Errantly Consuming.              Buying and having less of everything

Archive for June, 2011

Innovative ways to increase recycling

Imagine if the council started giving out free bins with separate recycling compartments to people not currently recycling, in a bid to bring them into the recycling fold and increase recycling overall. How would you feel about that? When I raised the idea with a friend he fumed at the mere suggestion of councils wasting yet more money, and thought it ludicrous that any such scheme would effectively be rewarding non-recyclers for not participating in recycling – an act he considers to be a civic duty.

The words: ‘I’ll start recycling if the council give me a bin,’ were spoken by my mother. She has absolutely no interest in recycling and digs her heels in about the matter. I don’t really know why she chooses not to recycle, other than that she is set in her ways and doesn’t want her routine disrupted. Perhaps your instinct is to think she’s lazy, but she isn’t.

Barriers to Recycling

To start recycling would necessitate change in her life. She would have to devise a system for the paraphernalia. In her view, a new bin to keep the garbage and recycling separate would be essential. To you, these issues may not insurmountable. However, refusing to recycle is not uncommon; I know at least five households which do absolutely no recycling.

I would like to buy my mum a nice *must have* chrome bin with separate compartments to help try and overcome her barrier to recycling. The problem is I have wanted to do this for a while, but I haven’t had the money. When I have money (can’t remember the last time) I will go out and buy her a top of the range shiny bin (another thing in the world, sigh), put a bow on it, and present it to her with an accompanying lesson about recycling!

When I did a volunteering recycling outreach scheme at a Southwark housing estate where recycling participation rates are very low, I could see right into people’s tiny flats while I doorstepped and leafleted along the narrow balconies. Evidently many of them lived in over-cramped conditions, and from what I glanced through the nets, the kitchens were pokey.

Now obviously, the people on this estate wouldn’t have much use for a free bin from the council because as far as I could tell their living conditions meant that their main barrier to recycling was not having any space to store it at all, either in their kitchens or balconies that were already shouldering an overflow of possessions. Here council money would be better spent improving the recycling facilities in the courtyard. I’d recommend cute cow bins, to encourage recycling and minimise dumping.

There must be a lot of people out there like my mum who just aren’t bothered about recycling and don’t go looking for solutions to whatever makes it seem an extra effort to them. If we could reach them, then we might even stop wasting so much money on landfill.

Waste is expensive

In our extraordinary double-pay system we buy all the over-packaging and non-recyclable plastic waste flippantly in the first place, and then we all pay for it later through our taxes when it is disposed of. We are already paying a lot for people who choose not to recycle and for those who buy unthinkingly in regard to waste.

When Southwark and Hackney councils give out subsidised compost bins and wormaries it is deemed good a good thing, perhaps because the intended recipients are ‘deserving’. They also give out food waste caddies (*to some residents). Do you agree we should take a more innovative and tailored approach to increase recycling?

I amassed a sizeable collection of books while studying for an undergraduate degree in English and can smugly attest that I also read nearly all of them (a great feat by relative student reading standards!). Although not sentimentally attached to this stack of course books, nerdy insecurity compelled me to hold on to each one throughout the duration of my degree. Moving house a lot and storing my stuff in other people’s homes too frequently meant that the book collection had become an inconvenience to others, and once liberated from student life, I began taking action to scale down my personal library.

I wanted to dispose of the books sustainably, and where possible, rehouse them where they might be read and appreciated. I was surprised to learn that books aren’t widely recycled, which put me in a predicament about how to dispose of damaged books without burdening a charity shop with something they wouldn’t be able to sell, and would contribute to their waste disposal costs.

I dabbled with Amazon, trying out being a seller for the first time. I didn’t make much profit from all the effort involved (weighing, wrapping, labelling, posting) though I did feel self-satisfied finding new owners for my old books, and for sending all of them out to their new homes using reused packaging materials.

