(Costing the earth, BBC Radio 4, 9.9.2013; podcast available)
There could be around two billion tonnes of waste sitting in landfills. In
the Flemish half of Belgium quite close to the Dutch border, at a
conventional-looking landfill site for rubbish, contractors are starting to
mine the landfill. "We believe that it contains materials and energy that we
can give back to society." There are a lot of usable materials which can be
In Victorian times food was fed to pigs and other stock, human waste was
used on the land to grow better crops, things were repaired, reused and very
little was thrown away; many small industries and individuals were involved
in these trades, so dumps uncovered today contain bits of pottery,
porcelain, bone and ashes and little else. Looking forward to the 1960s and
onwards waste starts to include card and paper waste, plastics and not so
much food (in this post-war period). By the eighties we were very profligate
as a society and household and industrial, particularly construction, waste
went through the roof. Or into holes in the ground.
By the eighties it was said that the best legacy your distant, rich relative
could leave you was a hole in the ground, such were the profits to be had
from charging people to fill it up with rubbish. With landfill taxes and
greater recycling (and a global recession), our society has today started to
come to its senses and we waste less than we did thirty years ago. Scarcity
of materials and resources today is leading us to value what we
once threw away without thinking. It is estimated that over five thousand
million tonnes of waste exist in Europe.
Rubber, plastics, wood, metal, precious metal, all can be reclaimed. Some
layers contain paper, card, textiles and old food residues and light plastic
films and have potential as fuel extracted using gas plasma technology which
doesn't produce further landfill waste.
However, within a couple of weeks of the BBC Radio 4 Costing the earth
programme covering landfill mining, Tesco (heard of them?) announced that
more than two-thirds of produce grown for bagged salads, just under half of
bakery goods and four out of ten apples are thrown away.
Tesco, working in conjunction with the Waste and Resources Action Programme
(WRAP), calculated the food waste "footprint" for 25 of the supermarket's
best-selling products - looking at what was wasted both inside its
supermarkets and in the homes of its customers. The retail giant admitted
that 28,500 tonnes of food waste were generated in its stores and
distribution centres in the first six months of 2013. 'Sell by' and 'Use by'
dates on so many foods must have an impact on consumer behaviour; 'Buy one,
get one free' offers only compound over-buying and discarding of
It also estimated that uneaten food costs families about £700 a year
each. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization director-general
Jose Graziano da Silva: "In addition to the environmental imperative, there
is a moral one: we simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce
to go to waste, when 870 million people go hungry every day".