Today we are more aware than ever of the importance of preserving our environment. We want to make sure that we use the Earth’s resources in a sustainable way.
We need to control the impact of pollution on our environment wherever it comes from. This might be from industrial or commercial activity in business or agriculture. In the developed countries households also produce a lot of waste and rubbish. These days another major source of pollution comes from electronic goods, called E-Waste, and one of the most difficult types of waste to prevent is littering.
So what can we do? We can take steps to prevent generating waste in the first place and also think of ways to clean up the waste as carefully as possible when this is not possible.
There is a well-developed modern system of recycling in many places now, and some people have even managed to find a way to re-use waste material to turn into raw material to make something new and useful. There is even an idea to try to live and design things we use so that there is no waste at all, or at least very little at the end, this idea is called Zero Waste.
Even with the best of plans there is usually something at the end that is just waste and nothing else, and there is a lot of debate about which is a better way of disposing of this – to use landfill or to burn it in an incinerator.
And finally, we need to think about how we generate energy for our daily lives, is it a good idea to keep on using coal and oil? They create a lot of pollution and they will run out eventually. We are now looking at what sort of renewable energy sources could we use instead, ones that will be kinder to the environment.
What do you think is the best way to achieve sustainable living? How do we best protect the environment we live in?
Protecting the Environment – Should the Polluter Pay?
On these pages you will find a selection of resources and information about pollution and the stops taken to deal with it. The EU is very involved in creating rules and standards about protecting the environment and you will find more about that here as well as links to useful webpages, many of them on the EU websites.
The Polluter Pays Principle
This is the basic principal that whoever makes the mess should be responsible for paying the cost of the clean up.
The EU has a lot of influence on rules and policies about the Environment. There is a dedicated part of the EU Commission called DG Environment and there is also the European Environmental Agency.
In Copenhagen beehives on the rooftops provide a safe home for bees which then roam the city collecting pollen to make honey.
Industrial waste has been of one of the most difficult to deal with but these days standards are higher than in the past so most of the worst problems have been solved.
Industry and manufacturing, factories and extracting natural resources all create – sometimes literally – mountains of waste. Finding ways to enable the important business of making things to use and to sell while protecting the environment for the long term has been difficult. These days most modern countries have such high standards the citizens hardly ever have to worry about the worst kinds of environmental damage. Unfortunately many countries in the developing world are still catching up, but their citizens are generally aware of the risks and want high standards as well.
End of Life Vehicles (ELV)
When cars are no longer road-worthy they must be disposed of and this can be difficult and expensive. As well as metals and tyres, there can also be some toxic materials.
As well as metal in the frames and engine parts there are also other materiels which are potentially an environmental hazard – these include lead, mercury, cadmium, anti-freeze and oil. The metal is recycled, the plastics recycled, incinerated or landfilled.
The EU has passed Directive 2000/53/EC on End-of-Life Vehicles outlining how the waste materials should be disposed of.
Key types of agricultural waste are from animals and farming materials. Livestock add to greenhouse gases and ‘nutrient run-off’ is a risk to water.
Waste from the processing of ore is called ‘Tailings’. These waste materials can contain the remains of chemicals used in the process and these can be hazardous. The huge volumes of waste including topsoil and waste rock also cause problems.
See here for a link to the Eionet – an EU website with lots of information about different categories of waste and ways of managing it.
One of the main sources of waste material comes form commercial activity – that is shops and small businesses.
In shops a lot of packaging is used. Goods are delivered in crates and boxes which have to be disposed of. Then whatever the shop is selling is usually wrapped in something. If it is a supermarket then a lot of the food will be individually wrapped on the shelves. All of this in the end has to be disposed of.
Some of the packaging is made of recycleable materials, but not all of it.
Plastic and glass bottles can be recycled. In the ‘old days’ children would collect old milk bottles and bring them back to the shop or dairy to get a penny. There have been suggestions that this idea should be brought back.
