For more than six days Earth has been our friend in the lunar skies. That fragile piece of blue with its ancient rafts of life will continue to be man's home as he journeys ever farther in the solar system. Apollo 17, December 14, 1972

Sunday, April 27, 2008

8. Our Waste

Out of order.......
I've been compelled to write my next post at a different point in the intended order, both because of recent news articles and also in response to the virtual dialogue following post 7.

It is not as fully researched as I would like, so please pitch in, as always, if you see flaws.

Waste is an inevitable consequence of life. Before the industrial revolution waste was mainly bio waste and was manageable although not well managed. In other words, biologically produced waste materials could be handled by biological processes, and give or take a few urban excesses were kept in balance. Much of today's highly organised effluent processing relies upon these self same processes in sewage farms, septic tanks and digesters.

Today's challenges are very much greater for the two reasons mentioned in previous posts.
Firstly the level of activity and consumption, populations in the West, and increasingly the East, feel the need for, is increasing the level of waste they also produce. This results in, for example, at the UK domestic level in;

  • less time to cook and therefore the need for pre-prepared, pre-packed, near instant meals,

  • the need to be slaves to fashion and throw out perfectly functional garments or gadgets within months of purchasing them?

Secondly the global population is higher than ever before and continuing to rise very fast at 200,000 per day. These incremental new populations aspire to the needs of the established cultures and add to the demand for goods and services and their associated waste.

I am going to avoid the cliché of how many earths we would need to manage the waste stream of the world if the world consumed at the same rate as the EU?, but it is more than one. The developed world is profligate and its current habits are not sustainable. However from my blog’s perspective I’m concerned about what this is doing to the climate. The carbon cycle keeps the consideration very simple. If we consume carbon from the biosphere and process it into useful things and/or waste within the biosphere then it is neutral, as it has always been. If we dig up subterranean carbon and introduce that to the biosphere then every atom is a net increase to the biosphere. Every time each atom cycles through the carbon cycle and spends time as a greenhouse gas it is making the climate warmer. So, given the fact that we are currently still extracting carbon from the subterranean layer what is the wisest thing to do? The waste hierarchy helps, as it shows where the most benefit comes from. If we can have an effect at level 1, then it has obviates the need for work at the lower levels. There is also an article in the Financial Times (26/04/08), which placed an acute eye upon the plastics and packaging industry, and shows how they can be considered at the various parts of the hierarchy. There will be an analysis of the article in the context of the hierarchy below in my next major post. The waste hierarchy is becoming more complex as novel technologies blur the edges of neighbouring levels, but it is still a useful way of looking at waste.

The Waste Hierarchy
1. Reduction.
is probably the most fertile ground, and yet is the most difficult as waste reduction returns us to the question of what we really want and involves changing habits which are in themselves on a fast path towards ever greater excess (see post 4). For example, my children’s generation can easily become heavily influenced by ‘cheap chic’ fashion from shops like Primark and H&M which turn over ranges and ‘seasons’ remarkably rapidly. They may only wear a garment once before disposing of it. At best that garment gets reused in the UK and eventually through a ‘clothing recycling bank’ gets sent to the third world, probably whence it came, which is an irony in itself. For baby-boomers, who were brought up with post war rationing still having an effect, this is very difficult to understand and accept. The current western life is full of desire and the need for instant satisfaction – “I want it, and I want it now. If I’d wanted it yesterday, I would have told you yesterday….” Where does moderation, temperance, ‘make do and mend’ and self-sacrifice fit into this? In the words of Harold MacMillan in 1957, who was urging for restraint and common sense, “most of our people have never had it so good”. Is this not today’s problem too but magnified by another 51 years of increasing wealth, expectation and consumption? The material world has expanded enormously and made ‘once in a lifetime’ type purchases, mere commodities which get consumed and disposed of in rapid succession. This concept of succession will be referred to again in a later post. All this is fired by a national need for increased economic growth. In the book ‘Do good lives have to cost the earth?’ Adair Turner puts a strong case for a change of thinking here. Again a later post will look at my take on his very interesting thoughts. If we can’t manage to reduce our need for goods then we must drop down to reuse where the overall gain is less but the ease of implementation might be easier.

