How can we improve Birmingham’s waste management system for the 21st century? This was the question tackled by a Round Table discussion on 14th July. Birmingham Friends of the Earth organised it jointly with The Chamberlain Forum, who promote neighbourhood regeneration in the city. We invited people who campaign on waste, those who implement practical recycling, and those who organise community-led regeneration efforts.
The timing is good, as Birmingham City Council is reviewing its Waste Strategy in 2011. There is a danger of some grand, top down engineering solution being agreed, with most people excluded from any consultation. Instead our Round Table looked at what is wrong with the current system and what we would really want for the 21st century. What emerged was an impressive degree of consensus and common thinking on the principles that should guide our planning for the future. A report has been written summarising the findings and has been sent to key councillors.
Birmingham has a rubbish-producing strategy. Each year 350,000 tonnes of rubbish are thrown into black bags and taken to the incinerator to be burned. The recycling initiative is a recent ‘bolt on’ to this system. The situation dates back to a 1994 contract between the City Council and Veolia, who under it virtually own our municipal waste, as fuel for their incinerator. Efforts to divert waste to reuse, recycling or composting have been marginalised ever since.
We heard about some inspiring examples of community-led recycling in Birmingham, but they remain insecure and small scale, compared to the huge amounts being burned. The Round Table decided that for the future, we need to leave behind the ‘throw-away society’ and have a system that is primarily about salvaging wastes, recovering value, while creating jobs and opportunities for people.
The first step would be removing the smelly food waste and other ‘putrescibles’ from the bin bag. This would remove the food source of the expanding rat population, which caused 60,000 calls to Pest Control in 2008-2010. It can become a source of renewable biogas when digested in plants, such as those which Aston University has designed and obtained EU funding to trial http://www1.aston.ac.uk/ebri
What remains will be not so much rubbish as materials capable of being recycled. Unwanted items such as furniture, clothing, toys and household goods can be repaired then sold by cooperatives, charities or social businesses. The approach is not to dispose of our wastes but to salvage and use them. The new system can be trialled in part of the city, then rolled out when the contract with Veolia expires in 2019.
Further Information and Take Action
The Round Table findings are in the report “What a Waste!” which will soon be available to download from our website www.birminghamfoe.org.uk/waste or ordered at reception in the Warehouse, Allison Street for a donation. Here you can sign the petition to halve Birmingham’s rubbish, or go online at https://birminghamfoe.org.uk/waste and find a link to the campaign to halve Britain’s rubbish.
Chamberlain Forum is at http://www.chamberlainforum.org
Read “Birmingham Waste Strategy 2006-11” via http://www.birmingham.gov.uk