Wednesday, 26 September 2007


Below is an article that appeared in todya's Guardian:

From mountain to molehill
Flanders' range of initiatives - from rubbish charges to keeping chickens - are dramatically cutting wasteSophie UnwinWednesday September 26, 2007
GuardianProsperity has come at a price in Belgium. As affluence has grown, so has the country's waste mountain - a problem that all governments are finding increasingly hard to ignore.
However, the region of Flanders in Belgium claims to have found a solution, and the world's waste authorities are beating a path to its door. Since 2005, its population has increased and the region has got richer, but the total amount of waste generated has stayed the same. In economists' terms, Flanders has "decoupled" waste from economic growth, and delegations from Russia, China and the UK have all been there recently to find out how they have done it.
Britain is particularly interested. UK figures for total amounts of household waste are roughly comparable with those of Flanders, but there are startling differences: Flanders' recycling rates of 72% in rural areas and over 60% in urban areas are among the highest in the world, dwarfing England's 28%.
One small part of the answer was last week strutting around the suburban garden of Vigoreux Aime, 71. He proudly showed off his chickens - red and black bantams and white leghorns that he keeps for the eggs. He says: "They eat everything - grass cuttings too wet for the compost, and they even love bones."
The chickens are part of Flanders' system of taxes and incentives to reduce its waste mountain. The public waste agency, Ovam, has allowed local authorities to introduce subsidies for a range of waste prevention measures - from compost bins, to chickens and reuse centres.
At the spotless civic amenity centre in Ghent, the different waste categories are organised into dozens of disposal units. There is one for batteries, one for chip pan oil (which will eventually be used as vehicle fuel), and others for furniture, paper, wood and cans. There's even a place where dead pets can be brought for cremation.
And Flanders is well down the track of getting people to pay for what they waste - the system Britain is considering. Under the current system, Ghent citizens can make up to 24 free separate visits a year to drop off their bulky waste. Other recyclable goods are collected for free on separate well-publicised days for each type of material. But households have to pay to dispose of the waste they don't recycle. In Ghent, the price is €1.30 (67p) a sack for any rubbish that cannot be recycled.
Flanders can avoid landfilling largely because it burns most of its waste. The local incinerator in Ghent, next to Ovam's offices, was refurbished in 1996 and takes 100,000 tonnes of waste a year. Last year, it started to recover energy as steam, using it to heat the university hospital 1km away, via a pipeline. Flanders' planning laws, designed to phase out landfill, do place strict limits and quality standards on incineration. But while Ghent has a state of the art "energy from waste plant", incineration is still considered controversial by environment groups and there is no avoiding that there are problems with it.
Ovam's taxes and local authority subsidies are the extension of the principle that the polluter pays. Landfill is taxed at €75 a tonne, while incineration is taxed at just under €7. When the scheme was introduced 10 years ago, waste fell by 30%.
Paul Dobbelaere, general manager of Ivago, the public-private partnership that manages the waste - recyclable and not - of the 250,000 people of Ghent and its neighbour Destelbergen, says: "You have be sure you pick up all the waste. Once that's achieved, you must find an outlet for everything you collect."
Constant demand
Dobbelaere counters the suggestion that the new incinerator that heats the hospital could increase waste figures because of its constant demand for rubbish. It always runs to full capacity, he says, but the city only supplies 60% of its waste. This way, Ivago can earn an income from companies that pay to dispose of their waste - the remaining 40%.
Ivago says people have bought into the whole recycling waste system, and the authorities have communicated the recycling scheme well - not just what they collect, and when, but in leaflets that explain why.
The people of Ghent, it seems, are mostly impressed. "It was so good it meant the council got re-elected," says chocolatier Mia Ackaert.
What has proved more difficult has been reaching the poorer communities in the city centre. Recycling rates are lower here, at 62%. A government law means that Ovam is allowed to communicate only in Flemish, which makes it hard to reach the many different immigrant communities. With high-rise blocks, it is difficult to tell who is responsible for which waste, so some of the central chutes down which people used to throw unsorted rubbish have been blocked up by Ivago.
If a scheme works well, it is probably less likely to be due to any public initiative than to the enthusiasm of individuals - such as Willy Vennaman, a 68-year-old former boxer who is concierge of one block of flats. He sifts through dumped bags of rubbish to identify who has illegally left them, then puts the bag outside their front door. "They don't do it again," he says.
Another scheme flourishing in Ghent is the Kringwinkel chain of "reuse" stores, in which goods are dismantled and repaired. Rows of washing machines and fridges sit next to stripped-off components such as computer cables. The white goods come with six-month guarantees. "Everything can be reused," says the manager, Els Dujen. "There is demand for everything we supply - if it's priced appropriately."
"The message is clear: whether it's cheap chickens, affordable secondhand white goods or expensive rubbish, ultimately, the key is pricing - backed up with well-designed and communicated systems," says Dominic Hogg, a waste consultant, who has visited the region's project and who will soon be advising the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on waste prevention policy.
This year's long-awaited UK waste strategy set for the first time important targets to decrease residual waste - "the amount of waste not recycled, reused or composted". What has been harder, in the UK and in Flanders, has been trying to prevent the waste generated in the first place.
Rachel Eburne, interim director of the Women's Environmental Network, says: "Waste prevention cuts right against the grain of consumer society," she says. "But our experience shows there's huge potential to promote a different model of business - promoting services over products and prioritising quality and durability over 'convenient' disposable items."
Ray Georgeson, director of policy for the UK government's waste and resources action plan, points out the dilemma at the heart of the subject: "No government is in the business of saying we need less stuff." As for charging, he says: "We're positive about the potential for charging, but only if the right elements are in place, such as comprehensive recycling schemes."
The question now is whether the UK will have the courage to follow the lead given by Flanders.
· Sophie Unwin writes for the Ends Report environmental policy journal
· © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

Perhaps if everyone put a little more effort into getting things done, rather than saying why things can't be done then we could make the world a better place. It's not just about the environment or global warming, it's about common sense. We have to recognise that resources are finite, so finding new ways to increase the efficiency of our usage makes perfect sense, and could save a lot of money. I'm reminded of a piece on Radio 4 about a railway station (I forget where) that is using the vibrations from the trains to power lights.

While I'm at it, would all the people who object to wind farms for aesthetic reason please explain how they can put up with the miles of pylons that litter the country. I know which I'd rather look at.

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