Nearly 175 years ago, Charles Dickens ‘invented’ the modern holiday of Christmas through A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miser to the embodiment of festive generosity. The story has been credited with cementing in place many of the traditions we continue to observe to this day, including holding a family feast of seasonal food and drink.
Over the past two centuries, though, some might say that Yuletide generosity has got out of hand. Dickens’ Tiny Tim would surely be appalled at how much the holiday has become a celebration of overconsumption in which, each year, the UK throws out 4.2 million Christmas dinners, along with plenty of packaging, wrapping paper and unwanted presents.
A good time to reflect
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol established Christmas as a time of reflection and redemption, with Scrooge being shown the error of his ways by several helpful ghosts. With that in mind, let’s reflect on the year (and a few ‘ghosts’ from the past, more of which in a moment).
Over the course of 2016, English households produced 22.8 million tonnes of waste, more than half of which was sent to landfill or incineration, despite the fact that much more than half was recyclable. Our analysis shows that, if the government had put ambitious policies in place to reach 65 per cent recycling, we could have prevented 4.6 million tonnes from going to waste last year. Wales already has this target (it hit 64 per cent recycling this year) and the EU’s forthcoming Circular Economy Package is likely to set a similar target.
Like Scrooge, the government now recognises it must change its ways and has promised a transformation. While the redemption won’t be as instantaneous as Scrooge’s, it will happen over the next year, when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will produce a renewed strategy on resources and waste. This will be the first dedicated strategy for England since 2007.
Our latest report for the Circular Economy Task Force, A new direction for UK resource strategy after Brexit, sets out what this strategy should do. But as it’s Christmas, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what the ghosts of decades past can tell us so that, in writing the next chapter on resource use in England, the pitfalls of the past can be prevented.
Haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
The flaws in the UK’s approach to waste and its impacts has been recognised for decades. Take, for instance, the 1998 inquiry into sustainable waste management by the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs:
“Central government has lacked the commitment, and local government the resources, to put a sustainable waste management strategy into practice… The continuing lack of information in government about waste is extraordinary: it would appear to be common sense that one first identifies the nature and scale of the problem before attempting to sort it out. The production of accurate statistics on waste arising… must be a government priority.”
Or this from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report into Defra’s 2007 Waste Strategy:
“Every year some 330 million tonnes of waste are produced in the UK at huge economic and environmental cost…Defra’s waste strategy focuses disproportionately on domestic waste, which contributes less than 10 per cent of all waste while omitting firm targets for the commercial and industrial sectors which produce around a quarter of all waste. Defra must rectify this urgently, plugging the data gap by utilising information routinely collected to enable progress to be monitored.”
Both of these critiques could have been written yesterday. Progress on recycling – let alone waste minimisation, which would be far preferable – has completely stalled in England, as local authorities seem to have fewer and fewer resources to put sustainable resource management in place. The economic and environmental cost of waste lamented in 2007 is still a burden on today’s economy. And the data gap on commercial and industrial waste hasn’t been addressed, making any progress on around 85 per cent of the UK’s waste impossible to measure or manage.
The chance of a happy ending
The climax of A Christmas Carol builds to a crescendo in which Scrooge sees the misery that awaits him if he doesn’t change his ways and, at the moment of realisation, he pleads with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to allow him to alter the course of his story: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
For too long, the country’s course has foreshadowed a wasteful end. Defra’s 2018 strategy is the perfect opportunity to change that for good.