The books I still have listed on Amazon must surely be grossly overpriced, two-a-penny paperbacks, or highly obscure, as it’s been ages since I made a sale. I think it’s about time I withdrew them and adopted a new decluttering method. I am considering:

Having a yard sale – I could put the books out on a table in the street and then either give them away or try my luck at making some money. What’s good about this option is that I can be sure to get rid of them in one day.

Call a used book organisation – I have seen ads of companies who will visit and collect unwanted books but I am concerned that I am then just passing on my landfill problem to somebody else.

Leaving them around the place – the unsold Amazon books are wrapped up and could be mistaken for presents. I like the idea of them being found by others.

Do you have a suggestion about what I can do with my unwanted books to help keep them out of landfill? Some of these books really are dire!

Biogas is a form of renewable energy that can help the UK deal its expensive problem of landfilled waste. It is produced by biogas plants which anaerobically digest organic waste, breaking it down into a useful fuel that can be burnt to generate electricity, and leftover matter called digestate which can be used as a soil-improver by farmers. If you’re interested to know how the process works watch this short, informative video.

Anaerobic digestion is part of the government’s low carbon electricity generation strategy which incentivises small-scale production of renewable energy through the feed-in tariff scheme. On July 9th 2011 the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced an increase in the subsidy paid to farm-scale schemes producing energy from waste (citation removed from website). By increasing the feed-in tariff for anaerobic digestion, a clear signal has been given that the government wishes to encourage the uptake of anaerobic digestion as a form renewable energy production.

UK farms are well placed to initiate their own small-scale biomass plants as they produce large volumes of organic waste on site, anything from manure to crop residues, which can be fed into the digesters (the unit processing the waste into fuel), and they can also make use of the soil-fertilising by-product to enrich their land. The biogas plants can run off of any form of organic matter, excluding wood waste, which makes it a highly versatile means of producing energy from waste.

Anaerobic digestion of municipal waste enjoys widespread support among the environmental community as it plays a part in delivering zero waste to landfill. It is also deemed to be safer and cleaner by many people than incinerating waste to produce energy. However, anaerobic digestion of municipal organic waste has yet to catch on in the UK, perhaps because collecting food waste separately requires separate food waste collections, which local authorities may presently deem too expensive. Interestingly, although London boroughs Hackney and Southwark are currently trialling food waste collection schemes, each has opted to compost its food waste (which produces more greenhouse gasses) rather than convert it to energy via anaerobic digestion. This could be a missed opportunity.

In developing countries such as Nepal, where I lived for a time, biogas plants are far more prevalent and are economically viable for different reasons. Most Nepali people are rural smallholders whose farms produce organic waste in abundance. Unlike in the UK, Nepali biogas plants are economically viable at a domestic level, and biogas is used directly as a fuel (rather than used in turn to generate electricity).

The biogas produced by a domestic anaerobic digester in Nepal can be used as a reliably cheap form of cooking fuel, which is advantageous considering the soaring cost of cooking gas while I was there in 2010. Additionally, in the winter months electricity may only be available for four hours a day, therefore biogas can be used to power lights during dark evenings. And lastly, there is no municipal garbage collection to speak of in rural communities, other than incineration by the side of the road, and anaerobic digestion usefully serves to reduce the overall bulk of waste (if it isn’t spread on the land).

Anaerobic digestion plants are not yet thought to be economically or practicably feasible in the UK at a domestic level – we may just as well compost organic matter – however, it may well be viable for large institutions producing a lot of waste, such as universities or prisons. I am extremely interested to see how the use of anaerobic digestion as a waste and energy solution develops in the UK.

Do you expect it to become more prevalent as a means of generating electricity in future years? What barriers exist to preventing wider take up of anaerobic digestion waste-to-energy plants?

Further Reading:

Table of pros and cons of the different forms of concerting wet wastes from landfill via Anaerobic Digestion

Build your own anerobic digester via Build a Biogas Plant

More on Biogas in Nepal via Ashden Awards

Nepali Biogas image via publications Stanford University