Waste: The elephant(s) in the room

A version of this article first appeared in the Chelgate Newsletter, Summer 2012.

Early in 2012, the Love Food Hate Waste (LFHW) campaign caught the attention of the national press and media with its revelation that UK householders throw away on average around 10% of the weekly food shop, so wasting families approximately £680 a year. At a time when many are counting the pennies, the financial cost of this waste seemed to strike a chord with the public. To imagine spending that much in the supermarket in one visit and then simply wheeling out the trolley and dumping bag after bag direct into the bins clearly registered in the general consciousness as a disgraceful waste of money (and food).

In reality, the LFHW numbers released by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) only tell one relatively small part of the story. In all, a staggering £12bn-worth of food and drink, much of which could have been consumed safely, is discarded by households per annum. Of the total of 18M tonnes of edible food going to landfill every year, only a third comes direct from homes – roughly as much again is generated by the producers/supply chain themselves, with the retail sector being responsible for a final similar-sized portion.

In turn, these sobering statistics represent only part of the bigger waste picture: Domestic arisings constitute little more than 10% of all waste generated in the UK, with the construction industry contributing over one third of the total.

Landfill: All legacy; no future

Even though the number is falling progressively, there are still nearly 1,500 active landfill sites in England and Wales, covering a total area of some 28,000 hectares, equivalent to over 25,000 football pitches. Taken together, this wasteland estate is roughly twice the size of the city of Sunderland. In other words, an area sufficient to be home to half a million people is being used simply as the country’s rubbish bin.

These are the live landfill locations. In addition, we are surrounded by the ghosts of a polluting past, the living dead of waste. There are estimated to be 20,000 previously used, now closed, historic landfill sites in England and Wales.

Whilst we might have been trashing the land for a long time now, if we think we can continue to bury over 100M tonnes of waste a year, we are, in fact, simply burying our heads in the sand: Such a strategy is literally unsustainable. We have been warned that in Britain we could run out of available capacity for landfill by 2020, even with the disincentive tax currently standing at £48 a tonne and rising.

Success: Sure, but too slow

Of course, it is by no means all doom and gloom – figures are improving pretty much across the board (with the exception of totals for textile discards, impacted by the ‘Primark effect’): The latest official data show recovery up, recycling up, landfill down and total waste generation down (although recessionary pressures can temporarily suppress output and consumption, with knock-on effects). Anaerobic Digestion (AD) capacity has doubled in a year, with Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) systems now considered a mainstream alternative to incineration, plus clean and renewable Energy-to-Waste (EtW) solutions being brought to market.

Make no mistake, there are success stories. According to government figures, Wales for example, is surging ahead of the rest of the UK on recycling rates as it bids to become a ‘zero-waste’ society. During the financial year 2011-12, the average household in Wales recycled 48% of its waste – 4% up on the previous 12 months and putting the country firmly on track to reach its 2012-13 statutory target of 52%. England currently recycles on average around 40% of its household waste, but year-on-year increases have been getting smaller and, by contrast, it still faces an uphill struggle to hit EU targets.

Improvements, whilst signs of positive actions and initiatives, are happening too slowly. Without a combination of behaviour change, technological advancement and investment in procurement seeing a dramatic accelerator effect on progress, Britain is set to retain its unwanted title as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ and suffer all the associated costs and impacts. The waste problem will not solve itself and simply go away.

Elephant(s) in the room

One final statistic and analogy might serve to illustrate the sheer scale of the problem and urgent need for action, putting the weight of personal responsibility into stark perspective.

Estimates for the total (domestic and commercial) waste generated per year in the UK range between around 290M and 330M tonnes. To help us picture what such an unfathomably large figure might look like, that volume can be expressed as being equivalent in weight to having to accommodate around 100 million fully grown elephants, every year.

Therefore, commentators describing our waste crisis as being the ‘elephant in the room’ barely do the situation justice. In reality, waste is the elephant in each of up to four different rooms in every household in England – now that is a sizeable problem, especially for anyone living in a studio flat!

Author: Jim McClelland

Environmental Crime: From Ecocide, via INTERPOL, to Litter

Image courtesy of dream designs

What connects guns to gum?

Genocide and graffiti are worlds apart, as are the global trade in illegal timber and nuisance parking, gangland killings and the theft of rare bird eggs, right? Wrong. They are all simply and inextricably linked by a single issue, all part of the same one-planet problem: Environmental Crime.