2. Reuse.
has great virtue and many of us from the UK babyboomer generation still have an instinct to use it, if we can. The clearest example of it was the pinta - a glass one pint bottle sealed with an aluminium lid containing one pint of fresh milk delivered to our doorstep from an electrically powered milk float. An unwritten rule of the dairy was that each customer left their 'empties', washed out emptied bottles, ready for collection by the milkman at the same time as he delivered. So in theory if he started his run with 1000 'pintas' he would return with 1000 'empties'. The dairies would then clean and sterilise the bottles and reuse them to distribute more pintas to peoples doorsteps, and so the cycle continued. I'm not sure what the attrition rate of bottles was, but despite there being no financial benefit to make the bottles available for reuse, most did get preserved and recycled out of a sense of duty and a desire to keep the process economical.
This process is reflected in northern Continental Europe where many carbonated drinks are bought in strong reusable bottles for which there is a significant charge made. There are both financial and legal incentives to bring the bottles back to a shop for eventual return to the bottler to reuse.
No doubt there are arguments to suggest that today's milk supply chain allows a far better, long lived product to be sold and so less milk is wasted and the consequent carbon footprint is less, and these may well be right. However it is unarguable that if we still had the pinta delivered in glass bottles it would seem ludicrous for the perfectly serviceable empties to be smashed into pieces in a bottle bank. At best, this is what we in the UK are doing with our glass containers, whether it is wine and beer bottles or jam jars. In other words we are needlessly dropping down a level in the waste hierarchy and 'recycling' glass which, with enough imagination, could be reused. A consequence of moving our waste down the waste hierarchy is that it becomes less useful, less valuable and more likely to be dumped at level 6 in the hierarchy.

3. Recycling and composting
The term for broken glass is cullet. It has virtually no utility at all except perhaps as deterrent to intruders when embedded in a cement topping to a wall. In order for it to be recycled to make it useful it has to be worked on. If ground down, it apparently can be mixed with sand, which has does a have an absurd irony to it, if you think about it. Ground glass can also be dispersed within other building materials to provide some functional advantage but this is all pretty low grade in comparison to the shiny, fully serviceable receptacle from which it was derived. To make useful glass receptacles again, the cullet has to be sorted by colour, have impurities removed, and then heated to very high temperatures to melt and remould it. This does seem absurd too. I have read at that part of the rationale for recycling cullet (level 3) to make glass containers is that it requires less energy than producing new glass. I don't disagree with that narrow view, but is that the only alternative? Why not preserve that glass container and reuse it (level 2), and only resort to level 3 when the receptacle has lost its utility?
Returning to the pinta. Many a jam jar was 'reused' (level 2) as a receptacle to collect the aluminium caps to the milk bottles which were then ultimately recycled (level 3) back into the aluminium supply chain. The motivation for this purely financial - it was a fund-rasier for our school.
Composting, in my opinion, has been elevated above its station. Yes, it produces a useful natural fertiliser and mulch, but it also produces CO2 and some methane, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions for relatively little gain. Energy recovery can be a better option for the biosphere if the vegetable waste does not have to be transported too far.

4. Energy recovery
This is a posh way of saying incinerate rubbish and use the heat it produces in some way. Starting at the smallest scale first: garden waste often ends up on a bonfire where it is partially burned to produce ash, half burnt wood, lots of smoke, water, CO2 and some clear space where the bonfire pile was. On an individual scale this does little harm but a community's waste disposed of in this way does a lot of harm and, more importantly for this analysis, misses a major opportunity to recover the energy provided to the biosphere by photosynthesis in the plant life being burned. If the gardener were to put a kettle on the bonfire he might eventually boil enough water to make a thirst quenching cup of tea, which would have recovered a small part of the energy locked up in the garden rubbish and avoided him boiling an electric kettle.
The real problem however is that the bonfire produces low grade heat which is very difficult to harness. There was a special design of mini-stove marketed that could recover the energy from one newspaper which would be sufficient to boil that kettle in a few minutes. This combination of good design matched with excellently prepared fuel was best described to me by an expert supplier of logs for use in Swedish wood-burning stoves. If the stove was stoked with logs which had been split and allowed to dry out completely the natural temperature of combustion was so high that they were self cleaning and the combustion so complete that a smoke flue was not required. This 'clean burning' recovers the most amount of heat possible and makes the most use of the carbon within the biomass burned. If you return to post 7, you will see that this is the near perfect means for energy recovery of biomass. It is this matching of the fuel to the method of incineration which is so importannt.
Unfortunately the incineration and energy recovery of the general waste stream is not so easy - the waste is far less well defined and contains materials which do not burn cleanly. Much is made of the threat posed by dioxins which are a very harmful byproduct, but recent technology advances are ingeniously minimising this.

