Recycling in the Anthropocene Age

18 Oct 2017 | Desmond Astley-Cooper

I think it’s fairly safe to say that technological advances on their own will not reduce per capita use of the Earth’s resources. That requires different ways of doing things, some new regulation and above all, changes in attitudes amongst consumers themselves to what they actually need. The Brookings Institution predicts that the “global middle class” of 3.2bn will rise to 5bn by 2030 and they’re the ones with the money to consume!

A study released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year gathered data on 57 common goods and services to analyse whether there had been a reduction in the amount of materials used to meet overall demand for them, so called “dematerialisation.” The only products for which overall consumption had fallen were chemicals whose use had been restricted for safety reasons.

In fact it threw up a stunning example of how technological improvements had stimulated the demand for one material by 345% over the last four decades….silicon. The conclusion of one of its authors, Professor Christopher Magee, was blunt: “There is a techno-optimist’s position that says technological change will fix the environment. This (study) says probably not.”

So that is why recycling is such an important activity now and will become increasingly more so in the years to come. To make it work properly, it needs to be based on good economics so that people see it as a potential business opportunity rather than something which they reluctantly engage in because of regulations. And its potential rewards need to stand up to scrutiny by people who see it as a threat to their existing businesses.

Surfers against Sewage have pointed me in the direction of a piece of work undertaken by Eunomia Research & Consulting in 2015 on behalf of Zero Waste Scotland which indicates that a deposit refund system on single-use beverage containers like water bottles would lead to savings by local authorities in Scotland of £4.6m a year. Since then, they have been commissioned by various charities and campaign groups to look at the economics of a similar scheme in England.

They examined the effect that such a scheme would have on collections, sorting, revenue from recycled materials and disposal costs as well as on the money spent litter picking on the streets and road verges.  They also delved into the murky area of the distribution of savings and costs between the waste collection authorities and the waste disposal authority, something crucial to making such a scheme work.

The conclusion was that if it was scaled up across England as a whole, a deposit refund system would produce annual savings of £35m or £1.47 per household when introduced. The most important component of this would come from a reduction in disposal costs of between 54p and £4.55, with less materials being sent to landfill or for incineration.

And this is without any help from industry which is well placed to take advantage of recycling as a broad business opportunity. Reprocessing tools need to be developed so that waste can be efficiently separated into its original components for reuse. The former Saudi Oil Minister, Sheikh Yamani, once referred to plastic as one of the noble uses of oil. That may have been a valid point of view in the seventies but as we move into the “Anthropocene” age, I doubt if many people would see it that way anymore!

Desmond Astley-Cooper