Most readers of Materials Today will be aware that driving to the bottle bank is one of the worst forms of ‘profligate environmentalism’ – doing things which give you a warm, green glow even though they damage the environment. In this case, your car is likely to emit more CO2 than is saved by recycling the glass. Driving to the bottle bank is an individual act. But a good many people – and I confess to being one of them – think legislation on recovery and recycling of waste materials is institutionalizing profligate environmentalism on a huge scale.

To start at the technical level, before recycling any waste you have to ask whether recovery and recycling really save energy and resources or reduce emissions. The systematic way of doing this is called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and it has been around in a form applicable to waste management for at least ten years. While it is increasingly used to evaluate waste management strategies, the idea of using LCA to support legislation has yet to take off.

Part of the problem is that legislators like to take a broad approach without the confusion introduced by reality with its annoying details. So the European Union (EU), for example, mandates what total weight fraction of the waste stream has to be recovered. But anyone who has looked seriously at waste management knows that you cannot generalize. What is ‘best’ done differs between components of the waste stream and also between different places. Appropriate policy for a high population density – London in the UK, for example – will not be appropriate for the highlands of Scotland.

For some solid waste, recycling is appropriate; examples are Al and graphics-quality office paper. But in spite of the environmental advantages of recycling Al, it is only a small fraction of the waste stream. So, some authorities do not bother to recover Al because it makes no perceptible contribution towards the weight target. For other materials, recycling is marginal. For yet others – and mixed plastic packaging is an example – recycling into artifacts in the necessary quantities does not make environmental or economic sense; these materials are best used for energy to offset demand for fossil fuels. This view, supported by LCA, is unpopular in English-speaking countries in particular, but accepted as common sense in Nordic regions. There, municipal waste is systematically used as fuel for Combined Head and Power (CHP) and district heating plants. My Swedish friends cannot understand why something so obviously sensible is anathema to some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

It is sometimes argued that building energy-from-waste plants acts against waste reduction, because they require a waste stream. This is not the case. Rates of reuse and recycling are actually higher in those European countries that use low-value, solid waste as fuel. An intelligent policy is to build an energy plant, which can be cofired with solid waste and biomass, such as agricultural waste and energy crops. The waste stream can be reduced systematically and replaced by energy crops as they become more available.

Moving to a level that is not purely technical, we need at ask, “Why do we generate so much waste anyway?” Very often, the answer is, “Because we don’t bother to do the obvious.” Ireland has introduced a levy on plastic carrier bags. This has greatly reduced the number of bags used and wasted. It's obvious – most people would reuse their old bags if they remembered, and they need something like a charge to remind them. Countries that have a good record on recovering beverage containers do it by a deposit-and-return system. Some, not least retailers, initially regard this as a burden, but once the habit of avoiding waste is established the whole system can work. Anyone familiar with the Returpak system in Sweden naturally asks why that sort of sensible system, with transparent flows of material and revenue, isn't more widely adopted instead of trying to create artificial markets. Deposit-and-return systems remind people that waste is a product of consumption. How I wish that NGOs would grasp this. Stop pretending that there is such a thing as a zero-waste economy (which is thermodynamically impossible). Stop telling consumers that all waste can be recycled (because this encourages people to drive to the bottle bank rather than reducing waste). And recognize that dealing with waste is a problem of resource management (with energy an important resource).

Waste reduction should be the policy objective. Arbitrary, weight-based recycling targets can drive us in the wrong direction. They do nothing to promote the use of lightweight packaging, one of the most genuinely environmentally-friendly trends in the packaging sector. To meet perverse weight targets, you need heavy packaging that you can easily recover – jars and bottles, not lightweight laminates. And that's all before you get into the mire of the EU's attempts to define ‘waste'. I'm sorry I said “agricultural waste”, I meant “co-products”. That word makes a big difference…

[1] Roland Clift is director of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, UK and visiting professor at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00103-8