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Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for 7th June 2019. This episode is called Even More Rubbish, following Rubbish and More Rubbish. I don’t think this will be the last on the theme.
I’m Anthony Day and I’d like to start by thanking you for listening, especially as last week’s episode had the greatest number of first-day downloads of any this year, followed by a brilliant start to June.
The other thing I must start by mentioning is that the UK has just gone for two full weeks without using any coal to generate electricity. Good news on the carbon footprint front, but we now need to repeat the trick for another 50 weeks and get rid of gas generation as well.
I’m writing this on a train stranded for over an hour in deepest Yorkshire by cows on the line. I’m on my way to deliver the climate change message to a major corporate. It’s hard to forgive cows for breathing methane, but disrupting public transport as well… If I ever make it to the hotel this evening I think I’ll have a nice steak.
This week’s episode is about even more rubbish. Patron Shane suggested we look at electronic rubbish and there’s certainly a story to tell there. We’ll also look at plastic waste, and I warn you none of it is good news. Talking of rubbish, I’m on one of Northern Rail’s Pacer trains. Not seen in the south of England for many years, these were built very cheaply in the 80s out of bus parts. They are now 20 years beyond their design life and due to be withdrawn later in 2019. Of course there’s no wifi and no socket to plug the charger into; not even a table to balance the laptop on. I’m a staunch believer in reduce, reuse, recycle, but surely there are limits. Having said that, I hear that once the trains have been withdrawn the government plans to offer them to local communities for use as village halls or community centres. I’m surprised they didn’t suggest food banks or shelters for the homeless. And yes this giveaway idea is absolutely true - there’s a link on the blog.
The World has an E-Waste Problem
This is the title of a recent article in Time Magazine. It talks specifically about the impact of smartphones and gadgets. Planned obsolescence was the mantra of the 60s consumer revolution. Cars in particular had to be discarded each year as new models appeared with more chrome, sharper fins, bigger engines and new colours. Planned obsolescence has certainly not gone away. Apple alone sold 60 million iPhones in the US last year, according to Counterpoint Research. Every year Apple launches a new phone, a new tablet, a new watch, a new laptop - and so do all its competitors. Thousands of people rush to discard the old and acquire the new, crowding stores and even camping outside to be first inside on launch day. We don’t really need a larger screen or a different coloured case or a higher definition camera, but many people just want to own the very latest tech. It’s the foundation of Apple’s profitability and consumerism is the basis of the current global economy. But when we buy something new, we get rid of what’s old, even if it’s working perfectly well. Having said that, it’s been proved in a number of cases that manufacturers have introduced little nudges to speed up the obsolescence process. They fit batteries which last only a couple of years and are extremely difficult to replace. In one case a software update deliberately slowed down older models. The manufacturer said it was to improve battery life, but after protests they reversed the change. This cycle of consumption has made electronics waste the world’s fastest-growing solid-waste stream.
One problem with electronics and particularly associated with obsolescence is that products are not designed to be repaired or to be easily recycled. Some people are fighting back.
iFixit is a wiki-based site that teaches people how to fix almost anything. Anyone can create a repair manual for a device, and anyone can also edit the existing set of manuals to improve them. The site empowers individuals to share their technical knowledge with the rest of the world. “Ditch the throwaway economy,” they urge, “Join the repair revolution.”
The site also shows what happens to the items that are not repaired. Just under 1.5bn phones were manufactured in 2018, packed with toxic chemicals including arsenic, lead, and poly-brominated flame retardants. At least 60% of e-waste ends up in landfills—much in the developing world—where toxic metals leach into the environment. That’s about 50m tons each year, according to the UN.
Dumping on Africa
Citylab reports on the impact of e-waste on one city, Accra in Ghana. Up to 10,000 workers wade through tons of discarded goods as part of an enormous, informal recycling process, in what has become one of the world’s largest destinations for used electronic goods. It’s a rubbish dump in a capital city, strewn with smouldering piles of refuse. Burns, back problems, and infected wounds are common ailments among these workers, as well as respiratory problems, chronic nausea, and debilitating headaches—brought on by the hazardous working environment and toxic air pollution. These health risks are entering the food chain. The Agbogbloshie area is home to one of the largest food markets in Accra, and haggard livestock roam freely and graze on the dumpsite. A recent report by environmental groups Ipen and the Basel Action Network found Agbogbloshie contained some of the most hazardous chemicals on earth. One egg hatched by a free-range chicken in the area exceeded European Food Safety Authority limits on chlorinated dioxins, which can cause cancer and damage the immune system, 220 times over. About 80,000 people subsist by scavenging on the dump. The small income they earn is at the cost of their health.
This is the hidden downside of Western consumerism.
Let me just say a word for the fairphone.com. I’ve mentioned it before. It’s modular and it’s designed to be repaired, to be upgraded and ultimately recycled; to maximise utility from the materials, energy and labour that went into its manufacture. Do I have one? No. My excuse is that I’ve been using Apple for many years and my phone integrates with my iPad, my MacBook and my iMac. Fairphone runs only Android. But I don’t chase the latest models. None of my kit is less than four years old.