INTERPOL: Serious and organised crime

A Detective Inspector attached to the National Wildlife Crime Unit in Livingston, Scotland, heading up an international INTERPOL team, has pioneered coordination of a worldwide operation across 51 countries fighting illegal trade in reptiles and amphibians. Results have included the seizure of thousands of animals and products valued at over €25M. The primary target here has been eco-cybercrime, widespread and big bucks; but this scale of intercontinental sting is by no means the only level of interest and involvement at which environmental policing pays.

Crime is crime. Investigations that get results are valuable and targeting environmental transgressions can represent an effective route into a known underworld network at national, regional, even local level. Convictions won as a result of an eco-crime investigation can bring benefits to law enforcement services in more ways than one: They might take a serious criminal temporarily out of circulation, albeit on a lesser charge; and/or they might help unearth evidence in connection with a serious crime, so providing the breakthrough the police needed.

As well as pursuing high-profile cases involving illegal trade in exotic items such as ivory or tigers, INTERPOL understands that supporting the likes of the Environment Agency in its pursuit in England and Wales of prosecutions in connection with waste licensing, management, transfer and disposal offences is an effective way of disrupting the activities of organised crime syndicates. Searches on the basis of skip-hire malpractice can result in arrests and convictions of much greater significance, with wider-ranging implications.

In short, whilst The Sopranos might be fictional, the dirty-money storyline links between gangsters and garbage are not entirely false and not so far removed from real-life drama, legal prosecution cases and convictions in the courts.

Conflict resources: Prosecuting the President for ‘pillage’

Serious and organised as the ‘The Mob’ might be, they are not however at the top of the tree in terms of environmental crime.

This week, the verdict due in the trial of the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, could set a significant legal precedent (according to reports in The Ecologist). Taylor is being tried on 11 counts, the final one of which is ‘pillage’, or conflict-related theft, prohibited in international humanitarian law under the 1949 Geneva Convention.

Wars cost money. Many brutal conflicts have depended on arms deals funded via ill-gotten gains, exploitation of rights and illegal trade in natural resources, such as timber and ‘blood diamonds’. This violent history has lead to the environment being described as the ‘unpublicised victim of war’.

Proof of ‘pillage theory’ is difficult to obtain. Prosecutions are complex and potentially costly, with outcomes uncertain, but the principle is valid and mainstream jurisprudence is becoming increasingly interested in exploring its application.

The price to be paid for ‘stolen goods’ is perhaps set to rise to a whole new level, where the concept of ‘costing the earth’ is to be taken as a literal measure of value.

Ecocide: A Crime against Peace

A stage further and bigger still sees environmental crime taken to the United Nations. In April 2010, Barrister, environmental campaigner, aspiring law-maker and activist Polly Higgins submitted to the United Nations the written proposal for Ecocide to be made the 5th Crime Against Peace (alongside Genocide, Crimes against Humanity, Crimes of Aggression and War Crimes).

Ecocide is defined as: The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.

To highlight the campaign, a Mock Trial then took place in the UK Supreme Court, in London, which in turn lead to the sentencing of two fictional oil company CEOs, found guilty of Ecocide in relation to highly topical cases concerned with tar sands extraction.

In the land of environmental law, ‘Ecocide’ is intellectually and effectively building the bridge between the territories of human rights and crime. Crossing the boundary from fiction to fact at the UN would alter the legal landscape forever.

Environmental Crime: You, me and the dog

So, where exactly on this scale of escalating ‘biolence’ are to be found the petty eco-crimes, minor cases of community misconduct and household misdemeanours of the general public? Where does all of this leave you and me?

Well, at the level of Local Environment Quality (LEQ), mostly dealing with dog mess, chewing gum, fast-food and cigarette litter, surrounded by abandoned vehicles, fly-tipped fridges and tyres, mouldering back-street mattresses and graffiti.

This is the grim reality of combating environmental crime for the majority – a relentless and relatively thankless process of cleaning-up after the actions of the minority. More grime squad, than crime squad? Wrong.

Crime is crime. Results are results. The game is the same, whether chasing leads at INTERPOL, pitching Ecocide to the UN, or fighting for a clean and healthy neighbourhood. The job is to protect: One Planet; One People.

To protect, first you need to care. Environmental Crime? Take care. Give care. Care.


Further reading, legislation and links:

• The INTERPOL website provides information on operations, intelligence and projects in connection with environmental crime, covering the activities of both the Wildlife and the Pollution Working Groups.

•  Ecocide is a Crime can also be found on Facebook.

• The Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1990 sets out regulations for England & Wales covering a broad range of environmental issues, from pollution to GMOs. Of primary importance, was its original constitution making it an offence to litter.

