Until recently most people in the waste industry had assumed that it was impossible to reduce the amount being produced and were concentrating on putting the stuff to better use. But lately that assumption has been challenged. For one thing, the pace at which the rich world churns out rubbish has been slowing.
Between 1980 and 2000 the amount of waste produced by the OECD countries increased by an average of 2.5% a year. Between 2000 to 2005 the average growth rate slowed to 0.9%. That was just ahead of the rate of population growth (0.7%), but well behind the rate of economic growth (2.2%). The OECD describes as “a rather strong relative decoupling of municipal waste generation from economic growth”, although it express some misgivings about the reliability of the data. The European Union has detected a similar trend in several European countries as has CyclOpe, the research institute.
Reducing the amount of waste being produced makes a great deal of sense, provided it does not cost more, in either environmental or financial terms, than disposing of it in the usual way. Governments hope it might help to trim both green house-gas emissions and waste management costs. But they are not sure how best to encourage it.
Some are trying to persuade consumers to throw away less. The simplest method is to collect the rubbish less often. In areas of Britain where the dustmen come round only every other week, recycling rates are 10% higher then elsewhere.
Another tactis is to make households pay by volume for the rubbish they generate, rather than through a flat fee or through local taxes. Many places in Europe. America and Asia have adopted “pay as you throw” schemes. (in Taiwan, householders even have to chuck their own rubbish into the truck.) About a quarter of Americans live in communities with such programmes. The EPA recksons that they reduce the volume of rubbish by 14-27%, and increase recycling (which usually remains free) by 32-59%.
There are drawbacks. Fly-tipping the illegal dumping of waste-tends to rise slightly as people try to avoid paying. And households generally grumble a lot if they have to pay extra to have their rubbish collected. Some communities have responded by offering rebates to those who throw away less-a more palatable way of packaging the same idea. But most local authorities have simply decided against the idea. When the British government offered them money to experiment with pay-as-you-throw schemes earlier this year, not one signed up.
Businesses are generally seen as a softer target than consumers. It can be argued that manufacturers bear some responsibility for the amount of waste rich countries produce. They often have an incentive to reduce waste anyway, since most already pay for disposal by volume. There is even a name for the steady reduction in materials used to make the same goods: “light-weighting”. It is not only electronic gadgets that have become smaller and lighter over the years even as their performance has improved but many other things too, from cars to plastic bags.
The average aluminium drink can is only half as thick as it was in 1960s, according to Molson Coors, the firm that introduced this type of container in 1959. Its American subsidiary has reduced the weight of its cans by 7% in the past five years alone. That means savings not only on the metal itself but also on transport and even cooling: thinner cans chill faster.
Officials in the EU, in particular, are keen to hurry lightweighting along. WRAP, the British agency charged with reducing waste, is trying to promote it for various sorts of packaging. It funded trails of a lightweight pull-tab lid for food tins, which believes could save 15,000 tonnes of steel each year in Britain alone. Heinz, a giant food manufacturer which took part in the trial, hopes that adopting the new lids will save it 400,000 a year. WRAP has conducted similar tests of thinner glass and plastic bottles, with equally promising results.
WRAP also cajoled Britain’s biggest supermarkets and food suppliers into signing a voluntary agreement to halt the growth in packaging by last year and start reducing it from 2010. Last July it announced that the initial target had been met, despite a 1.8% rise in sales. Some firms are going much further: in 2007 Tesco pledged to reduce its packaging by a quarter by 2010.
In theory, consumers could steer firms towards waste reduction by buying products that are easy to recycle, say, or have only minimal packaging. To some extent this is happening. Tesco’s Alasdair James says British consumers rank the environment as their third priority after price and convenience. But many governments are trying to give greenery an extra push with compulsory waste-reduction schemes. Some levy fees on certain products, akin to bottle deposits, to ensure they are disposed off safely. Thirty-six states in America, for example, charge for the disposal of tyres. The states spend the money on clean up programmes or pay others to run such programmes. Many of the tyres are blended into road surface or burned in cement kilns. Several other states have “advance recovery fees” for computer motors and televisions. So have Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, among others, and China is working on a scheme.
The problem with fee programmes is that all goods in a category are subject to the same charge, whether they are easy or hard to get rid of. That gives manufacturers no incentive to build easy disposal into the design of product.
One answer is to ban certain substances outright, thereby eliminating the need to dispose of them later. A number of places, from San Francisco to the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, have banned or severely restricted the use of plastic bags. The EU barred the use of several heavy metals and flame retardants in electronic goods in 2006 and recently proposed expanding the scheme. Several American states were so impressed that they have copied the EU’s rules.