5. Landfill with energy
Taking most of the general waste stream and burying it in the ground is unsightly and space intensive and is an obvious sign of man polluting the biosphere and makes landfill look 'unenvironmental'. Nonetheless microbial and chemical processes within the rubbish do eventually break much of the waste down into simpler products which eventually settle and produce a base upon which topsoil can be placed. For example a local landfill site close to us is now a park with playing fields.
From an energy point of view however, the heat released from breaking down the waste (the warmth naturally produced in a compost heap for example) is not recovered - it is effectively wasted. Of even greater significance is the by-products of this partial degradation of the waste - these are hydrocarbon gases such as methane and CO2. Methane is highly combustible and could provide plenty of energy if harnessed. This is not easy, as the gas is volatile and dilute and would escape easily - it is therefore not widely applied.
A variant of this which is far more promising is the controlled biological digestion of waste streams in purpose built self-contained units.
A further variant of this which is a hybrid with energy recovery (level 4) utilises two sequential chemical processes, pyrolysis and hydrolysis, to breakdown carboniferous material partially into higher molecular weight hydrocarbons which can substitute for gasoline - ie biofuels.

6. Landfill
If all else fails waste, as has always been the case, can be buried in the ground or dumped into water, both of which look terrible and have major negative consequences on the biosphere. Whilst I have seen how domestic waste is disposed of on the idyllic Greek island of Trizonia - simply pushed over and down a cliff eventually tumbling towards the sea only for some of it to reappear on the appropriately named 'Bottle Beach' soon after - of greater significance is the gases produced by landfill sites. These were mentioned in level 5, where at least they were captured and made use of. In a simple landfill site these will be CO2, which is a greenhouse gas, and methane which is also a greenhouse gas with 500 times the initial effect of CO2. So not only are we not using the calorific content of the methane we are wantonly allowing it to increase global warming.

In summary:

  1. In considering the waste hierarchy, a focus on the framework with the carbon cycle at its centre, does provide incisive insights into how best we should manage the waste borne of ever increasing consumption.

  2. The higher the level, the easier it is to practice the wise thing, if we really want to, and achieve the greatest gains. How hard do we want to do the right thing?

  3. It is very tempting for us to drop down a level to make the practice easier and pass on the responsibility to someone else, but can we really continue to offset our responsibilities?

  4. We have got very confused between recycling and reuse and a return to 1950's thinking may well straighten this out.

  5. Energy recovery could be a highly beneficial way of reducing how much new carbon we introduce into the biosphere.


Anonymous said...


I'm enjoying the blog. A couple of things that arise with this post. The 'reduce' option is the one that seems to me most connected to the "philosophy, moral values" on your diagram in post 4. Perhaps you were intending to get to this, but the fashion related consumption must be related to a basic lack of inner-contentment? Over consumption in the West is mostly allied with a belief that material acquisition will make us happier in some way. Though understanding this, having the majority of the world understand it seems less likely than convincing them to reduce there energy/consumption. But it does seem to be the real root of the problem.

The second lesser point is regarding re-use of glass bottles. I haven't gone deeply into this but I have heard it argued that the chemicals used in re-cleaning are worse than the energy used in recycling... there are so many 'factors' in all this that it is difficult to make a balanced decision about any of it. Everything is connected to everything else and without simplifying and going to the root of our desires no options seem all that tenable...

I wonder whether carboard cartons are a better option for milk and other liquids than glass/plastics? Presumably cardboard can be produced from sustainable forestry and/or recycling?

