Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management


If you think poetry is a load of old rubbish, you might find some agreement in the unlikeliest quarters. Poets themselves have been finding inspiration from the items we discard, and from the people who make a living clearing up our trash.

In October, John Wedgewood Clarke published a book of poetry called Landfill, the result of a year-long residency at two Yorkshire rubbish sites. The collection explores what John calls the “hideous beauty” of places that most of us would rarely describe as poetic.

The residency had a profound experience on the poet. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, John described the experience of making his way through the landscape of trash as akin to walking on the moon. And he found that landfill sites have their own seasons, with a blossoming of fairy lights just after Christmas and an upsurge in lawnmowers in the spring. In autumn the dump was littered with pumpkins and glow-sticks.

The collection features poems both about rubbish itself and its effects. Newsprint turns the writer’s skin grey, and he finds himself wandering through a “palace of glistering cans”.

A rubbish dump is also a repository for stories. One of the site workers told John about poignant finds such as discarded war medals and photograph albums.

In recent years, there have been greater efforts to divert more and more of our waste away from landfill. Many of us are recycling waste products, and the idea of a circular economy is becoming a reality.

In spite of these efforts, John’s rubbish residency is a reminder of the sheer scale of landfill, and of its enduring nature. As he told the Yorkshire Post: “our waste doesn’t disappear, it is simply on its way to becoming geology.”

Unsung heroes

In Edinburgh, the city’s Makar, Christine de Luca, has also found poetic inspiration from an unlikely source. A visit to the Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works resulted in a poem called Gardyloo which describes a space-station of engines, pipework and pumps that transform effluent into a purified stream which flows with “the speed and sparkle of a Highland burn in spate.”

Later, Christine persuaded a selection of poets to celebrate other Edinburgh workers whose service for the city largely goes unnoticed or unappreciated. The result was a collection of poems called Edinburgh Unsung, now freely available on Edinburgh City Council’s website.

The subjects are varied, from chimney sweeps and environmental wardens to facilities managers at the Scottish Parliament and book dusters at the National Library of Scotland. Christine herself, more used to writing in praise of the great and the good, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and James Clerk Maxwell, contributed a poem celebrating Edinburgh’s refuse collectors. It describes their daily routine of waste collection and disposal as a kind of dance, with its own repertoire, rhythm and precision.

A strange beauty

Percy Shelley described poetry as “a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”. Many would have thought it impossible to equate the workings of a waste water treatment plant with something beautiful. But, as Christine de Luca, John Wedgewood Clarke and many other poets have demonstrated, there is a strange beauty in the features and functions of the everyday. And if these poets can – even for a moment – shine a light on the people working to make our lives better, then that’s kind of beautiful too.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also find another poetry-related blog post of interest:

Moving stories: how poetry is carrying the message about mobility challenges facing older people

ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.


If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy:

An all-round approach: could the circular economy help the world turn the corner on climate change?

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Image by Krdan via Creative Commons

This week, politicians from around the world are making a final attempt to craft a deal on climate change at the UN COP21 talks in Paris. The stakes could not be higher. Climate scientists largely agree that if the global surface temperature increase exceeds 2 ºC, the consequences could be catastrophic – drought, fires, coastal flooding, loss of agricultural production and increased spread of disease.

The role of the circular economy

Many believe one key element that could play a crucial role in curbing global warming is the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable. But, in recent years, concerns about a combination of issues, including the depletion of raw materials and the amount of waste being sent to landfill sites, has increased interest in the concept of the circular economy.

The circular economy in focus

In our most recent “In focus” briefing, we take a look at the application of circular economy principles. The briefing outlines the development of the concept, which has moved from the fringes of the ecology movement in the 1970s to the mainstream of thinking on economic development today.

Circular economy principles have been adopted by companies such as Renault and by early-adopting governments in Japan and Scandinavia. Last week, the European Commission adopted a new Circular Economy Package aimed at boosting competitiveness, creating jobs and generating sustainable growth.

As well as highlighting the economic and environmental benefits of the circular economy, the briefing also describes barriers to further progress, such as product design promoting obsolescence and weak fiscal incentives for business.

The briefing also focuses on the role of UK local authorities in making the transition to a circular economy, and provides case studies highlighting examples of good practice.

