As long as we remain addicted to consumption, this problem won't go away, no matter how many new waste management facilities are built.
I've often wondered how people's waste-generating habits would change if their garbage had to stay within the confines of their property. Imagine a world where there was no garbage collection, no recycling facilities. I'm fairly certain, in that case, most people would not forget their reusable containers at home when heading to the grocery store because who wants plastic peanut butter jars and Styrofoam takeout containers in their backyard for decades?
Residents of the United Kingdom may find themselves in a somewhat-similar situation, come 2030. A new report published by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which manages the UK's waste and recycling industry, has stated that 6 million tons of household trash will be "left without a home" in just over a decade. This treatment capacity gap should be a matter of serious concern for the government, says the ESA, as the estimate was made "even after factoring in a continuation of exports [of trash] and the development of currently unplanned capacity."
The ESA would like to see two things happen. First, the government should spend £1.5 billion to boost recycling rates, both through the creation of new facilities and citizen education. Policy intervention is crucial, otherwise this will not work. Second, it wants the development of new treatment capacity for items that cannot be recycled economically; in other words, waste-to-energy plants and landfill, of which the former is seen as positive and the latter negative. (Lloyd is not a fan of waste-to-energy, despite Europeans' love for it.)
The report paints a dire picture:
"We will fail to close the treatment capacity gap if we have unrealistic recycling ambitions which aren’t supported by robust policy action. If this happens then the only possible solution will be landfill and we will lose out on maximising the use of our waste resources. Landfills are currently closing at an uneven rate around the country. Land pressures in the South of England mean that some regions are likely to be left with no landfills and no replacement capacity in the relatively near future."
While the ESA's panic is palpable in the report and its projections logical, there's a disturbing lack of examination of the reasons for the creation of so much trash. I couldn't help but wonder, why is no one talking about the root cause here? That would be rampant consumerism, over-packaging on the part of manufacturers and retailers, and the utter lack of accountability for materials used.
The ESA does touch on this briefly, pointing out that,
"If the UK’s packaging industry paid the same level of compliance costs under the Packaging Regulations for recycling as those in Germany and Austria, then the packaging industry would face an additional annual bill of around £500 million."
But even that low level of accountability does not exist in UK, nor in North America, where no one is held responsible for the full life cycle of a product.
Until people stop buying so much stuff all the time, the waste problem is going nowhere. And no matter how many recycling plants or waste-to-energy plants or new landfill sites open up, the problem will not disappear; it will only get worse as population rates increase. Citizen education needs to be focused on the necessity of decreasing consumption and breaking away from our "affluenza," not on remembering to put glass bottles and metal cans in the recycling bin.