Building of houses, offices roads and so on creates a lot of debris and rubbish, Much if it hard to dispose of. Often the first stage to building something is to demolish what is there already – immediatly creating a heap of waste and rubble.
In older buildings in particular there can be toxic materials – asbestos was causing problems for a long time. Now there are very few building that still have any.
Land clearance is another source of debris as old fallen trees, rocks and clay are shifted to make way for something new.
This is waste from electrical and electronic equipment, and includes computers & Mobile phones, TVs as well as general household and business items such as fridges, washing machines, electric toothbrushes and factory machines.
When it is time to dispose of these they must not be thrown into the general waste but kept seperate. Batteries also have to be disposed of carefully because of the acid inside them.
The WEEE Directive has been in force since 2004, Along with the Restriction on the use of Hazardous Substances, this sets out the rules about the recycling of electrical and electronic waste.
Currently a revision of the directive is being proposed. This would include rules that manufacturers will have to take back electrical and electronic goods and dispose of them safely. The intention is that this should encourage manufacturers to include the needs of disposal and recycling in the design of their goods.
DIRECTIVE 2002/96/EC waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).
Household waste – What types of waste does a home produce?
Junk mail, newspapers, post – every household has a lot of paper waste. However, it one of the easiest to collect for recycling.
One of the biggest sources of household waste comes from wrappings on shop bought food stuffs and similar. In particluar food trays and polystyrine. This can be hard to avoid due to busy modern lifestyles and the requirements of the retailers.
One of the most problematic wastes in the home is left over and unused food, in particular raw and cooked meat or cheese. Anything that doesn’t compost but instead will rot and maybe attract vermin or produce unwanted insect life. Cutrrently most of this goes to landfill – it is even difficult to incinerate.
There is a ‘green’ option – it is a worm farm. A special type of worm is kept in a particular kind of barrell and ‘fed’ the food waste, over time they convert it to very useful compost.
The plant waste from gardens and cooking can be disposed of on a compost heap. In fact it is now quite popular with lots of classes on how to make a compost heap.
The modern use of disposable nappies has brought with it a specific problem of disposal. The old fashioned method use flannel squares which were washed out afterwards and resued. These days there are some biodegradable nappies availalable.
Disposing of Household Waste
The way most households dispose of the waste they create is by putting it in a bag or bin to be collected by a waste collection service. Some times this is provided by a local council other times by a private company. Either way, there are usually charges to be paid. It can be hard to make an arrangement that everyone agrees to.
Bin-bags are one option; the householder buys a tag and attaches it to the bag of rubbish to be disposed of.
Another commmon means is to use Wheely Bins – these are designed to be collected by specially equiped trucks. Usually there is more than one wheely-bin so that the waste can be segregated – that is, seperated into different types and then collected seperately for diferent kinds of final disposal.
In recent years there have been protests by householders against paying the costs of waste collection. At the same time due in particular to higher standards the costs of waste disposal or waste management is getting higher.
These are provided for householders to deliver their own waste to designated centres. Usually they are equipped to take the more awkward or unusual waste materials. In general they are designed to encourage recycling and safe disposal of dangerous materials.
Another idea suggests that tax should relect the use of the environment or damage to it – either the taxes are levied to pay for repairing damage or to try to force pople to reduce waste. The taxes are linked to the degree of environmental impact – so for example there will be ‘Carbon Taxes’ on petrol and a tax on Plastic Supermarket Bags.
Rubbish in our towns and countryside
Plastic shopping bags on hedgerows and fly tipping have become a modern problem.
Rubbish and Litter.
General littering in streets of towns and cities has become a major problem, while many country areas are also blighted by illegal dumping or drifting waste material blown around by the wind. Not only does this degrade the quality of life for anyone living with the mess but it can also pose a health hazard for people and wildlife alike.
Plastic Shopping Bags
Plastic shopping bags became a major concern in recent years. It was not uncommon to see hedgerows festooned with a few bits of half torn plastic every few metres. In streets and urban parks the bags were caught in trees and corners.
