service, which
reduces excess wrapping and which will begin in the UK after Christmas.
In 2007, the UK recycled 9.7 million tonnes of household waste, an increase of
10 per cent on the previous year. However, some fear that the current economic
downturn may lead to companies prioritising profits over their environmental
"It is vitally important that we carry on recycling," Mr Dawe said. "If we stop,
all materials will go to landfill – and that is the worst possible outcome."
indestructible shreds of tinsel,
the carcass of a goose ...
disgusted by her post-Christmas rubbish,
Margaret Drabble explores the horror of
and sets out to discover where it all goes
Saturday 27 December 2008
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk
at 00.01 GMT
on Saturday 27
It appeared in the Guardian
on Saturday 27 December 2008
on p36 of the Saturday
It was last updated at 02.10 GMT
on Saturday 27 December 2008.
There are days when I feel my only
achievement has been a successful trip to the recycling centre. It's an age
thing. "The waste remains, the waste remains and kills," as William Empson
insisted in perhaps his best known villanelle, Missing Dates. We need to get it
out of the system. At the end of the year, it weighs more heavily upon us.
Christmas means rubbish, piles of rubbish. Cardboard, paper, polystyrene, bubble
wrap, plastic, the withering leaves of sprouts and the scraggy bones of poultry
and the scrapings of grease and the indestructible shreds of tinsel - they
disgust us, they depress us. The memory of six weeks without refuse collection
at the end of 1973 haunts my generation, and so does the three-day week that
followed. These events brought down a government. We fear a recurrence of
disaster. We fear the clogging of the arteries, the overflowing tip, the choking
planet, the slow march of death.
Christmas brings horrors close to us in many ways, and garbage symbolises some
of them. In our family, in the 1950s and 60s, we used to unwrap our presents
carefully, fold up the shiny paper, and put it away for another time. It was not
unknown for a gift to appear the following year, in old paper with a new label
on, but with an inner layer bearing the name of the dead. "To Grandpa, with
love." Christmas, as James Joyce knew, means epiphanies of death as well as of
birth. In The Dead, John Huston's haunting film of Dublin in the snow, the most
lasting image, for me, is of the carcass of a goose, picked bare.
Over the past decades, as memories of the war receded and ephemeral affluence
and disposable trash swamped us, our sense of responsibility lapsed, and we
became a careless throwaway society, rejoicing in excess. Global warming has at
last scared some of us, and raised or revived our communal consciousness of the
ever-increasing problem of waste. We moralise about it now, and wonder how to be
good citizens. New bad words have entered our vocabulary, such as landfill and
incineration. Combustion good, incineration bad: this is a new mantra I have
just learned, as I have tried to find out what happens to our household rubbish.
There is much scope for doublespeak and euphemism in the waste disposal world,
as experts pursue technological solutions while trying to meet the government's
I felt that if I could understand the journey of my rubbish to its final resting
place, it would worry me less, though the true source of my anxiety may lie too
deep to explore, as Empson knew too well. We even worry now about whether we
will be allowed to opt for cremation when the time comes. Personally, I don't
fancy rotting in a cardboard box under a willow tree. I'd rather fly upwards in
flames. But perhaps that's an irresponsible desire.
"The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills."
These are not very festive reflections. Luckily, we can struggle against them,
and find ways of making recycling fun. When bottle banks were first introduced
into England, in Barnsley in 1977, they proved surprisingly popular. Cynics had
prophesied apathy or vandalism, but people loved hurling away the evidence of
their indulgence and hearing the crunch of the glass of their hangover. It was
cathartic, it purged guilt and concealed excess, and all to a virtuous end. In
Scandinavia, I was told, you used to have to pay for the pleasure of throwing
away your bottles. You had to put a coin in the machine to make it open its maw.
People liked that. They paid up. It made them feel better.
