|Morland Sanders, investigates Britain's rubbish for C4 Dispatches|
I recently did some filming for the Dispatches documentary that's being broadcast tonight. It's called "Britain's Rubbish" and will be aired at 8pm on Channel 4.
When I was asked to contribute, a huge part of me wanted to batten down the hatches, draw the curtains and say "Thanks but no thanks". I normally stay away from the heavy stuff and regular readers will know I don't normally campaign against issues, but instead promote ideas that help empower householders to reduce waste, even if it's just by a small amount.
But as I was about to say "No thank you" to the documentary makers, my thoughts turned back to why I keep raising awareness of recycling and waste reduction. It's because it really is such a serious issue, despite my own natural tendency towards lightening the mood. And I am still as passionate about getting people to talk about their rubbish as I've ever been. Furthermore I'm a constant troubleshooter, who loves sharing positive information that I've gathered, even if it has turned this average householder into a bit of a waste geek. So, as I gave my reply I found myself changing my mind and saying "yes".
I knew the documentary could offer another avenue to raise awareness of all the advances that have taken place in recent years, including the fantastic On-Pack Recycling Labelling standard that helps shoppers better understand whether an item can be recycled. There's also the news how popular brands have made steady inroads into "lightweighting" packaging, designing out wasteful components as well introducing a greater percentage of recycled materials into their products. Such developments should make it far easier for shoppers to dramatically reduce their waste.
However, it soon became clear during filming that whilst being able to demonstrate some of the aforementioned positive points, the experience actually revealed that we are still a long way off from the ideal of a totally transparent system that consumers can easily rely on.
Participating in the documentary gave me the first opportunity in ages to examine a wide range of packaging and I was shocked at that no matter what strides have been made in the last couple of years, labelling across products is still highly inconsistent, with many lines not giving any clear instructions. There were plenty of examples where the text was too small to read easily or simply had outdated advice. Where some products would state that the packaging was recyclable (where facilities exist), other products packaged in the same material stated that it could not yet be recycled.
Despite well thought-out labelling standards, design guidelines developed by the British Retail Consortium and WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) and strong engagement campaigns to get these adopted by retailers and brands, it has become clear that much of the grocery sector is still lagging behind the need to hurry change. Coupled with this are many examples of overpackaged products that have are still being introduced as new lines.
As a shopper, consumer, householder and waste geek, this is far more than just frustrating. It is a major concern that clear consumer advice is not coming at the speed that is needed and that if the government is serious about its Zero Waste goals and waste prevention strategy, change in the manufacturing sector needs to be implemented faster than is currently tolerated, whether by government or by industry itself.
And the same could be said for the processing of mixed plastics packaging. It's seems very much a futile exercise to invest in labelling if recycling facilities aren't widespread. It is very encouraging to see commercial plants for mixed plastics being implemented by Biffa and new developments in sorting technologies that are starting to be rolled out by Veolia, but the UK needs deeper investment to make more plants available at a faster speed with flexible contracts that enable disposal authorities to use them.
As things stand, it is increasingly difficult for busy households to shrink their packaging waste when so many local authorities are still unable to recycle common items such as yoghurt pots, margarine tubs, meat trays, ready meal trays, fruit punnets and the cake tubs, the latter of which are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous item in the confectionary aisle. I often argue that it's the consumer's choice to buy these products and I agree that many could chose to vote with their wallets and make alternative choices. However, not everyone has the impetus, the awareness, the time, motivation, access to choice or even the money to tackle their household waste in such way, and we shouldn't be expect it to ultimately be our responsibility either.
So whose responsibility is it to tackle the UK's waste problem? Naturally we need to start with the brands and the manufacturers. After all, that's where our rubbish actually starts, during the design and manufacturing process. However it only then becomes rubbish if waste operators and local authorities can't collect it because the facilities aren't in place or they don't have markets onto which it can be sold on. However demand is changing and I've spoken to a variety of manufacturers, ranging from bottling plants to recycled plastic tile-makers who want to buy more recycled plastic from the UK. So it's their responsibility too, to find sustainable solutions and a steady bank of customers. But then there's government, which has the power to legislate, to set much tougher targets, show greater leadership and make better investment to kickstart zero waste economies.
But it's all too easy to fall into the blame culture, which we often witness when one sector has a foodfight with the other. It's time to move forward from that and whilst the big boys battle it out, I believe that consumers can have a key role to play too in reducing our residual packaging waste and food waste where possible. Whether that means taking a small amount of time to clear up any ambiguities over local recycling advice, switching from disposable to reusable products, boycotting overpackaged products, composting, following great campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste, Recycle Week or Zero Waste Week, or even asking for better recycling facilities in local neighbourhoods, it means we can take more control over our bins. And if you're unclear on the packaging guidelines tell your supermarket that you'll leave it all with them, asking that they get back to you.
The waste problem won't go away until we all start working together. Waste reduction won't be sorted without the help of us, the consumer, even if we are mostly beholden to what's for sale in the shops. Against the background need to preserve our material resources and save energy, as a society, it starts by individuals taking more interest and being more aware of some small changes that could make a big difference and the wider consequences of what happens to the stuff that we chuck in our bins.
The documentary will be aired tonight and I'll be happy to follow up on any issues raised, as soon as I can. However, I'm away for much of this week, including joining a discussion panel in London for tomorrow's Woman's Hour (BBC Radio 4, 10-11am)
So in the meantime, if you're a householder who is interested in how you can battle the elements of your rubbish bin and reduce the waste that goes in there, www.recyclenow.com and www.lovefoodhateswaste.com are great places to start, as is the fantastic website www.myzerowaste.com. Of course you can also ring your local council for advice and if you're the chatty type, talk to friends and neighbours about how they reduce their rubbish. You'll never know what local tips you'll find out.
But remember, don't feel guilty about what you can't do, just feel relieved about what you can!
Many thanks go to the production team at Blakeway for inviting me to add my small contribution and also to Jackie and her family who were brave enough to let us go through their rubbish on camera. I don't know which of my contributions will be featured but I'm looking forward to watching what else was unearthed during the wider filming. More information about tonight's programe is shown below:
Dispatches: Britain's Rubbish, Channel 4 10 October 2011, 8pm
Dispatches lifts the lid on Britain's bins and asks what the plan is to tackle the country's growing rubbish problem.
Reporter Morland Sanders travels the UK in the wake of the government's Waste Policy Review to find out about bin collections, litter, excessive packaging and Britons' secret bin habits. He finds householders angry about their bins not being collected every week and fly-tipping setting resident against resident.
He asks whether we can do more to help reduce the rubbish problem ourselves and sets a family the challenge of living without a bin for a fortnight. Can they really recycle everything?
On the high street, he questions whether we are simply sold too much packaging with the things we buy, making us throw far too much away, and sifts through litter to see who should be doing more to keep Britain tidy.
He also talks to the people who collect, sort and recycle our waste and discovers what happens to our paper and plastics once they are collected. Does profit win out over green considerations?
And he investigates whether the waste companies are really solving our rubbish problem.