Some notes about the Environment

The scale for the waste challenge confronting Britain is enormous. For most of the twentieth century, the waste by-products of industry were dumped in rivers, landfill sites, the seas, and in the air. This pollution has happened for free – those who cause the pollution have not paid the price.

Gradually the scale of the pollution has been reeled back. Air pollution remains critical in major cities, and carbon pollution challenges the climate change targets. Rivers that were biologically dead have been brought back to some semblance of life, although the initial improvements have begun to level off. Marine pollution remains, especially where it is out of sight, although the dumping of sewerage sludge has been ended.

There has been progress on landfill too. European Directives have gradually borne down on the practice of “dig-a-hole-and-bury-it”, and landfill sites are more regulated now.  Some recycling has been introduced, and occasionally even enforced.

But this progress is against a backdrop of the sheer scale of the waste we are now producing. Packaging and household rubbish are the visible signs to the population, although these are only a part of the much bigger and worrying picture.

What is to be done? The good news is that the scope for improvement is vast, and the reduction of waste is often economically efficient once all the costs are included. Recycling makes sense when those who cause the waste face the costs. This has become obvious in considering the tsunami of plastic bags the supermarkets have produced to put our shopping in. A small tax creates an enormous change in behaviour.

The plastic bag example is a good way of thinking about what could be done. Though it would not be possible to introduce charges for all the different types of waste, just thinking about how the environment and the economy would be radically different if there were signals what is out there to be gained.  The pressure to reduce single-use plastics (notwithstanding the massive increase in the pandemic) is another area where action is beginning to be taken. The full circular economy might be an aspiration (and one which might not be particularly economically efficient), but it gets companies and governments thinking. Energy from waste, recycling and composting are all examples of what is possible.

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    November 16, 2005

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    Published in 'A Mortgaged Future: The Consequences of UK Energy Policy', proceedings of a British Energy seminar, held before a large audience of politicians, civil servants, business people, academics and others.
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    There are a variety of claims against the development and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This paper examines these arguments.
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