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Recycling Facts: Waste in Numbers

With recycling and greener living at the top of the agenda for many governments and local councils around the world, the push for a reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfill is gathering momentum fast. As a nation we are still some way off meeting targets for recycling, however, as recent statistics have shown that we produce around 228 million tonnes of waste annually – and that’s just in England.

The steps towards a projected “zero waste economy” are focused on encouraging a change in attitude as well as practices, altering the definition of what is and what isn’t termed as “waste”. Finding better ways to value resources, reusing items that are typically seen as no longer useful, has been cited as one of the best ways to approach this, and the subsequent economic and financial benefits could be far-reaching.

For many, the amount that they recycle is highly dependent on the convenience of the process itself (almost 90% of people surveyed admitted that they would recycle more if it were easier). Regardless, some of the statistics are still fairly shocking.

For example; every seven weeks, on average, every person in the UK throws away their own body weight in waste, leading to each household generating one tonne of rubbish every year – enough to fill Lake Windermere one and a half times!

Technology is another problem area. There are a projected 90 million mobile phones not in use across the UK, gathering dust in draws or clogging up landfill sites. With numerous websites dedicated to the recycling of mobile phones and other electrical items (with generous prices paid for some old handsets), this is now an unnecessary waste, and targets set under the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive hope to drive down the amount of potentially hazardous technology that ends up in landfill. The RSA have even approached this issue from an artistic angle, creating WEEE Man – a colossal robotic sculpture made from 3.3 tonnes of scrap electrical equipment. Designed by contemporary artist Paul Bonomini, WEEE Man represents the average amount of waste electronics we each dispose of during a lifetime, and has recently become a permanent fixture at the Eden Project in Cornwall.

Food and drink container waste is another area that’s long since been a focus for many an environmental campaigner. Shock statistics, such as just one recycled tin can being able to power a TV for three hours, or one recycled plastic bottle powering a 60w light bulb for six hours, mean little to most people on a day-by-day basis. However, when you consider that it is impossible for glass to decompose, but can be completely recycled without losing purity; making paper uses 70% more energy than recycling it; or a single aluminium can will become part of a new one in just over a month, the advantages become a lot more real.

Recycling also makes a lot of sense from an economical viewpoint, too – and not just from the obvious savings made by reusing items instead of buying new ones. For example, 10,000 tonnes of waste incineration can be carried out by one person, and sending 10,000 tonnes of waste to landfill can be done by 6 employees. However, recycling 10,000 tonnes of waste creates 36 jobs – a boost to both the economy and the environment.

Although so much more can be done to increase our green credentials, things are steadily improving. Household recycling was up by 4% between 2005/06 and 2006/07, and Europe-wide initiatives such as the WEEE Directive are making headway in keeping electronic waste to a minimum. Reuters has even claimed that the UK is on track to meet its green energy targets for 2020. Yet still many attitudes towards waste disposal must change in order to achieve the proposed “zero waste economy”, with the western world finally starting to take responsibility for accelerated industry in the reduction of its carbon footprint.


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