There were dangers to wildlife and livstock if they ate the plastic, and was regarded as a problem for tourism as well as it spoiled the view.
This is common problem, but some countries have introduced a tax on plastic bags, which encourages people to bring a reuseable shopping bag when they go shopping. Where this has been introduced it has been very successful.
One place that is held up as an example of this idea working well is Ireland.
Fly Tipping and Illegal Dumping
A similar problem is fly tipping or illegal dumping of rubbish and bags of waste, often discarded by roadsides, empty ground and sometimes remote beauty spots.
Often this is just a waste collection service offering an extra cheap deal, sometimes it is done by individuals, and occasionally it is the result of criminal activity. A particular problem is using illegal dumping to get rid of toxic or medical waste, or of confidential paperwork which can end up blowing about in the breeze.
Recycling has become one of the most important ways in which we reduce waste and protect the environment.
There are a variety of possible recycling solutions being used.18 Commercial waste
Reconditioning and Refurbishment
Sometimes a product that is past its useful life in one place is still useful in another. A good example of this is the reuse of computers and mobile phones. Often this kind of reconditioning is undertaken by charities.
Old computers are collected and reconditioned to be used in schools in the developing world.
Up-cycling as recycling
Vintage fashion and up-styling have become very popular. Old clothes are worn as a matter of choice, those who use these will say it gives them the chance to wear something unusual. And of course it is a very efficient use of resources! Another trend is to take a garment that is past its best and to modify it – maybe add embroidery or applique – to make something new.
There is also quite a fashion trend in taking old furniture that is a bit battered and doing it up, often with fancy designer finishes. Other designers use ‘found objects’ to make new and exciting objects.
European Commission categories
The various types of waste for recycling have been identified and a comprehensive list drawn up by the European Commission.
See here for more information about recycling – the EIONET website
Aiming for Zero Waste and Sustainability
The idea of Zero Waste is to organise production of goods in such a way that when they are no longer in use they are easy to dispose of, and that this disposal will result in ‘zero waste’ or no waste materials at all.
The same idea would apply to production methods which would also aim to result in no waste. This would be achieved by a combination of better design, reusing and recycling and any final remaining waste material being a resource in its own right – composting being a good example. In theory nothing ever goes to waste!
This is also part of Sustainable Living or ‘Sustainability’ – see below for information about the EU approach and for a video on cardboard furniture designed to result in Zero Waste.
Design goods with recycling in mind
An important part of this idea is to start right at the beginning of product design and to make sure that every part of the object can be easily disposed of at its end-of-life or recycled.
Sometimes this is achieved ny using all recyclable materials. When it isn’t possible to do this, the item is designed so that it is easy to dispose of, for example, it might break up into easily identifiable materials to aid reclaiming valuable resources for reuse. A good example would be if a complex piece of machinery with a lot of components could be easily disassembled before disposal into ‘material types’ – plastic, metal, oil for example – so the requirements of efficient and safe disposal would be thought about right at the beginning of the design and production process.
New Zealand is one of the trend setters for this approach, aiming for Zero Waste is part of their government policy. See here.
The internationally accepted definition is this:
“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”
The EU – Sustainable Development
In the EU the same general ideas are to be found under Sustainable Development and Resource Efficiency plans. The aim is make best use of the resources we have and to organise our activities in such a way that there is plenty left for future generations. This is also regarded as something that we are responsible for as individuals. It is not enough just for governments to have rules, there also needs to be a general understanding and involvment by everyone for it to be successful.
The glue, that is made for gluing the sheets together, is made from cornflour and does not affect the recycling process. The cardboard might seem fragile but can carry an enormous amount of kilos because of the folded structure. If the cardboard gets wet, you can just dry it with a piece of cloth.
Waste material as resource
Much of the material that ends up being discarded can be used again if the useful parts are seperated out or the items can be broken down into the material they are made of, which then becomes a new raw material for a new product. See below for Video.
Old Car Tyres can be recycled into crumb rubber for use in paving.
