Toxic Shock

The Government’s official position is that we should pour our hazardous waste down the drain.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, sometime in 1995

This month, parliament will be discussing a set of new laws governing the recycling of packaging. Devised in closed meetings with manufacturers, whose minutes the government refuses to disclose, the regulations will be the minumum possible response to the European Directive on Packaging Waste; a fraction of the effort made by most European countries.

But at least the government has responded, which is more than can be said for its approach to a less visible but even more menacing problem than our packaging mountain: the deadly chemicals – or “hazardous household waste” – dumped by people like you and me. However lightly we might try to tread the earth, there is absolutely nothing we can do with them.

Last week I phoned my county council about three innocuous-looking household products. I had quarter of a pint of white spirit, a dead fluorescent bulb, and two defunct rechargable NiCad batteries. I wanted the council’s “Toxic Taxi” service to come to the rescue.

The council told me to pour the white spirit down the drain, put the lightbulb on the dump and, as it had no idea what to do with them, ring the Department of Trade and Industry about the batteries. I rang the DTI, which told me to throw them in the bin. I pointed out that a quarter pint of white spirit is enough to pollute several hundred gallons of water, until it evaporates and gathers in explosive pockets in the sewers; that the bulb contains mercury and that there’s a picture of a crossed-out wheelie bin on the batteries: cadmium poisons everything.

I was told not to worry too much: such small quantities would be “diluted and dispersed”. But surely, I reasoned, if everyone does the same, the poisons will certainly be dispersed, but won’t be very dilute? Indeed, Friends of the Earth calculates that 1300 tonnes of cadmium – a minor Armageddon – could be released in Britain between 1995 and 1999, through the dumping of “eco-friendly” batteries alone.

The council agreed, but said there was nothing it could do. Picking up such tiny loads would be prohibitively expensive for the Toxic Taxi, and there was no statutory obligation to deal with them. European law insists that NiCad batteries be collected and disposed of separately, but the British government has decided that a voluntary code will suffice. New regulations issued by the government in August classify only asbestos as “special” household waste.
This means that I am neither obliged, nor will be helped, to dispose of my white spirit and fluorescent bulbs separately. Even if I were refurbishing a superstore, and had hundreds of strip lights to get rid of, I would find it much cheaper to pay £7 a tonne in landfill tax than to get them taken away and recycled.

There is, in other words, neither a municipal nor a market solution for this waste. Manufacturers, able to set their own standards, have no interest in reclaiming the tiny quantity of solvents or heavy metals each of their products contains. Local authorities can’t afford to do the job for them.

Instead, the government relies on “co-disposal”: mixing toxic waste with other refuse in landfill sites. As a result, heavy metals threaten to contaminate the groundwater all over Britain. The government argues that further regulation would be uncompetitive, and therefore unpopular. Yet a survey by the consultancy Save Waste And Prosper found people stacking up half-empty bottles of weedkiller, paint and oil cans in their garages and garden sheds, rather than allow them to be released into the environment.

Two months ago, the German government responded to its own householders’ concerns, with an act requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for everything they produce, throughout its life cycle. Already, German companies are designing electronic goods which can be easily repaired, upgraded, re-used or recycled, rather than simply dumped when they become obsolete. Yet again, Britain will discover a new trade deficit when the Commission finally forces us to comply with its directives.

Without leadership, all we have left to cling to is a few voluntary schemes and the goodwill of a handful of progressive manufacturers. B&Q is trying to reduce the volatile organic compounds in its paint by 30 per cent. In ten places in Britain, community groups collect paint from householders, sort it out and give it to charities. Some councils are persuading car drivers not to tip their waste oil down the road drain but to take it to a garage for recycling: drivers, though not garages, have responded well.

But these wastes are the easiest ones to handle. Most of the poisons we dump will only disappear with the kind of help which comes from legislation. In the meantime, I won’t be buying any new rechargeable batteries – however environmentally-friendly they purport to be – until there’s somewhere to put the old ones.