We have more sophisticated systems now, which address the proliferation of
packaging, the incompatibility and complexity of types of plastic, and our fears
of carbon emissions, methane and the indestructibility of yoghurt pots. Glass is
a wholesome traditional natural substance, and most councils in Britain have got
to grips with how to encourage people to do the right thing with it. (Councils
love champagne bottles, because they weigh so much, and increase their valuable
tonnage.) Other kinds of waste are more divisive. Next to Battersea power
station (which, with its broken windows and its tall chimneys, lingers on as an
all-too-photogenic emblem of pollution and dereliction) stands Cringle Dock, the
penultimate home of much of the irreducible stuff that gets loaded on to barges
and sent by tide power down the Thames to its final graveyard at Belvedere in
Kent. Cringle Dock, Smuggler's Way - the very names of London's garbage depots
are Dickensian, and the means of transport immemorial. But the river is now
considered environmentally friendly - trucks are bad, barges good. I went to
have a look round Cringle Dock on foot, which was a mistake, as pedestrians
aren't allowed in, and neither are photographers. I was arrested and firmly sent
on my way. This site is managed by the Western Riverside Waste Authority, and it
can deal with general, green or inert waste, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
except for Christmas Day. ("Inert waste" is a concept that raises some nasty
questions.) If you've nothing better to do at three in the morning, you can go
and chuck your old TV, provided you don't go on foot or in a Mercedes Vito. That
could be fun, too.
I am drawn to scenes of dereliction and the industrial sublime. I used to think
that was because I was brought up in South Yorkshire, with its views of factory
chimneys and its scatological imagery of slag heaps, but it's a common
obsession. Battersea power station attracts sightseers, even on a dull wet
December day. There they are, staring, sketching, taking artistic photographs.
I know that some of my waste goes to Cringle Dock. To find out how it gets
there, and what happens to the rest of it, I went to talk to Peter Ramage, head
of waste management for Kensington and Chelsea. He is an eloquent and at times
lyrical advocate for the cause of responsible recycling, and has superintended a
fine operation to clean up the streets. One of his tasks, in a high density
borough, is to persuade us to sort our garbage properly: kerbside collections
from the 1980s and the provision of free orange bags from 2006 spurred us on,
but he says he has now hit a plateau of resistance. What to do next, to raise
the borough's recycling percentage and, crucially, our trust in the process?
(Some claim, to Ramage's indignation, that everything ends up in landfill
anyway, which he insists isn't true.) Should institutions be fined for
non-compliance? Do we need a new design of collection truck with better and more
clearly differentiated compartments? (Ramage was interesting on the subject of
the financial and environmental cost per truckload to tip, a matter I hadn't had
to consider before, but it's high on his agenda.) Flat-dwellers may soon be
issued with a smart new design of reusable orange carrier bag, in which to carry
cans and cartons and aerosols down to a communal bin. I am the proud owner of an
example of the prototype. Food waste remains a worry. There are relatively few
private gardens in the borough, we don't produce much green waste, and not many
of us have our own compost facilities into which we can pop our orange peel and
egg boxes and potato peelings and old dish cloths. Some councils now provide
food waste caddies. It's expensive, but maybe that's a way ahead.
My finest acquisition in 2008 was a green fox-proof beehive-shaped Swedish
compost bin. I love it inordinately, which is, I know, a little sad. I had
thought of composting as a Good Life mystique, a fad for those who grow their
own vegetables: I hadn't realised it offered therapy and a promise of eternal
life. I don't care whether it ever produces good compost; I rejoice in the
satisfaction of never having to put scraps into the black bag marked Belvedere.
(Belvedere is an incinerator, and as such was hated by Ken Livingstone.) I can
purge my house of organic detritus of every sort, and I no longer have to feel
guilty about not eating a mouldy crust. I don't believe in rejuvenating bath
oils or Botox, but I do have a little faith in the virtue of reducing and
Novelists are good at turning personal humiliations and losses into stories and
saleable assets. They recycle and sell their shames, they turn grit into pearls.
The green bin has the same magical transforming property. It turns putridity
into wholesomeness. I may not live forever, but the orange peel may. It may one
day fertilise the moon.
