From rags to riches, trash to cash and rubbish to resource – the dream of closed loop recycling is both worthy and lucrative. Just this week, statistics revealed that the average British shopper bins almost 10% of their weekly food shop; not chucking fridge leftovers alone would save Brits £12bn a year.
But while recycling is a no-brainer, we need to be careful that loops of material reuse are small and local, returning both the advantages (and disadvantages) close to the source of the resource.
To do this, we need to be crafty; both like a fox and the Women’s Institute. I recently visited “Materials for Living”, an exhibition organised by two parliamentary groups, focusing on design and sustainable resources. The exhibition included a showcase of how by-products of today’s food system can be used to produce beautiful, durable, USEFUL materials.
For example, orange peel is the rubbish of choice for Alkesh Parmar, who has utilised this by-product of juice extraction. The result of his ingenuity and hard work is a strong flexible material (A’Peel) which has the feel of bakelite, but which is completely biodegradable AND makes use of the millions of tonnes of Brazilian orange peel which would otherwise go to landfill.
Erik de Laurens has produced a material made entirely from treated fish scales, again, an otherwise unwanted (and massively produced) by-product of the fishing industry. And pineapple leaves from the Philippines have been used by Carmen Hijosato make an alternative to leather.
Importantly, with all these projects – they return the benefits of reuse to the community from which the original resource came. On speaking to Carmen Hijosa, she was eager to emphasise that it is the pineapple growing farmers who have clubbed together to form a cooperative for processing and sell “Ananas Anam”, and it is they who profit from doing so.
But while positive project such as those above are offering solutions – there are many other examples where material loops, in our globalised world, are extended and sloppy. The result is that the impacts (both good and bad) of those who produce waste are divorced from those who recycle it.
Stephen Metcalfe MP recently wrote about the horrors of electronic waste being dumped in developing countries for processing and reuse. Some argue that developing countries are keen to accept this source of materials, both as another source of income, as well as a way of joining the digital age at a cheaper price. But images of emaciated children picking their way through town-sized garbage tips reveal these countries’ lack of infrastructure to deal with the reality. For example, Nigeria, which despite having a population of 155 million people does not have one licensed landfill. The untold effects of heavy metal toxins on these people’s health and environment is reason enough to stop this digital dumping from the rich, onto the poor far, far away.
Moreover, there was a recent House of Lords debate about the reintroduction of feeding animal by-products to livestock. Following the British BSE crisis in the late 90s, there have been very strict regulations on feeding animal by-products to other animals. But the EC is now looking to review these laws, and as such, so is the UK parliament. While it looks unlikely that cattle (as non-ruminants) will be fed offal anytime soon, pigs and chickens can certainly look forward to it on the menu. In theory, this is a good, environmentally-efficient practice (waste not want not what?). But the reality is that with today’s modern industrial farming methods and a globalised food system, feeding one dead animal (provenance unknown) to another is a super-efficient way to spread disease. After all, MRSA has been found in intensively reared pig farms, and let’s not forget why this practice was banned after the first BSE crisis. The recipients of the recycled goods (you and me picking up a pack of chicken breasts in Sainsbury’s) will be a very distant notion for the producers of the animal by-products from god-knows-where.
So the moral of the story? Reduce – yes, good. Reuse – go on then. Recycle – oh lordy, yes purhleease. But can we do it in our own back yard?
We need to be careful that the boons of recycling are not hijacked by economies of scale, as our food and banking systems have been. We need to connect benefits and costs. We need to keep things local. We need to tighten the noose on our resources.