Sustainability & Waste: ‘Future of Packaging’ in The Times

New writing… Pleased to say I have had another couple of pieces published in The Times newspaper today, as part of a special Raconteur report on the Future of Packaging.

The Overview article which opens the report discusses whether sustainable packaging is ready yet to make the leap from niche to mainstream:

‘Resolving the Riddle of Sustainability’.

My second piece on Page 7 argues that tackling the number one problem of packaging waste demands upcycling the way wethink about the industry and the resource it produces :

‘Thinking outside the Burger Box’.

The full 16-page Future of Packaging report is available to view/download here.

England’s Litter Problem – Could Business Do More?

New writing Another of my recent pieces for Guardian Sustainable Business is now live, running in their paid-content section in the Circular Economy Zone, sponsored by SUEZ. The article explores England’s litter blight – from cigarette packets in the gutter, to pop bottles in the woods – and asks whether companies and brands can pick up the slack where government has fallen short:

The full Guardian series on Circular Economy with SUEZ can be viewed here.

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