The joys of my bin led me to the Eco Park at Edmonton, from which my son Joe
Swift gets compost for his Enfield allotment. Joe always speaks well of it and
its produce. The site is very different from Cringle Dock, and has more
ecological pretensions. Advent Way is a short ride from Tottenham Hale
underground station, through the sprawling business park and supermarket belt of
north-east London, next to a huge Coca-Cola plant. It's run by LondonWaste, and
owned by a joint venture company whose shareholders are the North London Waste
Authority and SITA UK. It handles and recycles many kinds of waste from seven
London boroughs - electrical, medical, domestic, commercial, green - while its
energy centre generates heat from residual waste that drives turbines to create
electricity, to be fed back to the National Grid. The emphasis, stressed by its
persuasive spokeswoman Wendy Lord (one of the very few women in the field) is on
sustainability and reuse. Like me, Lord seems personally offended by the idea of
unnecessary waste, even on the smallest scale, and is intellectually fascinated
by questions about the indestructibility of matter. She is the evangelist of
Advent Way. "There is no such place as away" is one of the phrases she uses. It
has an almost mystic ring. Everything may have another, better life. No shame
can be hidden in a bin.
Lord took me round the stages of the compost process, showing me the arrival of
the trucks, the deposited mountains of unsorted garden waste, the machinery
which sifts out the Coca-Cola cans and trowels and bits of broken wheelie bin
from the leaves and grass cuttings and hedge trimmings, the tunnels where the
waste decomposes (generating an amazing amount of heat and great clouds of steam
as it does so) and the finished product, ready to set off for allotments and
farms. It was an immensely satisfying tour. Even I could grasp the basic
principles. A certain amount of roughage, says Wendy, is good for the mix, but
too much ruins it. It's a bit like cooking. You mix up the ingredients, making
sure you've got the right kind of consistency, correctly blended, and then it
cooks itself with its own heat. Too many yoghurt pots ruin recycled plastic, and
too many tree roots ruin compost. But a leavening of them serves the texture
It was a good day out, and I'm sure the school parties and MPs and
environmentalists and councillors who visit the Eco Park enjoy it as much as I
did. It's a pity, as Joe says, that the compost can't be bagged up and
redelivered free to the householders who produced it in the first place; as yet,
it can be delivered only in bulk. The circle is not yet complete, but maybe it
will be one day. That would be very satisfying. On the tube home I noticed that
I and my Wellington boots smelled richly of the farmyard, a healthy, organic,
The Eco Park is as exciting as, and more modern than, the sewers of London,
which I visited some 30 years ago, descending into them through a manhole in
Piccadilly. I put them into a novel, where sewers rarely appear except as escape
routes in thrillers. Visual artists are more captivated by ordure than writers,
and these days seem particularly attached to sculptures made from blood, dung
and urine. I don't find body-part and viscous-emission art as attractive as
found art and sculptures made of driftwood or scrap metal or dustbin lids. They
lack the element of thrift and therefore of salvation.
I recognise that I was driven on this search through the garbage by a personal,
not a communal imperative. It's to do with the reclamation of the past, not with
saving the planet of the future. At this time of year, those of my age look
back, not forward. When we were little children, we made our Christmas
decorations out of sweet wrappings, and strung them in paper chains along the
picture rail. Sweets were precious, and so was the coloured paper that the most
expensive of them came in. Alas for lost ingenuity and the treasures of Quality
Street! Now I am reduced to finding my entertainment in the meticulous sorting
of polythene from tinfoil, batteries from lightbulbs, anchovy tins from tomato
skins, dying flowers from rubber bands. I spend time worrying about whether or
not I should try to remove the plastic cap from the olive oil bottle. And so the
days pass, and 12th night approaches.
Reducing my usage of plastic bags and dutifully filling my compost bin won't
have a global impact. It's not the social or aesthetic principle that compels
me. It's a sense of recovery, of redemption, through a repetition of the
necessary little acts of hope.
Waste in numbers
One billion Christmas cards - 17
for every man, woman and child - are received each year by UK citizens. It takes
one tree to produce 3,000 cards
Eight million Christmas trees are sold each year, generating about 12,000 tonnes
of waste. Only one-sixth will be recycled into mulch chippings
As much as 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper will be thrown away after
Christmas - enough to cover Guernsey
Nearly 3,000 tonnes of foil will have been used for roasting turkeys
Around 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging, 500m aluminium cans, and 750m glass
bottles will be discarded over the festive fortnight. Local authorities report a
20-30% increase in glass and cans collected for recycling
Food waste goes up by 80% at Christmas. On average, across the whole year, UK
households throw away 18% of all food purchased. Families with children throw
Overall, 20% more waste is created over the festive season