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But bag-free benefits far from clear, Bugle discovers

March 16, 2008: Bookham is the latest target in a local campaign to banish plastic bags from shops. The campaign's leader is Zen George, a director of the Leatherhead & District Chamber of Commerce. She wants to persuade local traders and shoppers not to use plastic carrier bags which damage the environment.

George is the latest advocate of the campaign started by BBC film-maker Rebecca Hosking in Modbury, South Devon, in 2006. Modburybecame Britain’s first carrier bag free town in May 2007. Others have followed. The Daily Mail has led a strong anti-bag campaign and, where the Daily Mail leads, the prime minister and his chancellor, Alistair Darling must follow. In his first budget on March 12 the chancellor told shopkeepers they have a year to cull the carrier before he brings in legislation to make them charge for the bags.

But local campaigns have already taken hold even here in Mole Valley. To date, George says on the local Green Mole Forum website, she has had a great response from the residents of Ashtead and Leatherhead and wants to know what Bookham residents think about the project.

The Green Mole Forum websitesays George has spoken to manufacturers of reusable cotton and of cornstarch bags. Cornstarch bags "[are] completely compostable and she is sure the vast majority of you would like to help minimise their impact on the environment. With the support of local residents (consumers), she hopes they can achieve their goal of making Ashtead, Leatherhead, Fetcham and Bookham a carrier bag free zone."

George, who edits the Ashtead & Leatherhead Local magazine, welcomes reactions either to her email address, leatherheadlocal@btinternet.com, or by phone on 01372 376420.

George's campaign has been welcomed by a passionate endorsement on the Ashtead Residents' Association website. Quoting extensively from the Mail on Sunday, the site notes that the campaign has reached Ireland, China, Bangladesh (where bags had blocked flood drainage systems) and Taiwan: "Waitrose tried a two week plastic bag free trial in Saffron Walden in 2007 and was given overwhelming support by 90 per cent of its clients. Within the next year San Francisco will become the first American city to operate a complete ban.

"In this country," continues the site, "we use 17 billion plastic bags a year… Each one of these takes over 500 years to photodegrade whilst slowly leaching toxic chemicals into our ground water and waterways. This is then ingested by farm animals that form part of the food chain, not to mention those marine animals that slowly choke to death when they mistake plastic bags for food.

"Surely," the site concludes, "if China, Taiwan, Ireland and San Francisco can achieve this goal, lowly little Leatherhead, Ashtead, Bookham and Fetcham can do the same and follow Modbury's lead."


Rightly, there is a rising tide of local support for the campaign to banish the plastic bag. The Bugle supports the campaign and hopes passionately that Bookham's shoppers and shopkeepers take it to heart, but not because it will much difference to climate change. It won't.

It might even make things worse. There is a distinct risk that any success in banishing carriers will be a distraction, giving lazy politicians and ne'er-do-well officials an excuse to tick the 'environment' box without doing any of the simple but potentially unpopular things that will make a difference.

The production, use and disposal of all plastics, not just shopping bags, is a complicated issue. It also covers the food packaging round the products that we put in the bags and to the allegedly 'green' alternatives to both bags and packaging. So complicated, in fact, that they tie even respected national commentators in knots.

Let's start with production. According to Charles Arthur writing in The Guardian newspaper , the bags are "made from naphtha, a byproduct of oil refining for which no other use has been found. If nobody makes plastic bags any more, it'll get burnt off - generating more carbon dioxide. Well done, Gordon [Brown], and Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail! You've boosted climate change!"

Arthur has got this completely wrong. Local chartered chemical engineer Derek Smith BSc, CEng, MIChemE, did refinery work with Burmah Castrol (now part of BP), and worked at ICI's Teesside petrochemicals business. A keen green, he is a founding member of the new Green Mole Forum and gives climate change talks under the name Mole Valley Climate Change Awareness.

