Radicals propose charges for throwing rubbish away to tackle capital’s waste problem

Jane Howard, steering group member of Highgate Climate Action Network, reports from a meeting about raising awareness of the capital’s “rubbish” problem.

Mike Webster of London Community Resource Network is a man on a mission.

At a time of serious political rethinking about the management of north London’s waste, he wants to help turn around Londoners’ awareness of what happens to our rubbish once it has been taken from our doorsteps – and what the future for its treatment has in store.

So Mike came to talk about it to a group of concerned Highgate and Dartmouth Park residents, at one of HICAN’s series of London-focussed events.

His central message is that there is no such place as “away” where unwanted material can magically disappear.

London – along with all other municipalities - has to move on from the historic “hump it and dump it” approach, whose eventual outcome was the creation of massive toxic landfill sites.

These sites are now an unaffordable financial and environmental liability. And we all have a part to play in creating a better system.

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Such a system might be called a circular economy, and a model of it would look like an inverted pyramid with 5 tiers.

Starting from the largest tier at the top, the sequence of priorities for the treatment of waste would be:

1. Reduce consumption

2. Re-use what you can

3. Recycle and compost what you can

4. Create energy from the residue

5. Finally – and only then – dispose of residual waste in landfill.

What could this mean in practice, and in the context of London’s existing and planned waste disposal systems?

For those of us not familiar with the present set-up, it is worth explaining briefly what happens to our refuse.

The overall management of its processing is governed ultimately by the Mayor’s plan, which requires waste to be managed within borough boundaries, and for the reduction and eventual elimination of landfill.

Targets have been set to achieve a 50 per cent household recycling rate, and to reduce the amount of residual waste sent to landfill by 35% (of 1990 amounts), by 2020.

The latter figure is now intended to rise to 50 per cent by 2050.

The organisation responsible for carrying out this plan is the North London Waste Authority (NLWA), a body made up of seven London boroughs – Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest.

Its shared waste processing facility at Edmonton – which is open to visitors - is to continue in use until 2025; plans to develop a site at Pinkham Way for residual waste management have been cancelled, though the site itself will remain a NLWA asset.

The NLWA will be consulting early next year on proposals for a new waste plan, which is likely to include the production of energy from waste through localised Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facilities, and the generation of useful biogas through the anaerobic digestion of organic materials.

This is all quite revolutionary, the product of environmental necessity and the need to save taxpayers’ money at a time of enormous financial pressure.

It’s worth noting that the use of non-recyclable waste to generate electricity is already well established in continental Europe. So is the use of biogas – all the buses in the Swedish town of Linköping, for example, run on methane.

One radical view – unlikely to be politically acceptable in the short term - is that London residents should in future be charged for the waste they throw out, just as we now pay for our consumption of electricity, gas and water.

One small thing we could all do, though, pending such big developments, is just to ensure that our recyclable items are clean and thus usable when we leave them out for collection!