The rubber in old tyres is a petro-chemical product. If it is burned it will produce dark smoke and a lot of carbon emissions, in a landfill it can take decades to break down. However, as raw material is it quite useful, it can be broken down by an industrial process and useful ‘crumb rubber’ produced. This is then used in industry, in particular to produce rubberised paving slabs.
Reclaiming valuable raw material
Rare metals can be extracted by stripping old WEEE, such as computers or mobile phones.
China & India import ‘rubbish’ from the West
Could landfills be a treasure trove in the future? What might be buried there from decades ago? Right now huge quantities of waste are exported to China and India where it is sorted and useful materials reclaimed.
Old unwearable clothes and waste fabric
The materials and fibers in old clothes and textiles are still useful, even if it is a garment that can no longer be worn. The textile is broken down to its constituent material and this is then reconstituted to something new. (Look at clothing labels, if it says ‘wool’ it may well be recycled – only first use wool can have the label ‘Pure New Wool’). See the video below to see this recycling in action.
This video shows old fabric being recycled into a raw material which is then made inot a new useful product – in this case insulating material – also environmentaly friendly!
One method for disposing of waste is landfill. In recent years it has fallen out of favour as a solution as there were many problems. However sometimes it is still necessary to landfill some waste items that are hard to dispose of any other way. But these days there are much higher standards and new ways of managing the waste materials.
In the past all sorts of rubbish was dumped together in huge pits and mounds and over the years these created seepage of undesirable liquids into ground water and also sometimes gas which could ignite under the pressure of the general weight of the waste materials. Sometimes these could even lead to explosions and landslides within the dump!
Frequently there were bad aromas coming from them, and the dumps – which were often open to the air – attracted vermin. There were problems of birds eating materials from the dump which could be fatal.
Other problems included a lot of traffic to and from the landfills as trucks delivered waste, often with some of it being blown off the trucks along the way adding to litter problems along the routes.
These days the standards are much higher. A modern landfill is managed very carefully with rubbish covered over as quickly as possible and tests made to check if there are odors and then to take steps to stop them.
Energy Generation form Landfill Gases
Landfills, especially older ones, can produce gas as a side effect of all the waste materials rotting down. In modern landfills some of this is siphoned off and burned in electricity generators; generally this energy is then used on site, helping to make the landfill more self sufficient.
Birds of prey used to control birds and vermin
Probably the most spectacular and creative solution to many of the earlier problems of landfill is the use of birds of prey to keep down vermin and to chase away birds from the dump. Many breeds are used including hawks and owls.
At present incineration is one of the main options for waste disposal. It has the advantage that it diverts waste from landfill, problem waste material is reduced to ash, and in some types of incinerator the burning of the waste can be used to produce energy.
Some countries are more advanced in their incineration policies – see here for a website about the Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, Austria
Emissions and scrubbers
There has been some concern that incinerators will produce toxic emissions. one solution to the risk of emissions is to fit a device onto the chimney to filter out any harmful materials. These are called scrubbers.
Incinerators as a Resource
Ash can be compacted and used as building material. Some incinerators can be used to produce steam and make electricity.
One of the main concerns raised about the building of incineration plants it that they are very expensive to build and to run, and to be commercially viable they need a lot of waste materials to ‘feed it’ – otherwise it will not be sustainable.
The concern is that as more people recycle and reduce waste there will not be enough for the incinerators to use. Then, it is argued, they will start to import waste from outside. So, this could result in a country importing waste!!
Some of the issues are the same as for landfill. There can be problems caused by rubbish trucks delivering the waste, potentially causing traffic or litter problems. There have been complaints about bad odors in some places as well.
The biggest concern is often about safety – in particular concern about emissions and whether these are safe.
Alternatives to carbon based fuels are being invented and tested. Some new sources of energy production are already in use. These sources of new fuels must also be produced in a sustainable way. Some older ideas are being reconsidered. The EU has decided that 10% of all fuel used will be from renewable sources by 2020.
