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Speech Give By Hillary Bens Announcing Packaging Strategy

‘A world without waste?’

I’m delighted to be here this morning.

I wanted very much to accept your kind invitation today because the work you do is becoming more and more important with each passing day.

Why? Because we are facing a crisis of sustainability.

We know we are using up the planet’s resources at a rate which is unsustainable.

In doing so we’re adding to the problem of climate change, we’re squandering the wealth of the natural world and, more immediately, we’re wasting money.

Our development over the years has created a better society – that is progress. And as we’ve developed, our sense of what is valuable has also changed.

There was a time in this country when we condemned children – their limbs and their lives – to slaving among the crushing pistons of the mills and factories. A time when education was a privilege of the few and the talents and abilities of the many were not able to shine. A time when the nation had not yet understood how it was wasting what was – and is – our greatest resource.

Today, this waste seems completely out of place.

And while there can be no parallel between the fate of a child and material things, I think that in a different way in a hundred years’ time people will be shocked by the sheer scale of waste in our society today.  

Take that familiar example – it’s about 11:30 now, by 12:30 as a nation we will have produced enough waste to fill the Albert Hall.

And by noon tomorrow – just a day in the life – we will have produced enough to fill Trafalgar Square to the top of Nelson’s Column.

Most of this waste still ends up in landfill. We bury it in the ground, where it harms the environment. And as it generates methane, it accounts for 3% of our greenhouse gas emissions.

We’ve all seen the reports about the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – a swirling mass of plastic waste in the North Pacific, around twice the size of the United States.

And we can no longer say that what we throw away is rubbish.

25 million tonnes of construction, demolition and excavation waste is sent to landfill every year in England. Few would claim that this is all worthless material. Far from it.

Indeed the stuff that ends up in landfill can have great value.

Japan’s appetite for consumer electronics is well-known. And they’ve realised the potential value that these goods hold if they can recycle the rare metals that they contain. Indeed, it has been reported that in its used electrical goods Japan has accumulated three times as much gold, silver and indium as the entire world buys in a year. Six times as much, in the case of platinum.

Japan has become rich in natural resources. And they are beginning to exploit their position by mining this ‘urban ore’.

Exactly what can be salvaged only time will tell. But we should be asking ourselves this question: how have we become so casual in discarding materials of such value?

There is no waste in nature. It is a human invention.

The first recorded landfill sites were created in Crete some 5,000 years ago.

Over 2,500 years ago records show that officials in Athens opened a municipal landfill site, decreeing that waste must be transported at least a mile beyond the city gates.

But it was the industrial revolution that put down the roots for the problems that we see today. The child labour that I mentioned earlier happened because there was not enough manpower available. Indeed that was the moment when suddenly materials were more readily available than labour – the time when modern waste was born.  

So the habit may be old, but we know it’s unsustainable.

And in the UK people are increasingly aware of the problem. 

So surely there must be another way?

Imagine, for a moment, a world without waste. Where goods are reused or recycled, where food waste is turned into energy, where products are designed to be better and more durable.

A world where we understand the value of the things we consume, where we can ensure that their value is not lost, and where we can enjoy an environment free from pollution.

This may sound far-fetched, and of course the reality is that there will always be some level of waste, but our aim should be to remove it as an assumption. To squeeze it out of each link in the supply chain, to change the way we consume goods, and what we do with them afterwards.

So how do we get there?

Firstly, by taking action in our homes. And we’re making progress. Our household waste levels are now back down to what they were 10 years ago – after peaking in 2002. We’re recycling over four times more than we did 10 years ago. And we’ve set the target of reaching 50% recycling by 2020.

Despite problems in recent months recycling remains viable and – above all – essential. The market is recovering, prices are more stable, and for plastics and paper they are approaching the levels they were at a year ago.

But we need to do more to divert waste from landfill, and meet the targets that we laid out in our Waste Strategy in 2007.

When it comes to households, a really important part of this will be local authorities making collection systems easier. And let me be clear, I want to help councils to get it right when it comes to waste and recycling.

That’s why I want to support them as they explain and justify those decisions where they meet with opposition. And that’s why, when councils asked us to give them the powers to establish waste incentive schemes, we listened and we responded.   

Secondly, food should never end up in landfill.

As a nation we waste around £10 billion of food each year – a third of what we buy.

Part of the problem is how food is labelled. Some 370,000 tonnes of food are chucked out each year after passing their ‘best before’ dates, despite being perfectly good, safe and edible.

When you buy something from the supermarket it should be easy to know how long you should keep it for and how you should store it. Too many of us are throwing things away simply because we’re not sure, we’re confused by the label, or we’re just playing safe.

So I plan to tackle the way these labels are used, making it absolutely clear exactly what’s safe and what’s not safe, so we can stop throwing away good food – and stop wasting money in the process.

And the food that we do throw away should be diverted from landfill and used to make energy.

So I was delighted to announce yesterday that the Government has agreed grants for five projects, which will demonstrate the use of anaerobic digestion technology to increase renewable energy generation and reduce carbon emissions. These include projects treating waste from agriculture, food processing and from our homes and businesses.

