Making waste matter

A man smiling and looking towards the camera

Making waste matter

Could Bristol become a zero waste city? Ben Moss, one of the founders of Bristol Wood Recycling Project thinks it can.

“I’ve worked in ‘waste’ for 13 years and it was always ‘waste’. Recently it’s turned into ‘resources’. So instead of being this thing we just chuck away, there’s now an additional value to it.”

“I see waste as the shadow of our consumption and a thing we don’t often look at”

Ben Moss, who is also Chair of Bristol Re-use Network, is pleased that attitudes are changing. Yet, he says, we need to return to thinking of our waste as a verb, rather than a noun – that waste is essentially something we’re causing, rather than an intrinsic part of production.

Ben recently completed an MA in Economics for Transition at Schumacher College and his dissertation focussed on transforming our relationship with waste. In particular he studied how community projects in Bristol are transforming that relationship. He learned that in the pre-industrial era “waste had almost an implied moral level. You avoided waste of materials, a waste of labour, of energy. All this stuff was finite.”

“After the second world war, something happened where that narrative of waste being present as a functional thing disappeared and waste was just intrinsic.. it’s a means to an end. You want to do something, it means there’s waste.”

Yet he points out that it’s not helpful to call it moral, implying that our behaviour is good or bad. “We are habitualised into doing things. When we throw something in the bin, that’s just because it’s what we’ve always done. There’s not necessarily a moral code behind it.”

Throw it away…Where is ‘away’ anyway?

Ben has seen growth in the environmental movement in Bristol, among young people and the activists who work with waste. Yet this is now a matter of urgency. We’re currently consuming 1.6 planets worth of resources.

Our economy is based on consumption, leading to Bristol Waste’s collection of a massive 140,000 tonnes of waste and recycling a year. What interests Ben is where this stuff comes from. “I see waste as the shadow of our consumption and a thing we don’t often look at.”

“We use it for a bit, it breaks so we throw it away. It becomes obsolete for whatever reason and we throw it away. But where is away? In this globalised world, there is no such thing as ‘away’.”

Everything is food

“There’s a lot of conversation about the Circular Economy in Bristol and other progressive cities in the world.” This is the idea that we keep resources in use for as long as possible, mainly through repair, reuse and remanufacture, as well as recycling.

“We need to cycle things perpetually. The Circular Economy comes back to this idea that there is no such thing as waste. Waste is food within a system. Within nature there is no such thing as waste, everything is food. Everything feeds back in.”

Plus every time we manufacturer or combust resources, we’re adding to the carbon in the atmosphere: “Sometimes it’s seen as a sustainable power and energy when we burn our waste. But that’s just nonsense because we’re just burning our precious resources.”

Aided by funding from Bristol’s year as European Green Capital, the Bristol Re-use Network set up a pilot project from January to June 2016 at the Household Waste Recycling Centre on Days Road. There Ben and others met the public and collected whatever reusable resources they could get their hands on, and passed it onto the social enterprises who are now part of the network.

“We would ask the general public as they drove in, as they were unloading their car ‘have you got anything reusable in there?’ There’s this experience at the recycling centre, or at the backdoor, of putting things in your bin where you just don’t know where the stuff goes.”

You loved me once, let someone else love me again

Other than financial capital, there’s also much social capital to be gained from these resources. For Ben, it’s again down to changing our attitude. Can this resource be repaired? Could someone else benefit from it? “Just because you’re done with it, doesn’t mean someone else is.”

By thinking in this way, we improve our community as well as the environment. This “connects us to our city and makes us realise that we’re able to help others too” he says.

What can you do?

“Be good recyclers – wash your tins and your bottles. Make life easier for the people who are collecting it so that it can be recycled more easily.”

A little bit of forward-planning goes a long way. Ben always keeps a metal tin with him, and if he has leftovers from the night before or from a lunch out, they’ll go into the tin. It’s about being mindful of the packaging we’re using all the time.

The plastic bag tax introduced in 2015 is a good example of disrupting habits in the UK. In the first month of the tax being introduced, Tesco reported a 78 per cent drop in single-use carrier bags from its stores in England. Ben acknowledges how this has made people think “at long last” about taking a bag shopping with them.

Ben also thinks we owe it ourselves as consumers to tell retailers that the way they are packaging things isn’t acceptable. Ask questions like “can you make these products out of things that are biodegradable?” and remind retailers that much packaging made from mixed materials is just not recyclable.

“There’s a common misconception among the public that recycling makes money. It doesn’t” says Ben. “Recycling is a cost-effective way of dealing with our waste because land-fill disposals come so high now – the cost of incineration plants is high” – not to mention the environmental costs.

In the end, Ben sees this as a collective issue and that we all need to do our bit in being more aware of what happens to our waste. “This is our city and it’s our problem.”

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