• The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act (CNEA) 2005 is the key policy document in Local Environment Quality (LEQ) regulations, providing more effective powers and tools, under which provision, for example, Local Authority enforcement officers are able to issue fixed penalty notices. It updates and extends an number of the legislative elements of the EPA above.

• The Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 deals with (among other things) fly tipping, littering, graffiti, and fly posting.

• The Government in England and Wales works closely with the independent charity Keep Britain Tidy (KBT) to develop advice, research, support and training, plus deliver behaviour changing campaigns on LEQ matters, including the Love Where You Live campaign. KBT resources and outputs of note include Knowledge Banks, Surveys and Reports – particularly the landmark Local Environment Quality Survey England – plus special projects such as the Eco Schools initiative, the Green Flag awards scheme for parks and the Blue Flag programme for beaches.

• The Government-lead Chewing Gum Action Group (CGAG) works closely with industry and Local Authorities to reduce the amount of gum litter on streets of the UK.

• For concerned individuals living and working in England & Wales, there is also additional information available online regarding street cleaning, litter and illegal dumping matters, offering help and advice on what can be done about LEQ issues.

Author: Jim McClelland

Refugees in 3D: Darfur to Detroit

A Lexicon of Discrimination

Sad to say, we are familiar with documentary features and stories on the news that speak of the plight of refugees. Stored in digital broadcast archives of Western media sources and scorched into the mind’s eye of the viewing and reading public will be a scar-tissue library of disturbing images of human flight, suffering and ultimately death.

This travelogue of horrors, comprises postcards from hellspots across the globe: From the famine-wracked Ethiopia of the 1980s and drought-riven Somalia of today; through war-ravaged Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Sudan, Darfur in particular; then on into scenes of political oppression and social unrest in Zimbabwe, Burma, the Yemen and most recently Syria.

The victims of economic, environmental and social discrimination are legion, with literally millions of migrants on the run from unsustainable situations and circumstances.

Moreover, the demographers of doom are forecasting still worse fates to follow. Already, according to research and reports commissioned by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there are around 25M ‘climate refugees’, with figures for future scenarios suggesting there could be as many as 150M or more by 2050. Rising sea levels threaten to redraw the coastlines of low-lying nations such as Thailand, India and Bangladesh, plus erase the Maldives from the map entirely. The sheer scale of the problem and rapid pace of impact change is more than just daunting, it is frightening to the point of empathetic paralysis. What on Earth can we do?

3D Vision: The People View

Never mind what we can do, first let us ask how we should feel. Connected. Restoring a sense of perspective and personal resonance is paramount to being able to face our fears. In short, we need a coherent vision of the world and our place in it.

To keep calm and connected calls for the ability to consider refugees in 3D, to see people, not just problems. Sustainability demands that we think and talk in 3D and the language of unsustainable ‘Discrimination’ is seemingly littered with ‘D’-words. Our 3D lexicon of Discrimination comprises: Economic ‘D’-words, such as Disadvantage, Deprivation and Decline; Environmental ‘D’-words, the like of Degradation, Destruction, Disaster, Depletion, Desertification and Drought; plus many examples of Social ‘D’-words including Disconnect(ion), Disenfranchisement, Dislocation, Disengagement and Displacement. Some words, such as ‘Depression’ contextually cross-contaminate. Others, like ‘Distress’ spread themselves in full-blown viral 3D.

To connect the words is to connect the ideas. To connect the ideas is to connect the people. Connection is Community.

Communities and Connection

Connections between the youth draining out of some rural communities in County Cork, Ireland, with those who have lost livelihoods through the shocking shrinkage of the Aral Sea are more than just intellectual: Real people and real problems are common to both parts of the world, as they are to all.

Now, let us be clear: Nobody is saying that migration as a result of the closure of a major manufacturing plant is the equivalent of fleeing militias with machine guns and machetes. Of course, the experiences of inhabitants of post-industrial Detroit and bloody, brutal Darfur are not the same. Viewed in 3D, however, those two places do represent different points on the same scale. A common element connects Detroit and Darfur: People.

It is conceivable that the jobless steelworker stuck in a bedsit feels alienated and alone to the same degree as the orphan in a Red Cross camp. Each desperately needs compassion and a sense of connectedness: Each is lost, each a refugee.

Refugees in 3D populate the globe: We all know some; some of us know nothing else. Time to put our 3D glasses on.