If all the food and other organic waste that the UK produces could be harnessed in this way it could provide enough heat and energy to run over two million homes. In other words, it is another huge, untapped resource. 

Thirdly, the majority of waste in the UK comes from businesses. And we should be challenging businesses to lead in developing more ways to cut waste, and to make better use of the waste that we can’t avoid.

In the next few weeks Defra will be publishing a new statement on Commercial and Industrial Waste. And as part of this we will commission a new national survey of commercial and industrial waste in England – the first since 2002. This will improve our knowledge so that we can set and then measure targets for the future.

But waste is waste. In the end it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

I want us to be as ambitious on business waste as we are on household waste. So I think we should stop talking about the distinctions between the two sectors and take a broader view.

And that’s why we’re increasing the landfill tax, which sees only the waste and ignores its source. And it is clear to me that the next step we need to look at is banning certain materials from going into landfill altogether.

To paraphrase the ecologist John Sawhill – a society should be defined not only by what it creates, but by what it refuses to destroy – or bury.

Take food, glass, aluminium or wood – why would you put any of them into landfill when they can be recycled, or used to make energy? What sort of a society would throw away aluminium cans worth £550 a tonne when aluminium producers are crying out for the raw material? Why would we throw them away, when recycling cans saves around 90% of the energy that it takes to manufacture them from ore?

But action on landfill needs to go hand-in-hand with action to develop our infrastructure. Supporting new AD plants is part of this, and we now have a major programme to improve waste treatment. Signing the Greater Manchester PFI contract was a great step forward.

However, the bigger challenge is to stop waste being produced in the first place, rather than dealing with it afterwards – to move towards production which doesn’t produce waste in the first place.

Take this simple example – today a third of the world’s population is living in areas where water is scarce, yet to make a latte takes 200 litres of water.

Some producers are taking steps to change things – as a result of regulation and incentives, or on a purely voluntary basis because it makes economic sense.

We’re trying to help this by developing product roadmaps, to cut waste and improve sustainability.

The roadmap for milk for example has set the realistic aim of cutting ex-factory waste sent to landfill completely by 2020. And just a few months ago we launched the Sustainable Clothing Roadmap, aiming to divert some of the 2 million tonnes of clothes that end up in landfill each year.

In packaging too, things are changing. The proportion of packaging that is recovered has risen from just 30% in 1998 to 65% in 2008.

Packaging for Easter eggs – a long-standing source of unnecessary waste – was cut by 25% this year. And last year – in 2008 – the retailers and brands who have signed the Courtauld Commitment met their target of stopping the growth in grocery packaging.

We need to build on this – we need to rethink the way we deal with packaging, from production line to recycling bin.

Over the next decade I want consumers to see a major overhaul of all packaging. So I am publishing plans today to set out how we will achieve that.

We want to bring an end to excess and unnecessary packaging. So, with WRAP, we will work with manufacturers and retailers to make sure that the right amount of packaging is used.

We want to increase reuse and recycling, by working with local authorities to improve their handling of packaging. By ensuring that recyclability is a key. consideration when packaging  is being designed. And by expanding the use of refillable and reusable packaging

And, ultimately, we want to change the way we judge packaging – prioritising its carbon footprint rather than simply its weight.

The aim of all this is to make it as easy as possible for us as consumers not to come across needless packaging in the first place and to get rid of what we do use in a way that doesn’t create more landfill, but instead encourages recycling and production of energy.

Consumer demand is a big and positive force for change, and so by raising awareness we can change things.

Look at the success we’ve had on carrier bags. Consumer demand, a voluntary agreement, and our ‘Get a Bag Habit’ campaign have combined to cut the number of new plastic bags being handed out by a quarter over the last two years – and reduced their environmental impact by 40%. Leading retailers have pledged to halve the number of bags – and to work with us to see how much further we can go.

There are also signs that we are beginning to change the way we think of consumer goods.

Take Freecycle – a global network which matches up people who have things that they want to get rid of with people who can use them. In the UK they’ve grown from a single group in London in 2003 to 494 groups around the country today, boasting more than 1.7 million members.

We also need to have a debate about how we consume. Why can’t ways of doing business be developed which cut out waste and reward those companies that provide more durable products? After-all, when it comes to those goods that aren’t subject to fashion – your printer, your freezer, your boiler – don’t we just want durable goods that work?

Many offices now pay for a service rather than a product – they lease rather than buy computers, printers and other facilities on the basis that when they break, their lease agreement covers repairs.

Some consumer goods are starting to come as part of service contracts – mobile phones, set-top boxes, even some laptops with broadband contracts. Why can’t  this be expanded to other products, giving an incentive to companies to provide more reliable equipment?

These are the questions, we have to address and I welcome your views. But above all I welcome your involvement and your efforts.

Because while we’re searching for perfection, we’ve got to go on making progress.

We’ve achieved a lot. There’s a long way still to go.  And we need to recognise the progress made in order to take the next steps.

If we do that we can create a more sustainable, and a greener society, save us money in the short-term and help our economy and our environment in the longer-term.

This will require many more changes. But eliminating waste, as far as we can, would be a huge step along the way.

Thank you.

Summary of 2009 Packaging Strategy

Full 2009 Packaging Strategy

Source: DEFRA

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