Wales should aim to be a zero waste nation by 2030
Published: 5 Sep 2019
Every generation blames the one before’, so goes a line from Mike and the Mechanics 1988 song The Living Years. It’s not about planetary destruction but is about the relationship between one generation and the next.
As we have seen with the worldwide school climate protests, the young generation are really starting to complain about the mess older generations have presided over – climate catastrophe, ecological and biodiversity destruction on an unprecedented scale, plastics littering and choking and polluting in every corner of the world.
Since David Attenborough and the Blue Planet 2 team showed us what was going on in the seas and oceans there has been a massive shift in public consciousness about single use plastics. We obviously aren’t anywhere near being where we need to be at but the speed of some of the changes we are already seeing from people, businesses and governments is quite remarkable.
So where do we need to be at?
Zero Waste by 2030!
In June 2010, the Welsh Government published their Towards Zero Waste strategy. It had many positive recommendations and set a timeframe for Wales to become a zero waste nation by 2050. Whilst it was very positive for a national government to be talking about zero waste in those days, the time is definitely right to revisit this strategy and update it for the challenges we face now so we are pleased to hear that the Welsh Government will be consulting on a revision of this zero waste strategy before the end of the year.
So what is zero waste exactly?
Basically it does what it says on the tin. No waste anymore. The concept is that nothing goes to landfill or gets incinerated because products have been designed and redesigned to be reused, repaired, refilled, recirculated, recycled, that the entire life cycle of products has been looked at and any ‘waste’ products are progressively designed out of the system.
There are various strands to this and it’s certainly not easy but it is most definitely what we need to be aiming for.
What's that got to do with your morning americano?
If we are to move towards zero waste, single use cups will have to be dealt with at some stage. We think it’s far better to be out in front of the curve, deal with it now and be able to realise the benefits in Wales.
With various UK governments working together on a range of plastics and waste issues, including proposals for a Deposit Return Scheme and Extended Producer Responsibility (the idea that those who produce the stuff in the first place, need to be the ones who pay for its collection and treatment after use rather than it falling to councils to deal with it), wouldn’t it be a shame if one of the easier things to change – all we need to do afterall is drink from reusable containers – isn’t covered in new proposals and is only left as a voluntary scheme? This is what the UK Government would prefer and that would be a wasted opportunity.
A lot of the debate recently has been around plastics and quite rightly so, but these single use cups also remind us that other resources are being used in products such as these at ever increasing rates, in this case paper (the majority of which for single use cups is apparently from virgin, not recycled sources, due to health and safety and possible cleanliness issues).
Statistics indicate that, on average, every person in the UK is responsible for 4.5 trees being cut down each year just to satisfy our paper needs (paper, kitchen roll, toilet roll, packaging etc) and in an age where we need to focus on planting billions of trees to help in the fight against climate change, we also need to reduce our demand for paper products otherwise we will have to plant 4.5 trees per person per year in the UK just to stand still, never mind anything above that and never mind all the other sources of deforestation either! So shifting to reusing coffee cups for instance is surely one of the easier things we can do?
We know that around 557million of these single use cups are used in Wales each year. If you take an average of around 10cm as the height of a cup then you come up with (unless you are bad at maths like me!) a quite staggering image of these cups stacked end to end, snaking their way all the way around the earth’s equator (with quite a bit of room to spare as well!). We won’t dwell on the distance I managed to come up with when I did the sum!
Eunomia estimate a 25p charge or tax on single use cups filled at the point of sale in Wales, together with a mandatory take back system in coffee shops, could reduce the numbers of these cups by around 30% and generate around £97m a year.
In an age of austerity and ever increasing demands for change, where will extra money for new waste reduction initiatives come from? It’s all very well to keep calling for more and more action and more and more change but the pot of money largely stays the same in Wales so we have to think a bit more creatively where some money can come from. £97m (at least in year 1, hopefully dropping off significantly after that) would I’m sure go some way to helping fund a range of zero waste measures.
What these products also show us is that the debate has moved on from just recycling things. We need to be focussing very much on using less stuff to start with so moving to becoming a zero waste nation.
Working towards becoming a truly zero waste nation and having a circular economy will mean even more action on food waste, plastics, paper, nappies etc and should also concentrate thinking around making sure that all the processing facilities exist in future in Wales so that we don’t have the ridiculous situation where some of the stuff we send for recycling actually ends up on huge waste tips in other parts of the world. These facilities need to be in Wales / UK and we need to make sure the markets for the recycled materials also exist.
As with a lot of other solutions to the biodiversity and climate emergencies, there are a lot of potential jobs to be created. A lot of these jobs will be local and help sustain and revive local economies, a real win win situation. Organisations such as Circular Economy Wales have been very active in promoting a range of different solutions http://circulareconomy.wales/ such as the Green Shed local community upcycling and reprocessing hubs.
What's this to do with climate change?
Pushing for a latte levy may seem like tinkering around the edges of a huge problem but we take the view that action on climate change needs to be many and varied and across all sectors. If we carry on with business as usual then by 2050 global plastics production will be responsible for around 13% of the worlds carbon budget. And that’s not even considering the paper usage in these cups either. In 2019 the lifecycle of global plastic production – from extraction to disposal – was equivalent to the impact on the climate of 189 500MW coal-fired power stations. By 2050, a recent report predicts that the global plastic footprint will be equivalent to 615 coal plants running at full capacity. Action on single use cups may not change the world on its own but it is something that Welsh Gov can do as part of its forthcoming zero waste consultation.
Zero waste communities
Zero Waste Scotland have been working with a series of communities on the idea of having Zero Waste Towns or Zero Waste Communities. Think ‘Plastic Free Towns’ but taking it a few steps further and becoming Zero Waste places.
Given the enthusiasm generated by communities everywhere in achieving their Plastic Free status then we need to think about what the next steps are. What do these communities do next? How do we use the energy and enthusiasm generated to move forwards?
We would recommend and support the creation of a Zero Waste Community initiative in Wales. The experience in Scotland indicates that these initiatives help bring communities together and create much needed local jobs too. Wouldn’t it be great if we could support some communities in becoming zero waste places and then use the learning from those to create a toolkit for communities all around Wales to help them work their way towards becoming official zero waste places.
And of course, we’d like to see the target date of becoming a zero waste nation of 2050 brought forward significantly. 2030 would seem logical given the need to have acted decisively by then on climate change.
Let’s end by revisiting those The Living Years lyrics……
And if you don't give up, and don't give in
You may just be O.K.
Say it loud, say it clear