• There is no 'Away' in 'Throwaway

    You can see it towering up like a kind of colossal ark against the backdrop of the sea. Cranes stoop around it like some kind of gang of gangling ministers. It is already now a living symbol of failure of vision, or something more complicit. Soon a fleet of lorries will transport daily more than 500 tonnes of waste to be burnt up in Newhaven's new incinerator. The ash produced and the toxins it contains - whether caught in the filters or the bottom ash that constitutes around a third of that which has just been burnt - is to be deposited in 'land raise' sites around the county.

    Here, that means that out on the flat land that runs down to the Pevensey levels, previously tranquil country lanes will be full of dumper trucks and the ash - rich among other things in heavy metals - will sit, semi airbourne, mountains in the making as a toxic realisation of what miopic local government can look like. The truly disturbing thing is that they want to use the stuff as a construction material, thereby increasing the danger of the stuff seaping into groundwater, never mind the health effect for anybody living and working in the buildings they intend to build with it.

    Officials insist the risk to health is minimal, that incineration is a valuable source of power as well as a solution to the problem of our running out of landfill sites. And there is no doubt that the problem of the amount of waste produced in the UK is huge – some 434 million tonnes every year – enough to fill the Albert Hall every two hours. Some 30 million of these tonnes are produced by domestic rubbish.

    But there have been great changes, not least an increase in recycling from 4% to 40% since 2000, with a target of 50% by 2020. The tragedy of the proposed move towards more incineration is that such changes are halted if not put into reverse. In fact, local authorites who've forked out for incinerators will be induced financially to source waste from outside their area, particularly if the incinerators are linked to providing a set amount of power. This creates the use of more trucks on the road and erodes the growing aspiration that we should be getting away from waste per se, should be encouraging more compostable products, better collection of compost itself and greater use of anaerobic digestion. Incinerators lock us in to the mentality whereby we do not think of what we throw away. The binmen do their rounds and we are all conditioned to forget.

    In her recent book 'The Secret Life of Stuff' - Julie Hill spells out the nature of the problems of our relationship to the stuff we consume and throw out. A large part of what we're faced with is the effect of the 'linear economy' whereby we make stuff, use it, then throw it away - reintegrating any of it back into the system still takes place much less frequently. Just look at aluminium - ubiquitous because it's so useful; light, flexible, even barely toxic when used as packaging, it is smelted in inferno-like conditions whereby a single plant can use as much electricity as a city of a million people. Transported huge distances during its manufacture we use 900,000 tonnes of the stuff in the UK every year. While around half of that used in packaging is recycled every year, that still leaves a vast amount going to waste.

    Or take a look at the half a million tonnes of clothes and textiles buried in landfill each year, along with an extra half a million tonnes of carpet, 8,000 tonnes of which are laid for events lasting only hours or days. Changing our clothes and furnishings regularly irrespective of whether they still have life in them has become symptomatic of modern life - once people made patchwork quilts and rag rugs, repaired things, bought them in the expectation they would last. A hundred years ago, household rubbish mainly consisted of ash and cinders and maybe food waste if there wasn't a dog or pig around, back in a prewar world before consumption gathered pace and where salvage was still part of the scenery.

    We need to start a greater shift back to such sensibilities along with working towards solutions such as designing products for durability and for recovery of their constituent materials along with returning nutrients from food and human waste to the soil. Reforming how we reduce waste and set about its management is undoubtably a long, hard grind and incinerators hold out the promise of a seemingly quick fix. The environmental cost of the production of the waste that they burn, to say nothing of putting elements of it back into the atmosphere shines an uncomfortable light on such a promise, or policies of here-and-now convenience.

    There are now 81 incinerators planned around the country. It has been calculated they produce twice as much CO2 as fossil fuelled power stations, making the plan for more incinerators look doubly perverse. Meanwhile those living under the prevailing wind will have to deal with a legacy of increased likelihood of cancers. The extent to which dioxins produced represent a significant risk is still controversial, though their output during the start up and shutting down of the furnace has not been properly monitored in the UK. Meanwhile the filters do not catch nano particles which can infiltrate the lining of the lung and cause internal inflamation, damaging organs and even unborn children.

    At Newhaven now and anywhere downwind we have to live with a leviathon that may well set the county back by decades. The building looms as a testament of how not to do things, of what can happen when councils bite the bullet of an out-of-sight-and-mind mentality that sums up our modern problem of waste production itself. The facts that the way in which the councils involved have acted here has been described by the local MP, Norman Baker, as 'amateurish and slipshod', that the very legality of the deal with the construction firm has been called into question are somehow depressingly unsuprising. If anything can be drawn from such a sorry story, it should be that many other places in the country still have a choice about whether to meet the future of waste management with an attitude fit for this century, not some all too easy, corporately financed non-solution that creates more problems than it claims to bring an answer to.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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