December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the amount of waste in landfill. Tom Bragg takes a look at the ethical reasons for waste reduction ...


Urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the amount of waste in landfill. Tom Bragg takes a look at the ethical reasons for waste reduction.

A hundred years ago, when resources were scarce, it was costly to replace essentials like clothes or furniture. Broken items would be stripped for parts, and only when there were no other uses for the constituent materials would they be discarded. But since the second half of the 20th century, consumer products have become so cheap that there is now no incentive to reuse materials when an item needs replacing.

During this long-running consumption boom, did anyone question whether it was right to pull resources from the ground, turn them into cheap goods, then guiltlessly discard and forget about them? No – the economic benefits of shelving the problem meant that such questions were ignored and saved for another day. Now, landfill in the UK is filling up fast, with some estimating there will be no space left as early as 2016.

In response, the Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wants to move towards a ‘zero waste’ society over the coming years. Their plans have reduced the percentage of household waste going into landfill from 90% in 2000 to 60% in 2011. The water industry now treats 66% of sewage sludge by anaerobic digestion, which helped generate 1 TWh of electricity in 2010. The reasons for this ongoing clean-up are the numerous economic and environmental problems associated with landfill usage, but there is also an important moral imperative to stop this uncontrolled natural resource exploitation.

In the 17th century, the ethicist Benedict Spinoza equated a life of virtue with a life lived in accordance with our rational nature. In line with Spinoza therefore, if it is moral for us to pile waste into landfill, it must also be rational. Let’s use the production of a simple plastic chair to discuss whether or not we’re behaving rationally and therefore virtuously. To produce the plastic chair from unused material, a barrel of oil is first drawn from the seabed up a long pipe and transported to shore in a tanker. It then undergoes processing before being transported to a subsidiary company, where more processing is carried out. Eventually, the end manufacturer shapes the plastic into a chair, screws on four metallic legs and sells it to a furniture store. The whole procedure is an amazing feat of ingenuity.

When the chair is no longer needed, one option is to throw it into landfill, while another is to unscrew the legs and reprocess the plastic seat and metal legs. Obtaining plastic this second way is clearly much simpler than the first, because there is no need to extract oil from the seabed, and it involves far less processing and transportation. The majority of plastic chair-making companies, however, do it the first way. Why? You’ll be told it’s because systems are already in place for the oil-extraction method, which makes it cheaper, despite requiring more effort. But if we have created a plastic chair-making system through the complex oil-extraction process, we must be able to create another system, using the simpler recycling method. On an industrial scale, this process would require even less money and effort than it does now. The real reason we’re reluctant to embrace a recycled plastics industry is that reusing material doesn’t prove to ourselves our own ingenuity. By the rules that drive the economy, this reluctance isn’t rational and therefore, according to Spinoza, isn’t moral.

Another source for moral guidance on this issue comes from the 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill. His theory of utilitarianism said that it is moral to act in a way that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number. An economist will tell you that extracting natural resources to produce every new product will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number because it produces cheap objects, which drives the economy, thus making everyone richer.

But like a number of contemporary considerations, this fails to account for the next generation. In our short-sightedness we might deplete all available resources – an especially poignant argument against landfilling rare earth metals used in the production of electronics. Also, contaminants from landfill pollute surface water, groundwater and soil, thus causing problems for future generations. Finally, there is no logical link between natural resource extraction and economic activity; no one is going to stop buying chairs if oil pumping from refineries is stopped; chairs will still sell if they are made from recycled plastic.

Governments can easily create a system where it’s cheaper to manufacture goods from recycled plastic by taxing goods made from non-recycled plastic. But they don’t because of this unmoving wedge in the mind that says the objects around us must be imbued with ingenuity. Their position is as immoral as the economist’s recourse to a utilitarian argument to defend excessive natural resource extraction. The greatest happiness will come from efficiently using resources and minimising waste. This is even more obvious when the utilitarian argument is coupled with Anscombe’s Consequentialist theory from the mid-20th century, which argues that the consequences of a person’s actions are the ultimate moral judge.

Drawing on the theories of Spinoza, Mill and Anscombe, we can see that there is a moral argument for reducing waste. The UK government is responding to some degree, for instance by increasing the tax on landfill deposits by £8 per year from £56 per tonne of rubbish in 2011/12, to £80 in 2014/15, however, little is being done at the manufacturing stage. Why are so many products still on the shelves, like disposable nappies, that are made from composite materials that can’t be recycled? Why is it still cheaper to buy products made from extracted materials than from recycled materials? The government is dragging its heels in taking the problem to the manufacturers’ doors and not providing enough support for either new materials research or the young recycling industry. The ethical wisdom of Mill might help manufacturers recognize that: “Everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.”