Only One Planet

This page last updated: 29 January 2004
Leo's Recycle SymbolLeo's Recycle Symbol

In the UK we produce some 28 million tonnes of household waste each year (that's about half a tonne for every man, woman and child) and the amount is growing by 3% per year. This is made up from:

Content of the average UK dustbin
(Source: Environment Agency.   Graphic: The Quiet Lion.)

Where does all this waste go? More than 80% of it goes into holes in the ground and is buried. But these "landfill" sites are becoming harder and harder to place and nobody wants a landfill on their own doorstep. Meanwhile, we are only recycling a measly 11% of our household waste.

If we add in commercial and industrial waste the amount produced is around the 200 million tonnes per year mark, with 58% of it going to landfill. At the current rate we will run out of Landfill sites in the UK within the next six to seven years.

If we consider what can usefully be recycled then we can see that the larger proportion of what we are putting into our dustbins are useful resources.

When I first went to school in the 1960's we learned the three R's: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Today, there are three new R's on the block, every bit as important to our lives:

We humans are great consumers. We buy huge amounts of stuff, whether we really need the stuff or not. Just think for a moment: when you reach the checkouts on an average trip to the supermarket, how much of the contents of your trolley are impulse buys? Unless money is really tight most people collect a lot of impulse buys on their way round. So, for a start, when you go shopping make and take a list and stick to it.

When making your choices try to choose the items with the least packaging. In fact, if you choose packaged greengroceries over loose supplies you'll pay through the nose for the privilege. Don't believe me? Just check out the prices in the fruit 'n' veg aisles. I did today, checking like for like sold loose and in packaging and the results were staggering:



Cost per Kg.

Type of
Additional Cost
of Packaging
Percentage Cost
of Packaging
Unpackaged Packaged
Tomatoes 1.09 1.57 Plastic tray 48p +44%
New Potatoes 0.99 1.95 Plastic tray 96p +97%*
Carrots 0.59 0.78 Plastic bag 19p +32%
Onions 0.59 0.99 Plastic bag 40p +68%*
Broccoli 1.29 2.63 Cling wrap 1.34 +104%*
Mushrooms 2.38 2.98 Plastic tray 60p +25%
Garlic 0.28 0.40 Netting 12p +43%

Price per bulb (packaged product supplied as three bulbs).
All prices obtained 4 June 2002 from Safeway (Glastonbury), except *Sainsburys.

Looks like Sainsburys really do charge a premium for packaging - especially on broccoli and new spuds! Even so, you're still looking at paying 25% to 45% more for the same product in a package. I remember, not so long ago, that one of the leading supermarkets tried to charge 5 or 10p per carrier bag at the checkouts. There was such a furore about it that the supermarket very quickly backed down. THAT is the power of the consumer! But people don't seem to think about the packaging charge on their fruit and vegetables. If they did they would very quickly get angry that they were being charged 40p for a polythene bag!

Don't just restrict the packaging choices to fresh food; apply the same judgment whenever you are choosing between two similar products. If everyone did this it wouldn't be long before the "over-packagers" saw the errors of their ways.

While we're thinking about shopping for food, try to eat fresh and local produce. This not only cuts down on the packaging, but it also slashes the transport wastage as well as keeping jobs alive in your area.

On the subject of those free plastic bags, the Irish Republic began to charge a 15 cent (9 pence) per bag "plastax" in March 2002, in an effort to curb the estimated one million handed out each year. But Ireland weren't the first to act to curb the environmental nuisance. Bombay actually banned them in 2000 because they were blocking drains, exacerbating the problems of flooding during the monsoon season. Bangladesh has gone even further, passing regulations aimed at banning polythene bags completely and re-introducing the more traditional ( and eco-friendly) jute bag, thus giving the country's ailing jute mills a much needed boost. The UK, with around eight to ten billion plastic bags given away at supermarket checkouts each year (costing the stores an estimated 1bn), the environment minister, Michael Meacher, is seriously considering following the Irish example and has called for a report on how effective the Irish solution has been. Meacher has also muted the idea of introducing a uniformed force of "environmental wardens". They would patrol local communities and have the power to take names and addresses and impose fines on people caught dropping litter, spraying graffiti or allowing their dogs to foul the pavement - a pet hate of my own (no pun intended).