Naphtha, a product of oil refining, has two big uses, says Smith: "It is either converted to petrol… or is [broken] into lighter components including ethylene and propylene – the building blocks to make plastics and a range of other petrochemicals" – not just plastic bags.

"No-one in their right mind would simply 'burn off' such a valuable material," says Smith.

What's the alternative to plastic bags?
The real problem with getting rid of the normal 'permanent' bags, however, arises from the non-permanent alternatives on offer. One alternative is the reusable bag – the one you take with you to the supermarket made of either thicker plastic or cotton. The cotton industry isn't totally environmentally friendly, but it's by far better for the environment or more practical than the remaining alternatives.

One of these is the recyclable bag, which can be reclaimed, ground up and used again in other plastic products. The benefit is to use the recycled plastic instead of more oil. Another is bags made of a group of materials that can't be recycled but change their characteristics over time. These are 'compostable', 'biodegradable', 'photo-degrade' or 'degradable'.

Photodegrade plastics shrink when acted on by light. But they stay as plastics.

Degradable plastics covers other material that breaks up over time, eventually forming tiny pieces which stay as plastics and add nothing to the soil. They are a pollutant.

That leaves us with 'compostable' and 'biodegradable' plastics. As George points out, compostable alternatives to polymers are made from corn starch, though they can also come from potatoes or other crops. These compete for space with food crops, just as biofuels do. But at least they are reusable and decompose to a toxin-free humus.

Biodegradable bags degrade when acted on by bacteria or fungi. If the conditions aren't perfect they will take years to degrade. Even when they do, they may leave toxins behind.

Risks from mixing different plastics

Both compostable and biodegradable materials carry risks. The Bugle spoke to Richard Jones, managing director of Nelson Packaging in Lancashire.

Nelson makes 250 million plastic shopping bags every year for Dixons and other chains. Jones says this is two per cent of total UK consumption, which he puts at 12 billion bags a year. It's still too many but it''s somewhat fewer than the number claimed in the above quote from the Daily Mail.

Jones says Tesco and other retailers have abandoned the use of biodegradable bags because EU legislation says the bags must be recyclable but they can't be recycled with other plastic bags. "Biodegradability," says Jones, "is not the answer."

David Tyson, chief executive of the Packaging and Industrial Film Association (PIFA) explains. He tells the Bugle that the oil-based polymers the packaging industry has used until now can be cleaned and re-used.

But if you mix those polymers with the new generation of 'bio-films' and 'degradable', 'biodegradable' or 'compostable' plastics in a recycling facility, says Tyson, "there's a limit to what you can use that recycled material for."

For example, if compostable or biodegradable plastic gets into the plastic used to make damp-proof courses in buildings, the damp courses will develop holes at those points.

So if degradable plastics of any kind gets into household waste, the local council or whoever collects the waste has to introduce strictly controlled processes for separating the non-permanent from the permanent bags. That will cost money.

Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) is in no doubt. She told the Bugle that, though there is a proliferation of oil, non-oil and hybrid packaging available, it's better for the environment not to complicate the waste stream any further. "It's difficult enough," said Bickerstaffe, "to get people to segregate simple waste as it is."

What do you think?
The Bugle's support for the campaign is based solely on plastic's unsightliness, the danger it poses to wildlife, and the cost of clearing it up.

But we also have to accept that introducing non-standard plastics into bags carries dangers. One is that the producers of plastic bags and other products will wash their hands of all recycled plastic and stick to products made from oil. At least they know what it is and where it came from. With recycled plastics, they can't be sure.

Another risk is that, once plastic carrier bags disappear from the high street, consumers will congratulate themselves on a job well done and think they've saved the planet. If we want to rid the world of litter there are dozens of things we can all do to before we get rid of the bags.

One is to reduce our children's consumption of snack foods and the waste its packaging causes. Most of the plastic waste you encounter on a walk from Bookham village to Effingham, for example, is not carrier bags but water bottles, and sweet and crisp wrappers. All plastic products – good and bad, take huge amounts of energy to produce. That, says Smith, is because steam cracking is a high temperature process that uses a lot of heat – and that's the link with global warming.