Even when recycled, a significant amount of electronic material cannot be recovered. This includes a whole range of rare earth metals, so called because that’s what they are - rare. Production has ceased in the United States principally because the mining and extraction process is extremely polluting. In fact some companies have abandoned their mines and gone bankrupt in the face of enormous liabilities for environmental pollution. China has the monopoly on rare earth metals and is reluctant to export them, although it may allow foreign companies to build factories in China which can use rare earth metals for products which then can be exported. We hope this will continue in spite of the increasing trade disputes with the US, although rare earth metals could be a key bargaining chip.
Apart from smart phones and domestic electronics from washing machines to security cameras and games consoles to burglar alarms, these materials are used in wind turbines and electric cars. The remaining global supply of some of them is calculated in years, not even decades. It will be a fundamental limitation on the expansion of renewable energy and electric transport. Designing electronics so that these materials can be reused becomes more urgent by the day. Circular economy anyone?
If we do convert our transport fleet to electricity we must seriously consider whether it is sensible to lock away crucial materials in vehicles that are idle on average for 23 hours each day.
The Recycling Illusion
Last week the BBC's File on Four documentary programme examined material sent for recycling by councils in Wales. It found it 7,000 miles away in Indonesia. Since China stopped accepting waste for recycling in 2017 it's been necessary to find other destinations because the UK does not have the capacity to recycle everything itself. The material under investigation in Indonesia was sent to a paper mill in 9 tonne bales. According to an insider at the mill, every bale from the UK is contaminated, containing on average 25% of plastic; sometimes as much as 50%. This plastic is separated out at the plant and then driven away and dumped in local villages. Local people then pick through the bits which can be sold and others use it to fire cooking stoves with no thought for the damage done to them by the fumes. The picture accompanying the programme shows an ocean of waste plastic which has drifted into the river which the villagers rely on for fish and drinking water, but now it's poisoned and polluted by plastic. The Indonesian government was approached and said that it was reviewing the situation. There are allegations that the mill is now burning the scrap plastic to hide the evidence. The local councils in Wales were approached and they too are carrying out investigations.
China Closes the Door
Faced with the loss of China as a destination for waste, the UK sent rubbish for recycling all over the world last year, including 80,000 tonnes to Turkey. There are serious doubts that Turkey has the capacity to recycle this material as it can only deal with 10% of its own domestic waste. It’s estimated that only 30% of the material received is processed and the rest is either burnt or buried or fly tipped.
It's illegal to export contaminated material. It's also illegal to export material to destinations where it cannot be properly recycled. The Environment Agency monitors the export of waste for recycling although it has no powers to visit overseas sites to see whether they conform. Apparently 100 containers of waste are exported from the UK each day, and the agency says that some of these are turned back by their officials, some before they even get as far as the port. But it’s clear that many are still getting through.
Money, money, money.
At the root of all this is money. All organisations with a turnover of more than £2 million handling more than 50 tons of packaging per annum must register under the Packaging Producer Obligation. They must then purchase Packaging Recovery Notes from an authorised recycler or exporter for every ton of waste which they pass on to them. The cost of these notes depends on the cost of recycling which in turn will depend on the nature of the material. The price per ton is currently running around £200. Clearly, unscrupulous exporters who can get round the Environment Agency checks and send material abroad to be dumped can make a lot of money. Meanwhile consumers who though they were doing the right thing by sorting out their recycling have been thoroughly conned.
While the Radio 4 programme took waste from Wales as an example, it’s highly probable that waste from the rest of the UK is diverted and dumped, and waste from countries across Europe as well. The Guardian reports that last week the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Canada if the government did not agree to take back 69 containers containing 1,500 tonnes of waste that had been exported to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014.
Canada had refused to even acknowledge the issue for years but as the dispute escalated, Duterte declared that if the government did not act quickly, the Philippines would tow the rubbish to Canadian waters and dump it there.
Sending it Back
On 23 April a Malaysian government investigation revealed that waste from the UK, Australia, United States and Germany was pouring into the country illegally, falsely declared as other imports. Enough was enough, said Yeo Bee Yin, the environment minister. “Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world. We will send back [the waste] to the original countries.” And it’s started. Five containers of illegal rubbish from Spain have already been sent back and another 3,000 tons are on their way to other coutries including the UK.
Something must be done
According to reports, some expect the annual production of plastic to grow from 350m tons to 1800m tons by 2050. I think it’s reasonable to say that something must be done to prevent that.
I’m on Radio Sangam on Sunday. You remember I asked you for ideas for my playlist? Many thanks to friends Michael and Gilli and to listener Bob Gordon down there in Australia for a whole wealth of suggestions. I’ll be interested to see what the show host selects.
Oh and I did complete my journey. They couldn’t move the cows so they rolled us back to a station and found a bus. I got in 2.5 hours late.
Apologies for the late publication this week. There’s been a lot going on and I’m holding some things over, including a report on food waste, until next time. As I explained, much of this week has been taken up with preparing and delivering a corporate presentation. If you need a speaker for your next event please bear me in mind. You can see me in action on video - there’s a link on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report. Every presentation is updated and tailored to each audience.
That’s it for now.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
There’ll be another episode next week.
Recycling - or not.
Treated like trash: south-east Asia vows to return mountains of rubbish from west
BBC File on 4
Pacer trains repurposed