Further reading and viewing:

Detroit: Haunting photos of crumbling neighbourhoods highlight the terrible decline of America’s once-great Motor City (Daily Mail article) – a more extensive library of remarkable images of urban decay is available to view direct on the website of photographers Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

Darfur: Background to the relief work being undertaken in Sudan by the independent charitable aid organisation Save The Children, plus latest bulletin updates

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, assessments, facts and figures

Climate Refugees: Documentary film about the “human face of Climate Change”

Author: Jim McClelland

Swarm Theory

Sustainability: A collective noun

Picture the scene: the Kalahari, the Pacific, or maybe simply on the Common, over the railway from your Mum’s, where you take the dog on a crisp bright Sunday after lunch…

Herds of migrating wildebeest on the plains, or shoals of fish deep in the sea, dispersing in progressive patterns – all fluid rolling edges and travelling parabolics – in response to the threat of a predatory intruder. Flocks of small birds, sweeping and swooping in a spectacle of infinite harmonics, morphing in mesmeric, magic motion, as if performing cloudscape cut-and-fill, or like some giant desktop fractal in the sky.

The effect on humans is hypnotic. Spellbound, we marvel. We fill up with wonder. We are lost in fascination.

Do we for a single moment imagine that there is one pack animal in supreme authority, one fish ultimately in charge? One leader being followed? Is there one Starling CEO, that having seen the big picture is communicating its strategic vision to all others in the squadron – some virtuoso conductor of the wingèd orchestra, choreographer of the airborne ballet?

I think not.

Swarm theory

What sophisticated and positive attributes and behaviours might we associate with the idea of a swarm? Collective responsibility. Communicative intelligence. Connective interaction. Now, does that put you in mind of anything – climate change activism, ethical trade, green consumerism, social network mobilisation?

In a swarm, individual actions only really acquire meaning when viewed in relation to one another, in the context of the collective response. There’s a dynamic energy flow. To describe such empowerment through aggregation and complexity, it is not enough merely to trot out that well-worn phrase commonly applied to any semblance of transformational synergy: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s more personal. Everyone depends on everyone else.

“Only connect…”

As we are all part of a global superorganism, the planetary ecosystem, does it not make perfect sense that the intelligent lifestyle model should be built around principles of collective responsibility? If we can understand the idea of a perfect storm, can we not conceive of a perfect swarm? Can we not make the connection? In short, if a butterfly can have an effect, can’t you?

Sustainability: Everyone depends on everyone else.

Take responsibility… and share it.

“Only connect…”

Footnote: The Threat to Bee Colonies; their Value To The UK Economy & Ecology; plus what You Can Do to Help…

Alongside such phenomena as the masterbuilding feats of termites and the sophisticated logistics of ants, the community-networking activities and communication skills of the humble honeybee, complete with signature ‘waggle dance’, have come to epitomise collective responsibility and organisational intelligence in the natural world. They offer an inspirational example to business and the built environment.

The importance of their role as pollinators-in-chief to our ecological sustainability is guaranteed. Their sustainability, however, is not.

Today, with global bee colony numbers under serious threat, there has never been a better time for organisations, communities, companies and individuals to get involved in conservation. Urban beekeeping is more than just hip, it’s downright necessary and urgent. So, what’s the buzz?

The Threat: Reports from North America of severe and widespread instances of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), affecting commercial migratory beekeepers in particular, set alarm bells ringing here in the UK. In 2007, press and media carried stories of the spread of the disease in the US across up to 35 States, with figures for the extent of colony infection running between 50% and 90% in some cases. Concerns over the likelihood of CCD reaching these shores prompted the matter to be raised in Westminster, with Defra issuing official statements to reassure UK beekeepers that, whilst close monitoring of the situation was ongoing, no evidence had emerged as yet to suggest an outbreak of similar status.

In response, spokespersons for such as the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) voiced their concerns regarding levels of Government funding for bee research – their perception being that at a time of high alert and with the threat to their industry on the rise, what they were in fact witnessing was a relative decline in real terms of financial support for the sector.

The Value: Whilst the value of annual honey production in the UK runs to between £10-30M, by far the greater benefit to the national economy is derived from the value of crops grown commercially that are dependent on bee pollination: estimates range somewhere between £120-200M per annum.

The additional value of bees to wild plant pollination is clearly considered substantial in economic terms, but virtually impossible to measure.

The Call to Arms: Of the 44,000 beekeepers in the UK, maintaining some 274,000 colonies in total, approximately 300 are operating on a commercial basis, responsible for around 40,000 colonies. The remainder are small in scale, yet hugely important in function, making a vital contribution to preserving the balance of the ecosystem, at community and indeed national level.

Furthermore, garden habitats in urban areas, particularly those less manicured and left more to the care of Mother Nature, represent the pollination-positive green infrastructure, the healthy, connective eco-tissue of local biodiversity.

