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Issue 48, June 2000

Waste - A Burning Issue

LAST MONTH the government launched its strategy on waste. The main policy over the years has been to dump rubbish in holes in the ground - landfill. However, this pollutes streams and contaminates land, posing a risk to animal and human health. The European Union (EU) and the government want the amount of waste sent to landfill drastically reduced.

The new proposals follow on from last year's policy document, A Way with Waste, which proposed a range of policies. Ranked from best to worst options these are: reducing the waste produced; reusing the objects; recycling materials; incinerating waste; and landfill.

Household waste is growing by 3% a year - faster than the population, the number of households or the economy. Waste production is linked to companies' drive to increase sales. Most of the increase in waste is due to packaging: we are not eating a lot more. Packaging is about marketing and not mainly to protect goods or for hygiene reasons. Globally, around $1,000 billion a year is spent on marketing, packaging and advertising. A successful policy would have to dramatically cut the production of waste and move to an economy where the waste produced is treated as a source of materials to be reused and recycled.

The government's policy includes a shift from landfill to incineration. This will require around 150 new incinerators over the next 20 years. This means big profits - a typical incinerator contract is worth £1 billion over 25 years.


Burning rubbish produces increasingly dangerous chemicals. Heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, are usually in stable forms in rubbish. Burning produces more reactive compounds which are easily absorbed into the bodies of plants, animals and humans and which are damaging to life.

Dioxins, a group of chemicals containing chlorine, are some of the most dangerous chemicals produced. One is an ingredient in the defoliant, Agent Orange, used extensively by the US in the Vietnam war. Dioxins are entirely a product of human action. As they do not exist in nature, living organisms have no way of dealing with them, so they accumulate particularly in the fat and milk of animals. When we consume meat or dairy products the dioxins become more concentrated in our bodies. Similarly, dioxins levels in carnivorous animals are far higher than in the animals they feed on.

At incredibly low levels they damage the body's hormonal, reproductive and immune systems. The World Health Organisation's (WHO) safety level is between 1-4 picograms for each kilo of body weight. A picogram is a millionth of a millionth of a gram. So one gram would be enough to exceed the limit for over three billion adults. Even at this level WHO still has concerns about its impact. The dangers to babies and the unborn are even greater.

As well as dioxins and reactive heavy metals, incineration produces other health-harming products including nitrous oxides and ultra-fine particles. These go into the air or are left behind in the ash. Filters are often used to prevent these chemicals entering the air. But even if the filters work, both the ash and the contaminated filters have to disposed of in landfill where there is a risk that they will leak into the wider environment.


Most household rubbish consists of compostable materials (food and garden remains), paper and cardboard, glass and plastic bottles and metals. All of these could either be reused or the materials recycled. But in Britain only 8% of household waste is recycled. Better than recycling is reuse. In parts of North America and Europe, because bottles have a refundable deposit and shops and producers have to take back the bottles, over 90% of beer bottles are reused.

Local communities all over the country will face battles against incinerators. Community-based campaigns can be built to put pressure on councils and incinerator companies. One key battle is in Byker, Newcastle, where local people have been fighting to stop the replacement of an old incinerator with a new one, three times bigger. Because there is already an incinerator it is easier to get round planning law than building on a new site. A victory in Byker would help change national policy.

Bill Hopwood

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