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.
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.'