Actually, related to this last point. I would be interested to know what you make of the latest announcement from the UN Billion Tree Programme (link below). What effect does planting a billion (or more) trees have on the climate change models? (I'll just leave you to work that one out!)



Jeremy said...

Nick - thank you for your comments and interest.

You are right abour 'reduce'. As I hinted, I've got a post in the making which makes the same points you are making, with the assistance of a thought piece from Adair Turner on 'well being', which has very much the same flavour as your term, 'inner-contentment'.

The lesson we, in the West, are learning the hard way, that working ever faster to afford ever more excessive consumption does NOT satisfy, does seem a message we could give to the people of the emerging economies. I tried this on a group of people, early in their careers, last Saturday. They thought it would be viewed by the 'East' as the west preaching and patronising. That was disappointing but shows we have to make it sound much more persuasive. I think part of the problem is that until you have seen for yourself thst materialism does not bring happiness, you can't be persuaded otherwise - it's so alluring. I think what we forget is the sacrifices we make to be big consumers - we work hard and long, we take on massive debt, we are constantly on the move with very little time to 'chill', commune, reconnect or however you want to put it. And finally I never seem to find fulfillment, however hard I try. I suppose to the person who has not 'had it all', this is still a limp reason for not giving them the chance to try.

Bottle cleaning chemicals. I've not heard that one. My immediate reaction is that there must be ways round this. There are lots of different technologies for cleaning. Even domestically we are quite capable of cleaning and sterilising receptacles and do it every day.

Cardboard vs plastic vs glass. I've got a post lined up on this area. There is also an interesting article on the subject from Guy Watson - operator of one of the largest UK organic veggie box schemes (there's a link in the section at the bottom right of my blog) where he proves that many of the answers are the opposite of what you might think.

My perspective on paper etc is that it can be made from many sources in the biosphere using 'recycling' (waste paper) as well as fresh biomass (pine trees). Pine trees are not in short supply. It's not so much about how we use paper products, but more about how we dispose of it. Cardboard particularly is very difficult to recycle productively because it is laminated, and thereby contaminated, with other things such as plastics to make a milk carton. At best it is made into a much lower grade material which has much less value. What may start out as a ream of fine white paper, at best through several recycles, will end up as grey egg boxes, which then will be disposed of. It is at this point that the damage happens and the opportunity is lost, if the egg boxes become part of landfill and eventually get broken down into greenhouse gases with no energy recovery. It would be far better to burn the paper in a controlled way and recover the energy. which would stop us having to dig up more fossil fuel to give us that equivalen amount of energy.

Polythene bags, are indeed made from sequestered carbon sources - oil - and are therefore adding to the level of carbon in the biosphere. However they are light in weight and are absolutely brilliant at their job of protecting food which would otherwise decay much more rapidly. Being light, they require far less energy, almost certainly from fossil fuels, to be transported around. On balance, the calculations of Guy Watson suggest that it is more beneficial to use platics than paper in many cirucmstances. More controversially if they were completely unbiodegradable they could be put in landfill, or down a spent oilwell, and not add to the carbon level in the biosphere - they would be almost carbon neutral.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting about the 'cullet', a word that I hadn't heard before. It makes you wonder about the motivation for all the effort we put in to promoting recycling schemes - it seems like the thought is that we should 'do something - anything!', as if that might somehow placate the angry gods of the ecosystem.

Also very interesting about the plastic bags etc. I read an article a couple of years ago in the Guardian in which they had a picture of a plastic bag and the caption "Is this the worst invention ever?" One of the chilling points made was that the molecule polythene was so formed that it was impossible for microbes to do anything about it.

Your framework puts a very different perspective on that. IF we are so much in thrall to Big Oil that we have to take the darn stuff out of the ground, then we would be much better making it into polythene that doesn't biodegrade.

On the other hand the 'eco-friendly' biodegradable plastic bag, or paper bag, are just adding to the greenhouse gas problem.

Anonymous said...


I believe the comment about cleanign chemicals came from a past issue of New Scientist which was also questioning whether recycling is the best option. I don't have access to the online back issues as you need to be a subscriber but I believe it was issue 2109, Nov 1997, entitled, "Why You Should Burn This Magazine".


