Waste Not Want Not

By Ed McCue on 30/04/18 

Waste is often an overlooked cause of rising greenhouse gas emissions - it accounted for 4 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Its management is crucial for the health of our cities, its inhabitants and global sustainable development. Changing the way we produce and consume goods and resources can reduce our ecological footprint and lead us on the path towards a zero-carbon future.   


The release of methane and CO2 from poorly managed waste and landfills could be responsible for up to a tenth of manmade greenhouse gases in ten years’ time. Open burning of waste is unfortunately also all too common. The abundance of plastic burned can also lead to some catastrophic health impacts and environmental degradation. We are all unfortunately aware of the damage plastic pollution is having on our oceans too.  


Food waste can be just as harmful as the plastic that often contains it when it comes to emitting emissions - if food waste was a country it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the US. According to a study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), between 30 and 40% of food produced globally is never eaten. Over production and consumption of meat products especially gives rise to increased GHG emissions, and this trend could spread over to emerging economies as they develop.


The citizens of Manchester are committed to reducing their household waste. Manchester Museum recently hosted a ‘Rubbish Night at the Museum’, exhibiting over 90 displays of photographs, art work, policy quotes, innovation and research findings. The event was hosted by ‘Upping It’ and draws on collaborative research at The University of Manchester Sustainable Consumption Institute.


The event attracted waste industry experts, academics and the public alike. We discussed possible solutions to the problem of waste disposal in Greater Manchester. Acknowledging the success of nationwide initiatives such as the 5p plastic bag charge, which has since reduced usage by 85%, spurred the realisation that simple measures can exert great change. David Attenborough almost single-handedly managed to inspire a zero-plastic revolution since the airing of Blue Planet II, which has driven the UK government to commit £61.4m to tackle ocean pollution, fund research and waste management – of which £16.4m will be devoted to stop plastics from entering the water.


Some of the key solutions for Greater Manchester aired during the discussion include:

  • How waste at the end of a tenancy in a rented accommodation must be dealt with by the landlord.
  • How sustainability should be embedded back into the primary school curriculum and community.
  • How individual waste policy in each GM council could in fact be tied together ‘monopoly style’, so that consumers and household can be more informed, information gaps closed and services more efficient.
  • The engagement of students from the University of Manchester and MMU. Annual litter picks along Corridor Manchester involving students, community groups and primary schools, to promote leading by example.


“Rubbish here is normalised” was agreed upon by the room. Our throw-away culture and environmentally irresponsible food packaging in Britain was worrying to an international student. “(British manufacturers) sell bags of crisps inside another bigger bag of crisps which you then take home in another plastic bag.” As another student put it in a recent research interview “Maybe this is just how British people live”. The biggest barrier to a problem like this is the shift in mindset and cultural attitudes towards waste and everyone that produces it.


A problem is considered this complex because not one sole party is to blame for our waste. Retailers and supermarkets, producers, consumers, taxpayers, local authorities, government, waste management companies, and refuse collectors and recycling workers are all partly responsible, as highlighted by some artwork at the exhibition.


The taxpayer element is worrying: under the current system, just 10% of the cost of packaging waste disposal is paid by the business, with taxpayers stuck with the rest of the bill. In contrast, in Germany producers pay 100% of their waste disposal.  


The cost of waste is not reflected in a corporation’s prices and so they are over produced and consumed – an unfortunate externality arising from an all too common environmental market failure. Society and the environment feel the burden.


Does the answer to cutting UK waste and achieving a more circular economy lie in extending producer responsibility? Enforcing change so that producers are more responsible for the costs of recycling and responsibly disposing of their materials could save UK councils £300m in clean-up costs each year. Throwing food away is costing the nation £12.5bn a year, with a cost to business of at least £5bn.


On the flip side, infrastructure is often in place so that the consumer can responsibly deal with their waste. Individuals should be vigilant about what they put in their bins and consider refusing plastic straws and cutlery and carry reusable water bottles and coffee cups.  However, According to Keep Britain Tidy, 82% of consumers believe companies should go further in ensuring goods are disposed of properly. 


On a national scale, government can implement return schemes for reusable packaging, tax the use of virgin material to further encourage the recycled plastics economy and intervene to bolster the market for recycled plastic, to increase its value and therefore recycling rates.


The cost of recycling could be part of the cost of plastic itself. Rewarding retailers who display sustainable ideas and limit waste could be just as effective as raising charges on plastic packaging that is difficult to recycle. Then, only those who buy such products end up paying for its disposal.


The responsibility on GM falls on The Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA), which is England’s largest Waste Disposal Authority, responsible for the management and disposal of waste from Greater Manchester. Its overall aim is to envisage a ‘zero-waste’ society, whereby all resources are recycled, or the energy is recovered. The city therefore has the scale, resources and expertise to innovate and lead a carbon-neutral agenda in the UK.


The zero-waste rhetoric is emerging in other European cities. Inspiration for GM can be drawn from our neighbours with comprehensive waste management systems. Creative waste management strategies can play an important role in helping cities to be greener and more sustainable.


The use of underground vacuum powered waste disposal systems has helped keep streets tidy in Barcelona and Copenhagen; France is aiming to use 100% recyclable plastic by 2025; The Swedish ‘recycling revolution’ claims that the country recycles 100 percent of its household waste – in the city of Malmö, food waste is transferred into biogas and the streets are paved with recycled ash. The German city of Essen, European Green Capital winner 2017, boasts 50 years of zero landfill.


Manchester can only become a world leading, green city region once waste management becomes recognised as a powerful driver of sustainable urban development. How citizens, councils and companies understand the GM rubbish crisis will determine our ability to work together and achieve a cleaner and greener Greater Manchester.