Thursday, June 27, 2013

There is no 'away'

Think back over the last week about everything you have bought to eat. Remember the shops, the bags you were carrying, what you chose, how you unpacked it. Now think about what happened to all that shopping. Think about the food itself, the plastic, the cardboard, the tins, the bottles. Where is it now? How much is on its way to be recycled, to a compost heap, to landfill?

Scotland's Zero Waste Plan sets out the Scottish Government's vision where all waste is seen as a resource and whilst the Government’s effort is good the motivation is wrong with priorities lying in presenting ‘the good face of Scotland’ ahead of the Homecoming and Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 rather than tackling issues of reducing consumption and tackling littering. Think about what constitutes littering – throwing a wrapper on the street? Fly-tipping? Dog-fouling? How about leaving behind your popcorn container at the cinema? Much waste is out of sight, out of mind or attitudes of ‘someone else will clean it up’, but we need to initiate a shift in attitude where waste is not someone else’s problem but everyone’s problem.  But one example is a plastic bottle cap thrown in the street, goes down a drain and out to the sea where it either ends up in the stomach of a marine species. Plastic never biodegrades, only degrades into microscopic pieces, which attract and adsorb toxins. These microplastic pieces are ingested by marine species, and the toxins are concentrated as they travel up the food chain, ultimately reaching food species that we consume with consequences yet undetermined. It is time to start connecting the dots and demanding more be done. 

The Landfill Tax currently supports the Landfill Communities Fund (LCF) which is a fund that allows money to be given to approved environmental bodies to carry out environmental, community and built heritage projects in the vicinity of a landfill site. Since its introduction in 1996, the LCF has funded successful projects such as creating urban wildflower meadows for pollinators and peatland restoration schemes, all of which have helped biodiversity, climate change mitigation and resilience. The LCF also allows the Scottish Government to meet national and EU biodiversity targets, which underpin the Scottish Government’s Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. 

It is generally agreed that without the LCF many projects would not have happened, but accessing funding for the natural environment sector is increasingly restricted and competitive, therefore it is imperative that the LCF not only continues but be improved. Improvements include ensuring the length of funding offered fits more realistically with biodiversity project timelines, 3-5 years rather than one year and reconsidering the ‘Eligibility Radius’. Currently preference is given to projects within a 10 mile radius from landfill sites to ensure the fund is addressing dis-benefits for communities living close to the site, but defining exact distances could potentially put at a disadvantage projects that fall outside the area or disallows flexibility of geographical breadth of ecosystems such as the Highlands or the marine environment. In the long-term this could also mean an exhaustion of good projects in the 10 mile radius with good projects just outside being excluded. The LCF could also be extended to other qualifying sites to include waste transfer stations and other waste related facilities which have a negative impact on neighbouring communities.

The LCF is currently heavily over-subscribed and there is simply insufficient funding available to make a meaningful contribution to the delivery of strategic priorities. The Government should be doing more to prosecute flytippers, enforce stricter anti-littering laws, expand national recycling schemes and infrastructure, provide adequate rubbish disposals at local level and incentivising research into alternatives to packaging that are less harmful to the environment. Individuals can take actions but if the infrastructure is not in place, only the most dedicated of them will make an effort and even fewer of those will campaign to bring about a change. These actions and commitments from Government can serve to encourage voluntary low-carbon behaviours from individuals and communities. 

Being supportive of innovative research to alternatives is also needed. Waste as a resource rather than a problem is exemplified in peat-free compost alternatives and biofuel for cars. Peatland habitats are important in fighting climate change as they are bigger carbon sinks than rainforests but damaged peatlands emit carbon, therefore cutting into peatland for horticultural reasons is ludicrous. Alternatives from waste include composted bark from the timber trade, green waste such as grass clipping and leaves at municipal recycling centres and even coconut shell fibre as by-products from the coconut industry from Sri Lanka known as coir is an alternative.  Gasification technology to treat solid waste is not a new concept and was once a common use to provide gas for heating and lighting, but there is now a growing interest. Pilot schemes in American and the UK use crop and timber waste or municipal solid waste and turn it into high-energy biofuels as opposed to current system of using food oil (soybean or cooking) or food sources as corn grain or sugar cane into biodiesel. Estimates indicate that at least 60% of the materials going into landfills can be diverted for commercial biofuel production.

There is a need to rethink our relationship with waste and our throw-away culture and we have to realise that ultimately there is no ‘away’ anywhere on this planet. We need to be more receptive to innovative solutions to waste management, more stringent on demanding and implementing environmental taxes and putting in place infrastructure to support waste minimisation and just as with the cigarette ban we need to make it socially unacceptable and a crime to litter.

This opinion piece was presented by me at the International Young Scotland Programme organised by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland in Edinburgh June 2013. 

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