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Waste in London: The London Plan, the Chinese Ban and the New Government’s War

By February 2, 2018 No Comments

  February 2018

by Mathilde Batelier

Recently, the issue of waste has been at the forefront of media stories, worldwide and national policies. Despite the focus on plastic waste in the oceans, the waste we create, as humans, is far from being only plastic, even though the latter remains a significant problem. As a new London Plan is being drafted, to take a closer look at the waste London and Londoners create, and how to tackle, avoid and manage our waste issue is crucial.

First, it is important to highlight a few data to understand the realm of the waste issue. Globally, 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year, and 8.5 billion tonnes of plastic have been created since the 1950’s, most of which still exist (Greenpeace, 2018). In 2014, the UK generated 202.8 million tonnes of waste: over half came from the construction, demolition and excavation sector, and 13.7% from households. Overall, the UK is not a leading example regarding waste management: most waste is still not recycled and the recycling rate for household waste has fallen for the first time in 2015 (Government Statistical Service, 2016). Furthermore, a significant portion of the waste produced in the UK is hazardous and therefore harmful for people and the environment on a long-term basis (such as asbestos, chemicals, solvents, pesticides to only name a few).

Recently, the issue of waste became even more urgent as China passed a ban coming into effect in January 2018 which forbids the import of millions of tonnes of plastic. Unfortunately, this is bad news for the UK, which sends a considerable amount of waste to Asia to be recycled or just to be disposed of (2.7 million tonnes have been sent since 2012) (The Guardian 2017).

What About London? 

The English capital does have a waste issue as well, addressed in the newest version of the London Plan. In 2015, the waste in London amounted to 18 million tonnes. Amongst this, 3.1 million tonnes came from households, which amounts roughly to 340 kilogrammes (53 stones!) per person per year, 5 million tonnes from commercial and industrial waste, and 9.7 million tonnes came from construction and demolition waste, by far the most wasteful sector nowadays (Mayor of London, 2017).

Furthermore, London managed only 7.5 million tonnes of its own waste and exported 11.4 million tonnes away, amongst which 1.3 million overseas. 340,000 tonnes of this waste was exclusively hazardous materials and 32% of the total waste sent to landfill (therefore not recycled nor reused, polluting the soils and oceans and generating greenhouse gas emissions) was biodegradable and recyclable (Mayor of London, 2017).

The new London plan is based on the concept of circular economy to reduce its waste and significantly improve waste management. The concept of circular economy is to look beyond the take-make-dispose pattern in order to redefine economic growth and decouple economic activity from the exponential consumption of finite resources. If you want to learn more about the circular economy, you can check out the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a pioneer of the concept: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/.

Furthermore, the new London Plan evolves within the wider frame of sustainability released by the Government last week, titled “A 25-year Environment plan to improve the environment”. One of its main goals is to tackle the waste issue, most importantly with the goal to end all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 (HM Government, 2018). The new London Plan goes along the same lines, as it aims to:

  • Promote a more circular economy to keep products and materials in the loop, ensuring that no biodegradable and recyclable materials end up in landfills.
  • Meet its recycling targets: 65% of municipal waste by 2030 and 95% of construction, demolition and excavation by 2020.
  • Make London entirely self-sufficient regarding the management of its waste within the next decade.
  • All of these goals should happen within the framework of stronger communities and a generally cleaner and more sustainable city.

If you would like to know more about the new draft of the London plan or even participate, you can go on the following page: https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/london-plan/new-london-plan/draft-new-london-plan/

While it is positive that both Government and the Mayor of London are undertaking actions to tackle waste, the latter will not be cared for solely through the adoption of a circular economy. First of all, even though the concept circular economy is compelling and relevant toward a more sustainable world, its main concept, recycling, will not get rid of the problem of waste alone. Recycling uses a lot of energy and produces waste itself. As attractive as it may sound, recycling will not be enough in a city expecting 11 million inhabitants in 2040. Furthermore, over than half of the London waste comes from construction: the waste will remain an everlasting problem if the city of London keeps using concrete and polystyrene as cheap construction and insulation materials over environmentally-safe and socially-sound options, such as wood, grasscrete, recycled plastic or even mycelium (a sturdy material made out of mushrooms).

Finally, household waste needs to be reduced, and ideally, to reach zero. However, this won’t be possible if citizens (also called consumers) have nowhere to shop plastic-free. Strict regulation regarding the production of waste, in other words, the production of packages, especially food-related ones, needs to be passed in order to make package-free shopping feasible and available to everybody. Even though the proposal of plastic-free aisles in supermarkets by the Government is interesting, it is no way near enough to tackle our waste production: what needs be are plastic-free supermarkets, not aisles.

Waiting for strict regulation to come into force, there are five steps you can take as a citizen to reduce drastically your waste (in London and anywhere in the world!) and its impact on our environment.

  • Say no to free-stuff: free pens, free samples, free bags, vouchers… The list is endless. Most of the time, we tend to take things just because they are free, even though we don’t use them or even need them. So fight the habit, and just say no to free stuff you don’t need
  • Along the same lines, say no to plastic straws. There are one billion of straws discarded in the world every day. They represent a gigantic problem as straws are made of mixed plastics and cannot be recycled. Furthermore, their small size allows them to end up easily and fast in oceans and in marine animals’ diet. Just say no to straws, and still enjoy your drink. And if you really want a straw, you can always buy its bamboo or stainless steel equivalent.
  • Stop buying bottled water. There are one million bottles of water discarded every minute on earth. Bottled water actually costs about 1000 times more than tap water, and holds plastic residue and toxic components that end up in your body. Reusable water bottles allow you to have water with you anytime, anywhere and for free.
  • Have your own shopping bag. Just put a folded cotton bag in your everyday-bag: it barely takes space and allows you to reduce your consumption of plastic bags dramatically, while allowing to save 5p a few times each week!
  • Instead of buying, borrow: whatever you need (tools, cooking appliances, clothes for special occasions), there is bound to be someone in your neighbourhood who can help you. The only think is often simply to ask.