London and Its Rubbish: Where Are The Bins?

London and Its Rubbish: Where Are The Bins?

Khan’s London Environment Strategy is ambitious and a step in the right direction – but why are there not more bins?

The IRA. That’s why. I get it. Thing is though, I don’t. It’s been years since part of the IRA’s tactics were to hide bombs in bins[1], causing thousands to be removed from Central London, and there have been too many terrorist attacks to count since that show that – surprise, surprise – a lack of bins won’t stop them. So where are all the bins?

If you’ve ever walked around London with a drink or some food, you’ll know the frustration of finishing your beverage and consequently being stuck with the wrapping. I usually resort to just sticking it into my bag (which my dear mum says looks like a bin anyway, so I guess it’s fitting!) but as you can see on the streets, many will just resort to dropping it on the spot. I can’t count the amount of times I have walked past bins literally overflowing in the capital, and not even just in the most popular spots of the city, which would perhaps be expected.

It’s genuinely a pet peeve of mine. Walking through the park or by the canal should cheer me up but it just pisses me off since there’s rubbish literally at every turn. Not only does it look horrendous and smells terrible, but it’s damaging for the environment and animals around us, as well as regardless of whether the rubbish is recyclable or not, it will inevitably end up in landfill or worse still waterways and eventually the ocean. Come on London, we can do better.

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Coming from Germany, the OECD world leader in recycling, with 68% of municipal waste being recycled; proper waste management, privately and publicly, seems like second nature to me. However, having moved to the UK, where only 43% of municipal waste is recycled, and more specifically London - since the Lake District communities (where I was living previously) do a lot for proper waste management - it has become apparent that Germany’s standards in waste management are rather uncommon. This perplexes me, since, day to day, it is so simple. One thing it does require, though, is proper infrastructure. In other words, amongst other things, it requires enough bins.

Several councils in London are taking steps to improve the current state of affairs, which shows that things can change. Newham in 2017, for example, introduced 26 of the BigBelly solar-powered smart bins which compact rubbish, “allowing them to hold over five times the amount”that regular bins around the city hold[2]. In addition, when capacity is reached a sensor in the bin alerts staff via email so they can go empty it, meaning bins that fill easily are emptied promptly and on the flip side that bins that get little usage are not emptied everyday needlessly, thus allocating staff (hence spending money) more efficiently. Greenwich council caught on to these smart bins just last month, installing 18 across the boroughin a trial. While the installation and initial cost of these bins will of course be higher than that of regular bins, they do allow for increased efficiency in waste management.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Environment Strategy states that “landfill capacity is set to run out by 2026”and he has set out an ambitious plan to“make London a zero waste city”, generally aiming to switch from London’s current linear economy to a “low carbon circular economy”[3]. As mentioned above, the switch to smart bins and a general increase in the number of bins across London would not necessarily generate income, however WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) emphasizes that the “benefits stack up” in a strategy to be greener and more sustainable, and that in fact “a shift to a more circular economy in the UK could create between 200,000 and 500,000 jobs by 2030”.

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On the note of moving towards a circular economy, let’s move on from the issue of bins to the wider issue of recycling which I’ve already touched on throughout this article. Seeing as this week is indeed Recycle Week, it seems only appropriate. 

I feel as though a lot of the conversation I read and hear around the subject of recycling is centred around what to recycle or what to ban, in order to stop it being produced and hence wasted in the first place (e.g. plastic straws and microbeads). This is not incorrect, in fact it is a crucial conversation to have. In my opinion we next need to tackle needless packaging of products, such as vegetables and fruit that naturally have a protective skin (think oranges, avocadoes, bananas, courgettes, etc.) being wrapped in plastic, or items that are already packed in plastic being doubly wrapped (see picture of toilet roll), i.e. ‘useless’ usage of plastic – particularly seeing as most of this useless packaging is in fact nonrecyclable!

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However, these types of conversation do only focus on one step of the five steps in the (simplified) process of the recycling circular economy, namely the design/manufacture stage.

What we need to realise, however, is that only focusing on this stage does not help move the economy from being linear (“take, make, and dispose”) to being circular, seeing as even if what is ‘taken’, i.e. the product, changes, the key to a circular economy is that it is also reused and recycled as much as possible. And in order to achieve this, we need to not only focus on the design/manufacture stage but equally on the consumer stage (households and businesses alike) and on how to get used products out of the hands of consumers and into proper recycling plants. To me, this crucial stage is a lot about having the right infrastructure in place to facilitate this transition.

