Waste's life cycle: what's the future?

What can we do to fix recycling?
29 October 2019

Interview with 

Margaret Bates, University of Northampton


An overflowing rubbish bin in a field.


Obviously we shouldn’t stop recycling - so what can we do to fix it? With Izzie Clarke and Chris Smith to help untangle the future of waste is Margaret Bates, Professor of Sustainable Waste Management at the University of Northampton, who describes herself as “obsessed with anything waste-related”...

Margaret - I think it is working. The economics are necessarily the most important thing. The carbon benefits, the impacts on climate change are hugely important. I totally agree with him that the social aspects are really important as well. People buy something, use it and then go why can't I recycle this? Where as actually, we need to have the situation where when you're buying something, you factor into its end of life at that point. Comments were made earlier that our infrastructure really hasn't kept up, and it hasn't. Changes in waste over the next 20 to 30 years will need an investment of about 35 million, and to be honest when we're talking about big waste handlers they don't really exist anymore. They are resource management companies, they spend a lot of time and effort in making sure that the way we collect things is the best way to recover the value as much as possible.

Chris - Margaret, can I put something to you, because I was I was cleaning my teeth today...

Margaret - Good.

Chris - Yes indeed. My dentist would be delighted. Well actually maybe not because it means I make fewer visits, but I bought myself, a number of years ago, an electric toothbrush and I've been delighted with it. It’s lasted eight years, but now I've got to the stage where the battery has clapped out. It doesn't survive more than two nanoseconds away from the base station charging and I am going to have to throw it away. What infrastructure is in place to recycle gadgets like my toothbrush?

Margaret - There are a number of high streets where you can take your electricals to be recycled or you can look on Recycle Now, which will show you where you can recycle materials, but you don't necessarily need to buy stuff. So perhaps there is an opportunity to have a leasing model on a toothbrush where you don't buy it. They still own it and then when you've finished with it you give it back to them, and they swap it for another one that might be repaired or refurbished or just have a new battery in it.

Chris - I take it you're referring to the body rather than the brush head? You wouldn't want a second hand one of those would you Margaret?

Margaret -  I really wouldn't want a second hand one. I'm not sure I'd want to use mine twice.

Chris - No, I mean the cynic in me is thinking is this engineered obsolescence to make sure I go and buy another toothbrush because it's not in the manufacturer's interest, is it? To make something, which if it works too well and lasts too long, they can't sell me another one? There's always going to be that tension isn't there with industry, where they want to make something that lasts a certain time which incentivises you to go and buy another one?

Margaret - But that's why we need good policy. Good - what’s termed - “extended producer responsibility”. So it incentivises things that last longer, that are easier to repair and easier to recycle at the end of their life.

Chris - So what fraction of goods and products are currently being built or designed with their end of life in mind at the outset?

Margaret - We have absolutely no idea really. End of life isn't a factor in the manufacture. We are getting better. So if you look at plastic bottles for example, the average recycled content of a plastic bottle is about 15 percent, but that's going up and there are government plans to tax people extra if they don't put a minimum of 30 percent recycled content in.

Chris - Have they actually gone in further up the food chain as it were and said, you can't design stuff before you've come up with a valid plan for how you're going to deal with it when it has died?

Margaret - That's what the extended producer responsibility legislation is about, but interestingly as a householder we don't have that. So there's a system called Pay As You Throw, where every wheelie bin produced in Europe since 1996 has a microchip housing in it, and in many countries householders are charged proportionate to how much waste they produce. Whereas you and I can throw away as much as we'd like and still pay the same amount of Council Tax.

Chris - Bit dodgy that though isn't it because it incentivises people to either fly tip or go and check it in someone else's bin and then your neighbor ends up paying for your rubbish, don't they?

Margaret - Well no not really. I mean if they put the price up of your shopping do you start shoplifting? Most people do the right thing and we'll try and change the behaviours to make sure they carry on doing the right thing, and this is really common throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Even tried it recently in Guernsey and its reduced the amount of weight people produce and that's what we really need to look at. We focus very much on recycling. Recycling isn't the top of the best things we should be doing, it's not even the second. So we should be reducing the amount of waste we generate and sadly charging people proportionately to how much waste they produce is one of the good ways of doing that.

Chris - I think the most poignant point that Roland Geier made when Adam spoke to him was was to say that there are lots of people who think they're doing the right thing by going and buying stuff that is labelled as recyclable, but just because it's recyclable as Brian is saying it doesn't mean it gets recycled, and so really what we need to do is to shift the mindset of people onto making that demand for things that have been recycled, not just are recyclable.

Margaret - Yeah. We need to start off by not buying things we don't need. If we do buy stuff, we need to make sure it's got a high recycled content. Then we need to reuse it as much as possible and then when we run out of any use for it, then recycle it. So it's part of looking at the whole lifecycle of how we interact with our stuff.


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