Visible though they are, plastic bags account for a tiny fraction of the plastic waste we buy and throw away. Banishing plastic bags is good but it's not enough.

We could also discourage the sale of toy helium baloons. This is not just because if you let one go it has to come down somewhere. No matter how deep you go into Ranmore Common or elsewhere on the North Downs these days, it doesn't take long before you see a brightly coloured balloon glinting from a tree.

It's because we're running short of helium, whose main use, it turns out, is in MRI medical scanners .

If Councillors and officials were serious about global heating they would drive emissions down by, for example, enforcing speed limits, or cracking down on shopkeepers who waste energy by leaving their doors open all year round. Large shopping chains like heated open doorways because they think it encourages people into their shops. The campaign against open doors is is growing too and may even be the next big push after the war on carriers.

Even that issue, however, is is not straightforward. The Red Cross charity shop in Dorking, for example, keeps the doors open to give easier access to the disabled. As Incpen's Jane Bickerstaffe puts it, as soon as you get one environmental benefit, "another issue pops up somewhere else."

More detail on the different types of plastics here.

What do you think? Tell the editor.

Surrey U-turn on Randalls Road incinerator

June 12, 2006: Surrey County Council (SCC) has withdrawn proposals to build an energy-recovery incinerator at Randalls Road, Leatherhead.
Councillor David Munro, Surrey County Council's (SCC's) executive member for the environment, told April's annual meeting of the Bookham Residents' Association (BRA) that the SCC list of energy recovery from waste sites included Randalls Road. But when the county published its revised waste plan, earlier this month, Randalls Road had been dropped. Slyfield, near Guildford, is also absent from the list of 'thermal treatment' (incinerator) sites, though it is still a proposed waste treatment site.
The proposed incinerator at the Clockhouse Brickworks at Capel, a particularly hot local political potato, is still at the top of the list SCC will now submit to the secretary of state for approval. The other proposed sites are:
[] Charlton Lane, Shepperton
[] Heather Farm, Woking
[] Martyrs Lane, Woking
[] Land adjacent to Trumps Farm, Longcross
[] Land at former airfield, Wisley.
Heather Farm is new to the list (see below).
Munro said the consultation on the plan had attracted 8,000 reponses.

The original plan can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

October 2007: This report has been superseded by later events. See this local newspaper report.
JOE AND MARJORIE HAVE a weekly routine. By Saturday afternoon, say the Dorking-area couple, the crowds are down and prices at their supermarket are at rock bottom. They load up the car and head home. After a cup of tea they make room in the freezer for their new booty - by emptying most of last week's bargains straight into the bin.
Joe and Marjorie are fictional. Their shopping habits are not.
Mole Valley (MVDC) waste and recycling manager, Steve Strickland, says each MV house produces 1.2 tonnes of waste a year. That's the equivalent of filling your back garden between two and three foot deep in waste and bottles.
One third of all this is 'putrescent' - rottable - food and garden waste. But when Strickland and his department analysed what householders throw out they were shocked to find how much of it is raw, unopened, food and packaging. The Green Party quotes research that on average we all throw away one-third of the food we buy.

Encouraging record
Mole Valley's recent waste record is encouraging. Over a quarter of all MVDC's waste is recycled, 40 per cent up on a year ago. Next year, Strickland hopes, it will be double last year's amount. MVDC aims is to recycle 60 per cent of its waste by 2025.
Two thirds now goes to landfill. A year ago it was four fifths. Though only 3.5 per cent of waste is composted, says Strickland, that compares with a mere 2.8 per cent a year ago.
But the 'Joe and Marjorie' problem isn't improving as fast as some of the other measures. Putrescibles are a big part of the waste burden, says Strickland, but 'they are not reducing very much, so that's one of the big targets.'
Climate change is one of Strickland's biggest worries. If rottable waste is put into landfill, says Strickland, it turns to methane, which is 30 times as potent a cause of global warming as CO2. In other words, 'It does 30 times as much damage as putting it in a bucket and burning it.'
But Strickland may even be understating his case. Some authorities say methane has over 60 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2 in its first 20 years, though its GWP declines as the methane turns to CO2 and water.