Oddly, then, the word ‘bin’ was mentioned in Khan’s 400+ page London Environmental Strategy only once, and therein talking about the reduction of bin sizes, which seems hardly like the thing we need to do, since bins to me are a big part of our waste management infrastructure, in the public as well as the private domain.

I am hopeful about the future, though. In addition to the smart bins adopted by various councils like Newham and Greenwich so far, London can pride itself on being the first city to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in the UK (Canary Wharf Group’s ‘Breaking the Plastic Habit’ Campaign can, to be exact). A DRS is essentially a “network of ‘reverse vending machines’” where you insert a bottle or can, which you will have paid a small deposit on when you first purchased it (e.g. 25p per bottle) which you can reclaim upon returning said bottle into such a machine. We’ve had them in Germany for some time, since 2003 I think, and I remember getting some of my pocket-money from returning plastic and glass bottles and cans in the machine at our local supermarket. You’d be surprised how quickly you can accumulate a fiver with a couple of bottles (and, thinking about it, the prospect of a ‘free’ fiver excites me even more now as a student than it did back then as a six-year-old…). 

The Canary Wharf Group self-funded the installation of the machine, which is impressive since they cost approximately £30,000 each. Apart from being impressive financially, it also shows that group action does work and that we don’t have to solely rely on the government to get things done. Nonetheless, the government is considering rolling out such Deposit Return Schemes across the country and will come to an agreement on the matter later this year. 

Something interesting to take into account before rolling out Deposit Return Schemes are some of the criticisms of it made by “Benjamin Bongardt of Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union”. He argues that Deposit Return Schemes are not a one-way ticket to being greener and more sustainable. In fact, he argues that taxing drinks packaging may have been more effective, since he claims that DRS systems are not “very environmentally friendly in the first place” seeing as one downside experienced in Germany is that big retailers like Lidl and Aldi have opted to produce mainly “non-reusable bottles made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), to streamline the return process”. Additionally, the DRS may not be incentivising businesses to go green seeing as they can make considerable financial gain from bottles thrown away instead of being returned through the DRS, seeing as obviously businesses then get to keep the deposit paid on top of the regular retail price upon purchase. 

One thing to consider, then, is possibly combining the two, since the benefits of the DRS in terms of increasing recycling are undisputable. It would be possible to introduce a plastic tax which would go some way to funding the installation of ‘anti-plastic systems’ such as the DRS and increased numbers of recycling bins and so forth, similarly to how the recently introduced sugar tax is being used to fund sports in primary schools. The tax would then also incentivise businesses to look for alternative packaging solutions that don’t include plastics, e.g. it would be very easy for supermarkets to provide paper bags to put loose vegetables into and ditch individual wrapping.

At the end of the day, recycling is an effort everyone has to partake in for it to make a difference. I’ve talked about our public effort mainly thus far, so I will end on a note about bins in the private realm. Namely, the lack of bin storage space most people have at home. As mentioned above, rubbish looks horrible in parks. It doesn’t suddenly look or smell any more pleasant when it’s in your kitchen at home. More than a third of Londoners say that “they would recycle more if they had more bin space at home”, with 52% of those questioned saying that they “experienced ‘bin-digestion’ – the need to pile up recycling items around a rubbish bin because of limited space – at least once a week”[4]. I know I can relate to that problem. While Recycle for London have come up with some great bin hacks (which you can find here), I think new builds should henceforth be required to offer enough bin space to allow comfortably for recycling (because, if it isn’t a chore, more people do it). This applies particularly in flats. There needs to be an increased effort to ensure waste management in flats is good, proper and accessible to the residents – and this of course includes separate units for recycling. 

I could go on, but I won’t right now. So, to sum up this 1.5k word rant, to build a proper circular economy it is not enough to just focus on one stage, we need to focus on it all. And in order for any system to function properly, it needs proper infrastructure, a solid foundation if you will. One of those foundations is mental: it is every single one of our attitudes towards recycling. Another is physical: the actual means of how we recycle. With the clock on climate change ticking and landfill filling more and more each day, I think it’s about time we got our foundations in check. Germany did it in 2003. We can do it in 2018, learn from others’ mistakes, and reach Khan’s ambitious goal that by 2026, the year it is predicted to run out, “no biodegradable or recyclable waste will be sent to landfill and by 2030 65 per cent of London’s municipal waste will be recycled”. But to bin the rubbish we need the BINS!

P.S: if you want a look at how much plastic is actually around you on a daily basis, but also want some quality entertainment too, check out Sasha’s attempt at going plastic free for a week on her period in the Zero-Wasteman challenge here.  

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