Waste in a circular economy

Sandy Martin explains why rubbish and recycling is a socialist issue

A fundamental hurdle to achieving a sustainable world is the unwillingness of governments to override big business. Nowhere is this more obvious than in waste and recycling. We need radical change in what we make, how we make it, and how we dispose of it, if we are going to overcome the climate crisis.

The environmental impact of waste is immense. Mining degrades local environments, materials are transported and processed using fossil fuels, processing creates waste, finished products are packaged and transported, and then the packaging, and often the final product, is discarded, causing pollution to the earth, seas and air and releasing yet more climate change gases. With so many factors involved, it is hard to quantify the climate effect of waste, but it is clearly one of the big six alongside construction, transport, agriculture, heating and industry.

The best way to deal with waste is not to create it in the first place. In 1958, JK Galbraith described in The Affluent Society how US wealth was skewed towards creating completely unnecessary products rather than on transforming people’s lives. The market justification is that the customer demands them. But, as Galbraith pointed out, that demand is itself artificially manufactured by advertising. And customer demand is often poorly informed – nobody deliberately buys a washing machine because it will soon break down, and yet the market encourages planned obsolescence and rewards the companies that build it in.

We need to start with advertising, design and manufacture. Only if manufacturers are penalised for producing waste will the private sector build in long life and recyclability. We need to rebalance the information fed to the population – our society will not survive if billions are spent on advertising cola drinks but virtually nothing on promoting fruit and vegetables. Profit-making companies don’t advertise healthy life choices – there’s simply no profit in it. Only a government that is prepared to step in and provide a more balanced message – possibly funded from an advertising tax – can help consumers make better choices.

Of course, however far we go to reduce our waste, there will always be material that needs to be disposed of. The ultimate goal of sustainable waste campaigners is zero waste, achieved through a circular economy. Organic waste will remain in the organic cycle as compost, while inorganic products will be separated into their component materials for recycling. 

Waste collection is key. The private sector can provide the machinery necessary to process recycled materials, but it won’t collect them in the first place. Local authorities can, and in-house services usually provide more comprehensive waste collection, from households and from small businesses. The last Labour government funded councils to create a huge surge in household recycling, but since 2010 we have gone backwards. Waste collection needs to be brought back in-house and it needs to be properly funded. Front-loading the lifetime costs of products onto manufacturers should cover the entire costs of waste collection and processing – that would provide the finances councils need to meet their environmental goals.

There are sound environmental reasons for reviving manufacturing in Britain. Poor working conditions in other countries go hand-in-hand with far worse environmental impacts. We should import fewer but higher quality goods, promoting fairer and greener trade. Making full use of our recycled materials will boost British manufacturing by reducing the need to import raw materials. The steel industry is a classic example – we should be recycling our current waste steel using electric arc furnaces. Only the public sector would be prepared to put in the necessary investment, but once in place, it could generate enough fresh steel to make us self-sufficient, and reduce the carbon emissions from importing virgin steel by 75%.

Creating what we need and not just what we can be persuaded to buy, making things as long-lasting as possible, repairing and reusing things rather than just dumping them, and then carefully collecting and recycling the component parts of everything which is no longer useful – this is the only way we can continue to enjoy a comfortable life on a liveable planet. Anything else will lead to pollution, runaway climate change and depletion of the world’s resources.

Such an approach will improve the quality of everyone’s lives. But it won’t make big profits for private companies. A government based on the wealth of the few will never implement the changes needed. Labour needs to embrace waste as an issue – the voters know how important it is, and only a socialist approach can work.

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