Byelection issues 4: What a waste

This is my last post of this little series. I’m casting my postal vote and going away for a week, so I’ll miss the nail-biting last few days of campaigning in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection.

I have no complaints about the conduct of any of the candidates, though the overall quality of “debate” on the #heg13 Twitter hashtag has been just as lamentable as I expected. I was encouraged to see Emma Daniel making a good effort to use twitter to amplify issues and questions raised on the doorstep by local residents but slightly disappointed that she didn’t seem interested in following up with debate on her own policies.

I haven’t been able to attend any of the “meet the candidate” events that have happened in local pubs, but I was pleased to hear they were happening. I’d be interested to hear what any local residents who did attend thought of them.

Anyway, I’ll end my series with another look at waste, which has become a big story in this last week of the campaign. How can it be that recycling rates have gone down under a Green council? (I’m not discussing the rise in CO2 emissions reported to Policy & Resources Committee this week, since the committee papers clearly state that it occurred in 2010 and Labour’s gleeful reaction reflects much more badly on them than on the Green administration.)

The truth is that waste management in Brighton and Hove has been abysmal for decades. In the early 1990s, other cities (Leeds, for example) were successfully running kerbside food waste collections, while Brighton & Hove couldn’t even manage to collect recycling. Since 2003 our city’s waste (after it’s been collected and processed) has been managed by a private company, Veolia.

What’s not recycled is taken to Newhaven to be incinerated. Of that “residual waste” over a third is food waste. A further 25% is garden and other biodegradable waste. All the nutrients, energy and water that went into producing that food are literally going up in smoke. Talk about waste!

Food is a resource, even when people don’t want to eat it. We really shouldn’t be burning it. There’s plenty of evidence about how to manage a food waste collection. 47% of local authorities are already doing it. Why aren’t we?

In fact, there’s an example of a successful food waste collection even closer to home. Magpie combined food waste collection with their Green Box recycling scheme for a few months last year. I was lucky enough to be in one of the participating households – it was great. We put out half as many binbags as before; they were lighter and less likely to be ripped open by seagulls. The people behind that initiative have a new plan, outlined on this somewhat cryptic website.

Following the links to their facebook page, you come across this table of prices. It’s from this document, one of many that make up the council’s 25 year contract with Veolia. I’m no expert, but I think there’s something going on here that needs to be explained. As the Verdiculture people point out:

“The less we dispose the more it costs? We cannot afford zero waste. Contract has minimum fee so if we disposed of one tonne it would cost hundreds of thousands”

Is this why we don’t have a food waste collection scheme?

I’ve just read Brighton & Hove City Council’s Waste management strategy. It’s a curious document. It identifies waste minimisation as the highest priority. Among its objectives, it includes

“engage with local retailers and trading standards to encourage reduced packaging”.

It states correctly that

“Effective waste minimisation requires action at source, for example, by manufacturers making their products more durable or re-usable. It also requires retailers to reduce packaging of their products and consumers to change their behaviour, for example, by buying products with less packaging and buying more durable items plus re-using items where possible.”

But all this builds up to the anticlimactic admission that

“the council’s powers to reduce the amount of waste are limited to encouraging customers to change their behaviour.”

The strategy continues with page after page of exhortation to residents and appeals to the miracle-working powers of the voluntary and community sector. But there’s nothing about how the council will engage with retailers, or any other businesses for that matter, to minimise the wasteful use of resources.

Does the council, a major landowner, really have no leverage at all with businesses located in the city? Can the city not involve tourism businesses in a concerted initiative to cut waste, while selling our city as a place that is serious about its commitment to One Planet Living? 8% of our residual waste is nappies. Can the council, as public health authority, not fund a free cloth nappy loan scheme? Why is it left to voluntary groups to take action on the food waste that happens before food even reaches the shops?

Frankly, focusing on recycling rates is looking at this issue from the wrong end.

Manufacturers and retailers don’t sell disposable products or use excessive packaging because they are ignorant. Veolia didn’t negotiate a higher price for lower amounts of rubbish by mistake. They do these things to make a profit, but we can’t afford to carry on treating those profits as an inevitable part of the landscape.

Our planet’s natural resources are simply not disposable. Using precious oil and water to manufacture takeaway cartons that get used once and thrown into the street is grotesquely stupid.

I don’t know if it’s worth asking the Hanover & Elm Grove candidates this – they seem to have given up answering my questions. But I would really like to know, from anyone who has any part of the answer:

Can Brighton & Hove seriously approach zero waste, and if so, how?