London waste threatens Surrey
Mole Valley's waste experience is reflected across Surrey and beyond. Councillor David Munro, Surrey County Council's (SCC's) executive member for the environment, told April's annual meeting of the Bookham Residents' Association (BRA) that SCC has to dispose of 600,000 tonnes of household waste a year. Three quarters of it goes to landfill, mainly in Albury: 'It's ruining a nice part of Surrey,' he noted.
The best way to deal with waste, Munro told the meeting, was not to create it in the first place, and there are signs of success. The amount of waste created has increased by three per cent a year 'for donkey's years. This year we have broken that historical trend. The waste is not reducing, but it's flattening out.'
MVDC's waste too is growing at two to three per cent a year, says Strickland: 'If we keep that flat we can manage with the facilities that we have at the moment.'
But there is more to do. Denmark and other European countries recycle 60 per cent of their waste, says Monro, 'so we can double our 25 per cent rate.
'We want Surrey to be self-sufficient,' he says, and warns of dire consequences if it isn't: 'Surrey wants to deal with its own waste, Hampshire wants to deal with its own waste and so does Sussex.'
Currently, says Munro, 75 per cent of Surrey's waste goes to landfill. The authority has to raise the level of recycling to the point where the county can recycle or heat treat all its own waste without exporting any elsewhere. Otherwise, he warns, London will be entitled to export its waste to Surrey.
'London has a problem, because there's not enough room. And if we arent self sufficient, if we export our waste outside Surrey, that opens the floodgates to London's waste coming here.'
The alternatives to landfill are reduction, recycling, and incineration, which Surrey prefers to call 'energy recovery', 'thermal treatment', or 'heat treatment'. Surrey is investing heavily in recycling. At Randalls Road, Leatherhead, the county is already building a large materials recycling facility (MRF), the first of a number.
Munro told the BRA meeting Surrey proposed to increase the size of the Randalls Road site by about an acre (0.4 ha) to build a better road on and off the site: 'There will be more staff and more-friendly staff,' he adds. The site would eventually process 40,000 tonnes of waste a year.
Then, turning to energy recovery, he told Bookham residents, 'We have ambitious plans for Randalls Road [and] I'm impatient for something happening on that.'
But as reported at the top of this page, by the time earlier this month that Surrey had drawn up the latest version of the Surrey Waste Plan, which deals with the potential siting of waste facilities and which it will submit to the secretary of state, Randalls Road had been dropped from the list of thermal treatment sites.

The Randalls Road decision merely moves the problem somewhere else. As noted above, Heather Farm, Woking, has now been added t0 the list of thermal-treatement sites.
The reason is that even if Surrey becomes world class at recycling and waste minimisation, Munro insists, that leaves 300,000 tonnes to deal with. And, for Surrey, the way to deal with it is incineration.
Munro told the BRA meeting Surrey needed at least two heat-treatment sites, one in the north and one in the south of the county. Even that may not be enough: 'We'll need to build three or more if we can't raise the rate of recycling,' he said.
Surrey had identified four other possible incinerator sites: at Charlton Lane, Shepperton; Martyrs Lane, Woking; Trumps Farm, Longcross; and Wisley airfield. 'The thinking is not to put a site in a particular location,' said Munro, 'but we are at an early stage of asking people whether some sites should be in the frame or not.'
Munro set out his thinking in a recent letter to the Surrey Advertiser (April 18): 'After considerable research and comparison of options, Surrey County Council has concluded that energy from waste plants are the most financially viable, environmentally sound and safe way of disposing of [whatever is left after minimisation and recycling].
'Energy from waste plants are not old style incinerators, but modern, clean facilities that strip toxins from waste before converting it into energy to power homes. Modern plants exceed stringent controls and are subject to high standards of regulation by the national Environment Agency.
'As well as being safe, efficient and cost-effective, the energy from waste facilities proposed for Surrey would create enough energy to power 17,000 homes every year. This is an increasingly popular technology, used successfully and without any harmful effects in areas such as Hampshire, Warwickshire, London and across Europe.'
At April's BRA meeting Munro repeated that treatment centres 'have got to be properly controlled and properly monitored but, once you do that, they are safe.' The chimney isn't needed, he claimed - it's just one of the regulations. Hampshire uses energy from waste (EfW) plants to dispose of some of its 900,000 tonnes of waste a year, half as much again as Surrey: 'They have three of these [EfW plants],' says Munro, 'and they have had no problems.'

