Recycling Takes A Leap Forward: The US and UK Experience
As mentioned earlier, municipal waste has high levels of organic matter. A study by the EPA in 1998 entitled Organic Materials Management Strategies concluded this figure to be as high as 85%; comprising mainly of food scraps, paper and yard trimmings.
Despite large quantities of available organic matter for composting, there was no major groundswell in the US to commercialise the process prior to the 1980s. This was due to the high costs of operations, the rather arduous process of converting organic matter into marketable compost and the low yield on returns. There was also no discernible market for this by-product. The tide it seems is changing.
Several factors that have contributed to the viability of large-scale composting is now evident; from advancement in composting science, increasing awareness of the benefits of organic compost to growing demand led by the agricultural sector.
In Composting: The Art And Science Of Converting Organic Waste To A Valuable Soil Resource, Professor Leslie R. Cooperbrand estimated that composting municipal organic by-products could potentially generate cost-savings of US$9 to US$38 a tonne over current landfill disposal methods.
Given the obvious potential benefits – both environmental and economic – it is heartening to note that recycling efforts have increased and with that, commercial composting as a viable business. In tandem, the use of incinerators and landfills have also decreased. It is interesting to note that in the US, sharp spikes in recycling and compost activities have been driven by states with the most to lose – states that had scarcity of land for landfills. The table below provides a progress snapshot using statistics compiled by the EPA.
In the United Kingdom, the results have been less spectacular. Compared to its European neighbours and even the US, the UK appears to have had much less progress, despite the longevity of its history and relatively high level of public awareness. The government cannot be faulted for not trying. In a White Paper on the Environment in 1990 entitled Waste Strategy 2000, the authorities set an impressive 25 percent recycling target by year 2000. A raft of schemes and incentives were devised on how to make this happen.
Almost a decade and a half later, Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) dot the counties, kerbside recycling schemes are commonplace, 45 percent of local councils provide centralised composting schemes and 66 percent provide home composting bins to its constituency. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) does its bit by providing funding, guidelines and targets to enable councils to achieve national objectives.
So, how far have the Brits come? A progress check shows that predominantly, the UK still relies heavily on landfills. Of total municipal waste, a disproportionately high 75 percent is disposed of in this way while incineration accounts for nine percent and recycling 16 percent (The Environment Agency, 2004). In an August 2004 press release by Defra, based on the Municipal Waste Management Survey for England for 2002/03, the figure for recycling and composting of household waste was reported as 14.5 percent. This falls far short of the optimistic targets set back in 1990. This recycling rate is also quite tawdry compared to many European nations’ progress: 49.7 percent in Switzerland (year 2000), 48 percent in Germany (1996), 46 percent in the Netherlands (1998) and 40 percent in Norway (2000) to name a few.
Recognising how slack the progress has been and the importance of not dragging their feet, the Selective Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set some new lofty goals which were published in May 2003. These include a reduction of landfill to 35 percent by 2020 and an increase in recycling and compost to 33 percent by 2015.