Therefore, to become part of the buzz around bee conservation, even if you don’t feel able to go so far as establishing your own little hive of beekeeping activity (see below for useful sources on online information and support), you can at least claim justification for a more laid-back approach to tending the garden, or window box. In other words, in the name of sustainability, sit back, run wild and go to seed!


BBKA, British Beekeepers’ Association

BIBBA, the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association

Bee Farmers’ Association of the United Kingdom

Scottish Beekepers Association

Welsh Beekepers’ Association

The Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations

London Beekeepers Association

Author: Jim McClelland

The Rise of the Eco-Warrior Poet

Currently on the rise in corporate culture: A Rebel with a Cause, a way with words and a Boardroom backer; a Connective; a social engineer, piping up the basement to the penthouse; closing loops and opening minds, a demand teacher, supply-chain matchmaker and resource broker; a stock-market gardener and investment left-banker; a weaver of intellectual weft and warp; a brain-foodie, part shrink, part chef; a cartographic novelist, text therapist and ram-raider of the lost art of communication; a post-industrial chemist, fluent in business Esperanto and opposed to acts of mindless biolence

Ladies and Gentlemen, please allow me to introduce… the Eco-Warrior Poet.

Fungi on living library books, 11th International Garden Festival, Quebec.

Poet? Now before we set off down the wrong track, I don’t mean ‘poet’ in a literal sense – I’m not advocating an in-house rhymester, some Pam Ayres on the payroll; a sensitive soul wandering “lonely as a cloud” through the Legal Department to deliver a haiku to M&A. Although, thinking about it…

No, the ‘poets’ I’m describing here act like a managerial competence-to-performance artist, or a shopfloor creative, capable of breaking up into bite-size pieces the endless continuum of principles, policy, and practice, that represents the whole vast repository of potential for (more) sustainable development. Their insights and articulation provide snatches of an intelligibility for our time. They are the storytellers of Sustainability. The stories make sense. The world makes more sense. They connect. They are themselves Connectives. Generation-S.

Coherence and connectivity

Now, whilst there are those with religious, spiritual and personal beliefs that support a view of life on earth as inherently intentioned, there are many others who might subscribe to a perspective on the planet more akin to that expressed by the American philosopher, Nelson Goodman:

“Coherence is a characteristic of descriptions, not of the world: The significant question is not whether the world is coherent, but whether our account of it is.”

In short, it’s not just a matter of what we say, but how we say it. In our account, there exists a dynamic interrelationship between form and function, and nowhere more so than in the approach of the poet. So, what is it about the poetic use of language that can serve to raise phrases, images and so concepts, up out of the gloomy gloop of everyday prose, to shine and illuminate, to beam broadly and enlighten, so providing visions of coherence?

What is Poetry?

Literary critic Roman Jakobson – who rather stylishly described poetry as “organised violence committed on ordinary speech” – drew on the seminal work of the Godfather of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, to distinguish two axial dimensions of language:

• the ‘message’, which represents the particular combination of constituent parts (sentences, words, phonemes, etc) in any given utterance; and

• the ‘code’, which is the repository of all possible constituent parts.

In other words, the ‘message’ function is about combination; the ‘code’ about selection.

According to Jakobson, what poetic use of language does is that it “projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination”. It’s about connectivity. Poets connect, establishing ‘equivalences’ by way of such as sound, stress, rhythm and rhyme. They weave patterns. Poets make lateral meta-level connections, some of which may appear to deepen existing discursive, referential bonds, whilst others create new, original, fresh conceptual associations. They employ non-linear techniques such as metaphor, analogy and ambiguity. Their route is full of curves, twists and tangents.

Theirs is a sideways dynamic.

Ultimately, given the infinite number of possibilities available to them for ‘selection’, it is the particular force of ‘combination’ that cements the foundations of coherence for a poet. It’s all in the mix.

A poet is a Connective.

Poets and Sustainability

So what’s this got to do with Sustainability?

Everything. Sustainability is all about connectivity and coherence. At an intellectual level, it’s all about the poetry of existence. At a commercial level, it’s getting competitive.

In the 21st century, we, the sustainability-literate Connectives, are being challenged and charged with the demand for what Noam Chomsky famously called “rule-governed creativity”. Accordingly,  as entry-level awareness and acceptance of sustainability matters and exponents goes mainstream, as competence is commonplace, excellence and originality become prized. Star players command attention. Generation-S is in high demand.

The time of the Eco-Warrior Poet has arrived.

Author: Jim McClelland

1 2