The case against
Not everyone is so sanguine. A trained engineer, for example, would immediately zoom in on Munro's assertions about the need for EfW plants to be 'properly controlled and properly monitored'. For the most part, they are. But there have been any number of examples in recent years of plants that, because of human error or for some other reason, have spun out of control. Bhopal, Flixborough and Chernobyl were all supposed to be highly controlled plants. It is only because, by a miracle, no one was killed at this year's Buncefield, Herts, fuel depot that the incident has been so quickly forgotten.
In some ways waste-treatment or EfW sites offer a more insidious hazard. Without independent off-site monitoring, if the plant malfunctions for any reason it may produce dangerous emissions which are hazardous to those around but don't carry any high-profile PR fallout for its owners.
There are alternatives - in fact a bewildering number of types of waste-treatment plant. The available technologies are listed at this section of the Surrey County Council website.
Even EfW plants are available in several flavours. In the case of Heather Farm (above), an SCC spokesman told the Bugle that Surrey had to add it to the list: 'It's not an SCC-preferred site, but Woking Borough Council have already announced an ambition to build a Pyrolisis plant there.' Pyrolisis is slightly lower-temperature energy from waste (EfW) which captures gas rather than creating electrical energy.
But some protesters argue that we don't need thermal-treatment plants at all. The Guildford Anti-Incineration Network (Gain) says the best approach is biological rather than thermal waste treatment.
At Capel, where the proposed building of an incinerator was responsible for the Liberal Democrats' only Mole Valley gain from the Conservatives in last month's local elections, residents have fought a long campaign against the proposal. The Capel Action Group (CAG) argues with Munro's assertion that nothing is emitted from incinerator chimneys. One campaigner, Sophia Robb, wrote recently that a scientist advising SCC 'confirmed [that] dioxins were emitted from the chimney and went on to confirm that the chimney was indeed necessary.'
Meanwhile, Surrey residents have only two more weeks to respond to its Joint Municipal Waste Strategy (JMWS). Where the Surrey Waste Local Plan deals with the potential siting of waste facilities, the JMWS document prooses a constitutes a 20-year plan for the future of waste management in the County to 2026. The document is at the 'further information' link below this article.
In February 2007 there will be an independent public examination where the plan will be tested for 'soundness'. If it passes that test, the plan will be adopted in the autumn of 2007.
So perhaps the most encouraging initiative in all this is one which aims to stop the waste where it starts. The 'It's About Time roadshow will visit local supermarkets to challenge residents to make waste minimisation pledges. The focus of events at supermarkets and shopping centres this month and next, says SCC, is on 'shopping smart'. That means using reusable shopping bags and buying loose rather than pre-packed fruit and vegetables. Experts will be on hand to advise on other waste-bashing tactics - rechargeable batteries, composting organic waste, and signing up to the mailing preference service to reduce the amount of unwanted 'junk' mail we receive and, inevitably, throw away.
The roadshow, which visits Sainsbury's in Dorking this this Thursday and Friday, 'will encourage and inform all residents how they can cut down on the amount of waste that they generate in the first place.'

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