Britain's bin baron
says: get recycling like the Germans
January 14, 2007
The man with a mission to make us Europe's greenest
nation tells John-Paul Flintoff the war will start with
Paul Bettison is talking rubbish. As chairman of the
Local Government Association's environment board,
Councillor Bettison frequently talks rubbish. But today
he's talking more rubbish than I can imagine: almost 27m
tons of it.
According to the LGA, the average British household
produces half a ton of rubbish a year. In total, we send
7m tons more rubbish to landfill than any other country in
Europe. One country in particular puts us to shame:
Germany has 25% more people but produces less than half as
And now we're running out of space to bury it all.
Within nine years there'll be no landfill sites left, says
Bettison. At current rates of disposal we'll fail to meet
our obligations under the European Union landfill
directive. Councils, and consequently taxpayers, face
fines of up to £150 for each ton of rubbish over set
limits dumped in landfill. The National Audit Office
predicts a total fine of up to £200m.
Then there's climate change: it takes a lot of energy,
and creates a lot of emissions, to manufacture rubbish in
the first place, then to ferry it to landfill or burn it.
The consequences were underlined by the European
commission last week: global warming, it said, could
trigger regional conflicts, poverty, famine and migration.
And that's why councils are promoting “three Rs” for the
21st century — reduce, reuse and recycle.
New Zealand, Western Australia, California, Toronto and
even a couple of English local authorities have adopted a
target of zero waste by 2020 — with the goal that
everything produced will be reused or recycled, and
nothing incinerated or sent to landfill.
Siân Berry, principal speaker of the Green party, says:
“If we go whole-heartedly for recycling, reuse and waste
minimisation, we would create thousands of jobs, reducing
carbon dioxide emissions and conserving finite resources.”
Thus a fabric conditioner bottle, which will last a
thousand years, would be taken back to the supermarket to
be refilled. Indeed, shoppers would walk into supermarkets
with almost as much packaging as they take away.
Variously nicknamed “bin baron” and “trash czar”,
Bettison oversees environmental policy on behalf of 411
councils across England and Wales. A retired printer, now
in charge of Tory-led Bracknell Forest borough council in
Berkshire, he's a large man who wears spectacles, a white
shirt and tie, a gold watch on one wrist and a gold chain
on the other. Not particularly close to the green
stereotype, but it's quite obvious he finds climate chaos
I've seen for myself, as a former binman, how filthily
and chaotically some householders put out rubbish. And
having worked a whole shift with mushroom sauce and coffee
grounds in my ear, I have little sympathy for householders
who can't be bothered to sort their waste.
But is his diagnosis of the national problem correct?
And are his proposed remedies workable? Many people will
find it hard to believe we are running out of space for
landfill. But as Bettison explains, we usually dump
rubbish in old quarries and we're filling up the holes
much faster than we're excavating them. Anyway, some
spaces aren't suitable because the contents of rubbish —
cat food, old batteries, nappies, aspirin — might leak
out, poisoning water sources.
The alternative is incineration, but few communities
are clamouring to have incinerators built in their areas.
So the most important part of Bettison's war on waste lies
in reducing the production of rubbish in the first place.
“People power has a large role to play,” he says. “If
you buy four or five apples at the supermarket, you can
buy them loose or pre-packed in a plastic tray. That might
look nice, but you're not going to submit it to an
exhibition or a harvest festival — you're going to take it
home and throw it away. If we stopped doing that — if the
public stopped buying apples in trays — within a month the
supermarkets would stop selling them that way. And
councils can encourage consumers to do that.”
So much for “reduce”. When it comes to “reuse”,
Bettison commends the work of his crack troops: elderly
volunteers working in charity shops and reselling all
kinds of hitherto unwanted items. Councils support these
shops, he points out, by waiving commercial rates on
retail sites that might otherwise stand empty. The
internet also helps — through businesses such as eBay, and
networks such as Freecycle, where unwanted goods change
hands at no cost.
Hoping to influence the forthcoming local government
bill, Bettison popped next door before Christmas to the
offices of Defra and outlined his strategy for the war on
waste to David Miliband, the environment secretary. “And
David said, ‘I'm up for this.' Which I think is