Practising what they preach

As the international delegates in Paris try to deliver the first new global climate accord in 18 years, they might be inspired by their surroundings. The organisers of the conference have taken circular economy principles to heart, including the provision of locally sourced food, water fountains instead of plastic cups and the rental of furniture, structures, material and lighting for the event.

With the fate of the planet in the balance, it might not be too much of an exaggeration to describe the circular economy as a concept whose time has come.


The Circular Economy (In focus) is available to download here

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Something old into something new: innovations in recycling

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The UK generates more food waste than anywhere else in Europe …what’s being done to tackle the problem?

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Image: by the lone conspirator [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

October 16 is World Food Day, an annual day of action to raise awareness about the problem of global hunger. It’s also a particularly good day to reflect on the problem of food waste.

Over 800 million people – one in nine worldwide – live with chronic hunger. Yet in the midst of global starvation, huge amounts of food are being discarded by retailers and consumers.

  • Some 40% of all the food produced in the United States is never eaten.
  • In Europe, 100 million tonnes of food is thrown away every year.
  • The UK produces 15 million tonnes of food waste every year, more than any other European country.

The costs of food waste

Apart from the ethical concerns, food waste has significant economic and environmental impacts. Some of these are clear to see, while others are hidden costs.

In 2007 the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that wasted food costs each UK household between £250 and £400 a year. This doesn’t include council tax payments contributing to the cost of local authorities’ disposal of food waste, much of which goes to landfill sites, where it generates methane and other greenhouse gases.

Scarce resources are being used in the production of food that will never be consumed. Every product has its own “water footprint” –  the amount of water consumed in its production. In 2011, research by WRAP found that the water footprint of food waste was 6,200 million cubic metres per year.

Love food, hate waste

Addressing the problem of food waste is clearly a colossal challenge. But that’s no reason to give up. Since 2007, WRAP, the registered charity that works with businesses, individuals and communities to help reduce waste, has been running a highly successful Love Food Hate Waste campaign in partnership with retailers, food manufacturers, local government and community groups. Between 2007 and 2012, the campaign helped reduce avoidable food waste by 21%. That’s more than one million tonnes of food saved from landfill (or enough to fill 23 million wheelie bins). The campaign is also estimated to have saved consumers £3.3 billion a year and councils around £85 million.

Local action on food waste

Individual local authorities are also doing their bit to reduce the amount of public money used to dispose of food waste as rubbish. Councils in areas such as Cardiff, West Lothian and Oxford have been providing separate food waste caddies for collection. The food can then be recycled either by composting for fertilisers, or by anaerobic digestion for conversion to biogas to generate electricity, heat or transport fuels. Some local authorities, such as Central Bedfordshire are also encouraging home composting by providing householders with subsidised composting bins for kitchen and garden waste.

Donating food to charities

While the bulk of food wasted annually in the UK comes from households, supermarkets also generate substantial amounts.

In 2013, the British Retail Consortium estimated that seven supermarket chains were responsible for 200,000 tonnes of food wastage. In response, some of the UK’s leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, and Tesco have been working with the FareShare charity to rescue thousands of tonnes of food from landfill for redistribution to vulnerable people across the UK in homeless shelters, women’s refuges and children’s breakfast clubs.

At the moment, these are voluntary schemes, but an initiative by a local councillor in France might ultimately lead to legislation compelling supermarkets across Europe to donate unwanted food to charity.

Earlier this year, Arash Derambarsh persuaded the French parliament to pass a law barring supermarkets from destroying food approaching its best-before date. He is now lobbying the European parliament to follow suit by including an amendment in its new “circular economy” directive.

Consumers also have a role to play, for example by choosing misshapen fruit and vegetables that would be otherwise be destined for the bin, buying just the things we need, and understanding the difference between “best before” and “use by” dates.

Good work has been carried out in raising awareness of, and addressing, food waste. However, given the colossal scale of the problem, further progress will depend on concerted actions by governments, food suppliers, retailers and consumers.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on waste management; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.


Further reading*

A taste for reducing food waste (in the public sector)

Sector bursts with ideas on boosting bioresources (food waste policy)

Strategies to achieve economic and environmental gains by reducing food waste

The seller of food that the shops cannot sell (food waste)

Waiter! More doggy bags, please (designer doggy bags to reduce restaurant food waste)

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service