I'm not suggesting I'm totally convinced by the way and this is a 10 year old article- but may be useful info for research.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

PS: I've found the link to the article online:


Jeremy said...

Curses - this is the second time I have written a long comment and lost it. So starting again with a much shorter one.

Kevin, and Nick,

Thanks for your submissions. Kevin, I think your formulation and conclusions are dead right. This is backed up by the immensely prophetic New Scientist article from Nick. Was it really written nearly 11 years ago? If anything we appear to have gone backwards in our thinking since then.

The waste hierarchy does need another look. If either of you would like to revise what is up there on the post, I'd be delighted. You can copy the text off the web page but you would need to send me the revised text and ideas for a diagram by email for me to repost.

I am so grateful for your interest.

Jeremy said...

Out of interest I was discussing the pinta anecdote with a fellow member of a 'Philosophy and Business' Group member. She came up with exactly the same memory of collecting the Aluminium bottle tops in a jar.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeremy

I'm not sure I'm up to the task of re-writing the waste hierachy (maybe if I give up work and do a full-time post-grad on it!). I suppose all that comes to mind at the moment is:

1 (Reduce) isn't under question but the others must have a number of factors to be taken into account. Taking the New Scientist point about transportation - would putting paper in a land fill half a mile away be a better option than transporting it 100 miles to recycle? If a small scale recycling plant were available locally, would that be a better option than an incinerator 25 miles away? I'm just having a one-man brainstorm at the moment but one suggestion that comes to mind is:
- these options could be made available on some kind of model/tool to make a comparison of overall life-cycle energy costs/CO2 and other impacts. Options could be graded (maybe by multiplying several factors together to give an overall index)
- make this model/tool available to local authorities and let them manage their options based upon what comes out best for their area. They could be measured on improving their 'score' and/or apply for funding to implement solutions that would improve their overall index..?


Jeremy said...


Thanks for your further suggestions which are ingenious and do have practical possibilities. We are talking many tons of waste stuff, when is consolidated by a local authority. I may have time next week to weave them into the post.

I have been using a working hypothesis for about two years now that moving stuff generally uses diesel and moves the problem somewhere else, out of view. Local processing, when all the technological challenges are solved, minimises the distribution energy, makes people aware of their waste, and produces the energy from energy recovery locally, where it can benefit the very people who have provided it.

A friend of mine from the fens has told me of a novel scheme. Most fields in the fens have waterways abutting them so agricultural waste is capable of being barged away. By making the barges very streamlined there should be enough solar power capable of being collected photovoltaically to power the barges at no energy cost.

I'm also keen on the two stage digesters which in theory anyway can convert waste into biofuel. This is akin to energy recovery but not as efficient, but does have the advantage of being used as and when, rather than just when the incinerator is running.

And do pardon the presumptuousness...

Anonymous said...


Just another thought on the issue of plastics being biodegradable or not. Have you looked into the issue of 'Garbage Island', the vast quantity of non-degradable plastic that has found its way to the Pacific Gyre? This is one of the most compelling arguments for biodegradable plastics or alternative materials in my view. The Wikipedia article (link below) explains how the plastic ends up as small particles indistinguishable to plankton for marine life - so it ends up in the food chain. Any argument in favour of non-biodegradable plastic needs to answer to this.


Jeremy said...


You’re really helping here. Broadening my knowledge and gently challenging the arguments, which creates enough friction for the occasional spark. The researcher, Moore, as quoted on Wikipedia today, estimates that there are 100 million tonnes of flotsam floating around, with 80% coming from the land and 20% off shipping. That 100 mega-tonnes probably has an enormous calorific value - worth working out – had it had its energy recovered.

The Gyre is a symptom of a problem, a problem, and possibly an opportunity.

