[GRRN] Britian: Incineration or Zero Waste?

Bill Sheehan (bill_sheehan@mindspring.com)
Mon, 29 Nov 1999 08:10:15 -0500

Financial Times (London)
September 29, 1999


Environment Interview Robin Murray:
A leading industrial economist tells Caspar Henderson why
he thinks the UK is heading down the wrong path

Robin Murray is an associate at Demos, Britain's trendiest
think-tank. A studious industrial economist, he is not given
to overstatement.

But, he says, "perverse institutions, perverse markets and
disconnected government" threaten to take the UK down an
expensive and potentially hazardous dead end while
excluding the country from the "next industrial revolution".

The trouble is that few people want to listen because Mr
Murray's area of concern is municipal waste management.
He has issued a call to action that he claims will create
50,000 additional jobs and benefit the environment*.

Rather than seeing resource constraints and tighter
environmental regulation as a brake on the global economy,
he argues, people are beginning to recognise that the
"secondary materials" economy and "eco-efficiency" can
stimulate innovation and create wealth and jobs. Some
companies and industries are already pursuing " zero waste"

To manage municipal waste in the next century, society is
faced with a choice between "chemico-energy
modernisation", which "applies modern technology to the
process of destruction" and "eco-modernisation, which
applies it to conservation".

In the new industrial order, says Mr Murray, the most
advanced and innovative applications of recycling are to be
found in leading edge economies such as California, the
Seattle region, and some of the German states. And among
rich industrialised nations, only Britain is embarking on the
wrong path: "The government is in danger of favouring a
high-cost, low-employment, environmentally hazardous
technology [incineration] that rules out competition for 25

Already Britain is far behind. Other countries are recycling
40 per cent or more of their municipal waste, while the UK
remains stuck at less than 8 per cent, and has no realistic
prospect of achieving its target of 25 per cent by 2000.

What is more, the UK loses out financially, he argues,
through failing to recycle two-thirds of the aluminium cans it
uses every year or more of its waste paper mountain.

Recycling can also help to reduce emissions of the
"greenhouse gases" thought to cause climate change, and can
save three to five times more energy than can be generated
by the most efficient incinerators producing energy from

Yet these incinerators received at least six different kinds
of subsidy and incentives, and senior ministers have spoken
of 40 to 130 new ones nationwide. So why, asks Mr Murray,
is Britain convincing itself that new systems are impossible
when other countries are already introducing them?

One of the main problems, he says, is backwardness in the
waste industry, which remains structured around disposal.

And the resistance to change is compounded by what Mr
Murray terms perversities in market structure. By ignoring
the true costs of landfill or incineration, he says, existing
market incentives turn the priorities for environmental
protection upside down. An analysis by Merrill Lynch found
the highest prices were paid for treating hazardous waste,
followed by municipal disposal, incineration and landfill.
The lowest prices were for recycling.

Rhetorically, reduction and recycling remain a government
priority; but Mr Murray says that in practice, incineration is
regarded as the most secure alternative to landfill.

And the solution? "Where governments have traditionally
sought to promote and protect individual technologies and
companies, it is now whole systems of regulation and
production that matter most . . . the government must lift its
sights, recover from a failure of imagination and show
leadership in creating the conditions for intensive recycling."

The change has happened elsewhere. Until recently, France
was committed to intensive incineration. But central
government reversed the policy and has instituted a
demanding programme to reduce waste, increase recycling,
give value to secondary materials and restore public

Mr Murray is particularly enthusiastic about the potential
of community-based recycling operations. Such operations
are uniquely able to benefit from the willingness and
embedded knowledge of local communities. "Developing
large scale recycling depends on innovation from grassroots
organisations. Sustaining them depends on linking such
networks to new international markets and on wiring the
systems together at local and regional level."

Regional development agencies could also play a valuable
role, he believes, but a central body - a " Zero Waste
Agency" - is essential. This agency would be charged with
ensuring that 40 per cent of all waste is recycled or reduced
by 2004 and 60 per cent by 2007. It should, he says,
establish or operate a zero waste tendering programme (to
foster entrepreneurship), a waste academy (to develop the
new trades and professions required by waste minimisation),
a recycling price guarantee programme and a secondary
materials industries and technologies initiative.

Beyond that, says Mr Murray, there is an urgent need to
"democratise the management of risk".

Mr Murray's proposals are ambitious - and he says it "may
take a serious hazard to trigger it". On a more positive note,
he points out that "what is regarded as utopian here is normal
practice elsewhere".