Now, do you really NEED to own a scaffolding tower, a chain-saw, a carpet shampooing machine or an industrial-sized drill? If you need to use an expensive item, but you know that you'll use it only on rare occasions, try renting it rather than buying one. It's a lot cheaper and you won't have to find a place to store it for months or years after you've used it.

When you need a new ink-jet or toner cartridge, buy one of the ones that have been recycled rather than the propriety brands from the major printer manufacturers. You'll be doing the World a service and saving money into the bargain. In energy terms, it takes the burning of about 3.5 litres of oil to manufacture a toner cartridge, but only one litre to recondition and refill a used one. Personally, I've become very careful about printing in colour; unless it's essential, it gets printed in a grey-scale draft mode to reduce my ink usage and I use both sides of the sheets to cut down on paper waste.

Do you really need to replace your two year old PC with the latest, fastest model. If your computer seems to be slow it probably needs re-formatting (after backing up your important data and programmes of course). For today's heavy duty programmes 256 Mbytes of RAM is recommended, but why spend 1,000 plus if that's all it needs? Why not just treat it to some extra memory (cost of this upgrade is less than 100)? You won't believe how much faster these two tips can make your PC run.

CLICK HERE if you have any Reduce or Re-use tips. If they're good enough I'll publish them on the website (with full credit and thanks to yourself).

 How much of what you purchase comes in packaging. Just think about the food you buy from the supermarket. All of those plastic trays and milk bottles.

Personally, I find all those plastic trays ideal for starting off garden plants and vegetables from seeds and cuttings. Even the plastic milk and soft drinks bottles can be used with their tops cut off and those tops make useful funnels. Back in the 1980's, when I did a lot of boating on the River Thames, I used to cut the bottoms off two or four pint milk bottles at a 45 angle and these made really useful boat bailers.

Glass jars and their lids can be cleaned and used for home-made pickles, chutneys, jams and preserves, as well as for storing all your screws, fuses, paperclips, etc.

Remember, one person's "Trash" is another person's "Treasure". Just because you don't use an item any more is no good reason to throw it away. Consider selling it at a car-boot sale or give it to a charity shop so that someone else can have the chance to get some more use out of it.

Small recycle symbolRECYCLE
One way everyone can help do their bit is to become conscientious recyclers. More than 60% of the average household dustbin holds materials that can be recycled, but end up in expensive and ecologically unsound land fill sites. Most towns now have comprehensive recycling facilities situated in car parks, at the supermarkets or at the council refuse centres.

In  the UK we currently recycle:

  • 90% of the ten million lead car batteries we use each year
  • 66% of lead, 43% of aluminium, 38% of copper and 39% of iron
  • Nearly half of our old engine oil, but 45% is unaccounted for
  • 38% of paper which saves 15 average-size trees per tonne of paper produced
  • 22% of the six billion glass containers we use each year
  • Only 7% of plastic
Unfortunately, the UK is far from the most recycling conscious country in the World today:

Time for a culture change!

In November 2002 the UK Government produced a report on tackling waste (Waste Not, Want Not), which recommend that households should be charged for the amount of rubbish that they put out for the bin-men each week. It also recommended that Landfill Tax (that's a tax applied to waste from commercial and industrial sources) be increased from it's current rate (13 per tonne) to 35 in the short to medium term.

However, a 2002 DEFRA commissioned report came to the conclusion that this is not significantly effecting a reduction in trade waste to landfill and that the Government should be looking at setting the figure 15 to 20 per tonne higher.

In December 2003 the Government reported figures that showed that nine out of ten authorities were reporting an increase in recycling and composting since 2001-2, But that only a 20% of local authorities have reached their 2003-4 targets.

In 2002 Tony Juniper, director-designate of Friends of the Earth, said: "The government must have the courage to do this. We need a carrot and stick approach. Simply charging people without doing anything else does not work, but neither does just encouraging people to recycle either. It is time that some of the people who are very wasteful paid a penalty because lots of people have to put up with blighted lives living next to landfill sites."

Blake Lee-Harwood of Greenpeace said: "The government is walking a policy tightrope over this. It is a good idea provided there is a recycling service to every home. It also needs to be policed well or it could become a fly-tipper's charter."


The following links will take you to the various recycling pages on the site:

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This page last updated: 29 January 2004