One of the oldest renewable energy sources is the use of hydroelectric energy generation. This uses water to turn turbines which make the electricity and has been in use since 1888 in the US. There have been some controversies with this too however for example when valleys have been flooded to create the water reservoirs required.
Modern windmills with turbines are also being used to generate energy. This has some critics. Even though wind is free and renewable, it can be hard to find locations that have enough constant wind to make the wind farms really efficient. There have also been reports about noise pollution being a problem, with the whirr of the blades and turbines being heard by people living nearby, and in some cases even quiet a long way off.
This is constantly under development as better and more efficient solar energy cells are being invented. Some solar panels are designed for the rooftops of domestic houses, others are used in big numbers where there is a lot of sunlight to generate energy. There have been problems using these in places where there is a lot of cloud. There are plans to set up solar energy farms in the Sahara to supply Europe with energy.
After falling into some disrepute there has been a recent re-evaluation of the usefulness of nuclear power. There are ongoing concerns about safety and radioactive waste disposal. However nuclear power generation does not produce large quantities of Green House Gasses like power plants that use fossil fuels.
Other Green Energy
ther kinds of climate friendly energy sources are also in use. Countries that have a lot of volcanic activity are using geothermal energy production, while research continues into the use of waves to generate power. Most recently bio-fuels have been introduced. Originally these were to be made from plants grown on marginal land – or land not good enough for agriculture. But because of good prices some good quality land has been used for this purpose instead of for food production which can then lead to food shortages.
There are many sources of Green House Gasses. Of particular concern is CO2 produced when fossil fuels are burned – wood or coal for example. Further emissions come from the activity of farming and agriculture, for example rearing livestock adds to methane production.
One method being used to reduce the amount of harmful gasses being produced by industry is to a have a licence for controlling how much GHG an industry can produce. This is called ‘emissions trading’ or a ‘Carbon Trading licence’. In effect it is a quota system.
The ozone layer is part of the earth’s atmosphere and keeps out harmful radiation. Some years ago it was discovered that it was thinning in some parts. There was a global response to this problem called the Montreal Protocol. This banned CFCs – the chemicals blamed for the damage to the ozone layer – being used in industry, in particular in refrigeration. The ban was successful and the ozone layer is repairing itself.
One of the main sources of harmful emissions is transport. In an effort to either reduce use or pay for the environmental cost there are now many taxes on fuel and transport – known as Green Taxes. Also cars have catalytic converters and unleaded petrol is generally available.
There is encouragement to use non fossil fuels for transport. This includes the use of hydrogen fuel-cells and bio-fuel as well as introducing public re-charging points for electric cars.
One response is to cycle. Many cities now have cycle lanes and even free bicycles for the public to use.
One method to reduce the amount to CO2 getting into the atmosphere is to use technology to ‘capture’ the CO2 as it is produced and then store this in unused salt caverns or spent gas fields.
Another means of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere is through growing and maintaining forests. These act as ‘Carbon sinks’ by absorbing the CO2. This is what makes the large forests of Eastern Europe, Africa and the Amazon so important. Some industries plant trees or buy forests to balance out the emissions they generate. This is called ‘carbon offset’.
See here for a link to images on the Europa Website about the environment – you may need to root around a bit.
Rules and regulations
There are many rules and regulations to protect the environment against pollution. Many of these come form the EU.
Rules and Regulations to protect the environment against pollution
Both governments and the EU make laws and regulations to protect people and the environment from pollution. Many of these are made by DG Environment.
The Polluter Pays Principle is the idea that whoever causes the pollution should be responsible for the costs involved in disposing of it.
One of the most important of these is a law about how to dispose of waste material and in particular how and when to use a landfill. This is called the Landfill Directive. It is very detailed and aims to reduce the amount of waste materials that just get dumped.
Other important laws are the Directive on the Incineration of Waste, Weee Directive, and the REACH Directive (see below).
The Landfill Directive
This law takes the form of a Directive – that is a rule made by the EU Commission. It is very detailed and aims to reduce the amount of waste materials that end up in the dump.
the Landfill Directive 99/31/EC came into force in 2001.