1. Marine waste streams are avoidable (80%) or unintended (20%) – if a container falls off a ship there’s not much we can do in the short term. However the container, and its contents, can’t really be hidden easily from the authorities – bills of lading; ships’ manifests, owners of the goods. The important thing is that the polluter must be penalised. If this is sufficiently penal then perhaps then container ships will be better designed and not overloaded.
2. With the sea so close we don’t dispose of land waste responsibly - out of sight, out of mind. You may remember my Trizonia Bottle Beach anecdote. This is quite avoidable – in landlocked localities, there is much less natural dispersal possible and we have to do something deliberate with it.
3. Nature does too good a job of dispersing our waste, and it is only when currents bring it back together again do we see the problem. I quickly looked at your references thinking that this Gyre might be nature’s Dyson and we could suck it all up. It’s too big an area to do that.

If we can’t solve point 2, then effectively we’re dropping down the waste hierarchy to landfill, although it’s sea fill. This is unsustainable, bad for the marine biomass and thereby triply pathetic.

I think it would only be necessary to make plastics biodegradeable if we feebly decided to go down this route of seafill and landfill. There’s also very few plastics that you can make biodegradeable – single use plastic bags is one, but you then make them instantly disposable. On the other hand you don’t want your Nike trainer biodegrading from the moment you open the shoe box or you’ll be buying another a replacement non-biodegradeable pair.

On land, I see no problem with, and a lot to gain from stuffing polymerised hydrocarbon (polypropylene) down the same hole we got the monomer (propene) from. The carbon we dug up goes back under ground before entering the biosphere. This elevates a special form of landfill up the waste hierarchy.

If you agree with this, then you’ve really pushed my thinking forward on the waste hierarchy which will require some significant rearrangement. Landfill becomes ‘well-fill’, or ‘mine-fill’. The point is we are putting it away, deep down beyond biological degradation. This is the best carbon sequestration idea I’ve yet heard of. Not only this, but when the fossil fuels begin to run out we have a store of low grade hydrocarbon material ready to be dug up again and, most importantly, perhaps 30 years to invent the technology to make prudent use of it, that is, without releasing the carbon into the environment. I’ll post this on to my geologist colleague to see what he thinks.

Anonymous said...


I'm left wondering about timescale. You say burying plastics would help carbon sequestration but I can't help thinking most of these ideas would take so long to get through the political process, technical feasibility, logistics...that the oil would have run out by then anyway - 50 years? By then we wont have any plastic materials.

I mentioned above the UN Billion Tree Programme. I take the point that the tree will eventually die and release its carbon but:

- seen as a short term (50 year) 'carbon sponge' or
- as a longer term campaign of managed woodland

what is wrong with this suggestion? It seems something that can and is being done in a relatively natural way?


Jeremy said...


Wellfill and Minefill.
I think this is simpler than you think. Plastics are very difficult to reuse, therefore the next best thing is to recycle them. They are very difficult to recycle into anything really valuable to the world because they are often entrained with other materials. They therefore are demoted to energy recovery – this needs specialist technology (to avoid dioxins) and does introduce dug up carbon into the carbon cycle, which is a bad thing. Now we’re down to landfill, or thanks to your last post, to minefill or well-fill. This is filthy work but surely not that technologically challenging. Take a spent coal mine; that had all the equipment in place to get coal out – I would suggest putting that equipment in reverse, with some compaction, which is existing technology. As for an oilwell, I’d need more advice. It might need treating to make it pump-able.

Planting Trees.
I’ve no problem with planting trees – they have many virtues. For them to work in the way you are suggesting they could not be cash crop. As carbon sink they are a short term fix, and it is very tempting for organisations using carbon offsetting to believe that they have repaid their debt to the world – they haven’t, and it’s not modifying their behaviour.
The fact is that in burning fossil fuels they have introduced new carbon into the carbon cycle. The biosphere can only cope with this by working harder – ie cycling round faster, putting it in a natural carbon sink for a few years, or taking it completely out of the cycle – sequestration. The latter is the only sustainable option unless we find other ways of burning hydrocarbons which leave the carbon behind – subject of a future post.

What I like about wellfill is that it is a much better alternative than what is being seriously suggested as the only hope – sequestering CO2 – a high energy process, working with a volatile greenhouse gas, and pumping that underground. There is a great symmetry to it. You extract hydrocarbon, turn it into something useful which does its job, and then return the hydrocarbon whence it came, for the next generations. By which time, just as we have done with oil refining, they will have time to invent the technology to make it into something useful.