I N T R O D U C T I O N   

by the authors, Tony Northwood and David Oakley-Hill of Luton Friends of the Earth
(Tony is now only an occasional consultant to the project.  David is Editor of The WasteBook)

Until the late sixties, few were prepared to question some widely held assumptions about the relationship between humans and the natural world.  It was thought that the Earth’s abundant resources needed to be ‘developed’ quickly to create prosperity and higher living standards through the production of more goods and services.  Nature was considered robust - no human activity could have significant effect.  The land masses, oceans and atmosphere were free ‘sinks’ for the toxic by-products and unwanted junk of the advanced consumer society.  Technology was king and could handle any short term problems. 

But for those uneasy with a culture based on consumption, waste and pollution, the messages from a growing number of dissenters began to ring true.  As scientific evidence emerged that the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity might be approaching, the language of environmentalists passed into that of governments, building a new political orthodoxy around the doctrine of ‘sustainability’ - or not leaving the planet a worse place for your children.

In much of the developed world there have been attempts to hold back some of the worst causes of pollution, to  conserve finite resources, and to become more efficient in use of energy.  But to many looking beyond the five year political cycle, most actions by the west, who are the greatest users of the world's resources, have so far been too little, too late, with much talk but little action.  While some may regard the need for reform as a low priority which interferes with their economic progress, the evidence of serious problems  brought on by climate change, or 'the greenhouse effect', is overwhelming.  It will probably take a succession of world disasters, some natural, some man-made, to achieve the major switch in world understanding needed to quell the appetite for fossil fuels, arms sales, which destroy not only people but their environment, and the destruction of much of the world’s old-growth forests, leading to the extinction of many species of wildlife, despite the best efforts of a few dedicated conservation organisations.

The 'throwaway' waste culture, which seems to be a by-product of economic development, also persists in its many and varied forms.  Since its effects are not immediately apparent, it is not generally perceived as a sign of ecological doom.  But not all wastes are innocuous, and the scale of disposal is likely to lead to a shortage of landfill space in the South East of England within ten years.  Quite apart from avoidable disposal costs, this represents a squandering of resources and worthwhile jobs.  Waste avoidance, re-use and recycling are almost always more labour-intensive and energy-saving than extracting and processing raw materials, often from areas of irreplaceable wildlife habitat or with poor conditions for workers.  Although a few of the jobs are associated with capital intensive new technologies, most are of an easily learned nature, and are on a human scale, not requiring a doctorate in quantum physics.  Many can be in self-employment, or carried out part-time as small businesses requiring little more than basic transport and modest premises.

More effective waste management is therefore vital, particularly a move away from disposal towards reducing the quantities created, reuse, and reclaiming value as materials or energy from those remaining.  Reform in rich countries would be helped by a change in social attitudes, and activities more radical than just saving newspapers, cans and bottles, and more than the thoughtful few re-using carrier bags.  It is vital that we buy less in the first place, that wasteful packaging and transport practices disappear, and that we try to buy local food to reduce 'food miles'. Intensive systems are more wasteful, as well as damaging to our soil and harmful to our health and environment, so we should buy more healthy organic food to encourage more to be grown.  It may take changes in law to achieve this - the Irish tax on carrier bags has been a runaway success in reducing waste.

Legislation, and modest economic incentives such as recycling credits and landfill tax, have a beneficial ‘trickle-down’ effect through society and may become more important in future years.  A shift from taxing employment to waste and pollution might also prove productive.  We need to tap into and encourage use of the expanding network of organisations providing new uses and outlets for various wastes and unwanted goods, more processing plants to recycle a range of materials, more products with recycled content (more readily available), and sources of advice and assistance.  But there is a missing ingredient - a more widespread understanding of the problems and solutions.


The WASTEBOOK has been commissioned to help remedy this deficiency.  It aims to avoid jargon, and provide a practical, user-friendly guide to resources, mainly for businesses and organisations examining their present practices, seeking to make better use of their wastes and unwanted goods, and wanting to find what or who is out there that could help.

The format (see Contents pages) makes it easy to home in on a particular type of waste problem, and is intended to encourage dippers and browsers.  Part 1 (Sections 10-90) focus mainly on those recycling specific materials.  In Part 2, it is hoped that Section 300 - 390 (Recycled Content Products) will be particularly stimulating - recycled materials must be used to make the process worthwhile!  The fascinating and often inspiring activities listed under Section 400 - 470 provide an overview of some of the wider ‘sustainability’ issues, less obviously related to recycling.

What areas do we cover?  

THE WASTEBOOK did begin as a book, listing 300 organisations offering some recycling services in Bedfordshire, carried out by the authors for Bedfordshire County Council and Bedfordshire Green Business Network in 1995.  With help from the Environment Agency, the website was launched in 1998, focusing on the Northern Home Counties: Beds, Berks, Bucks, Essex, Herts, and Oxfordshire, a total region with a population of at least 6 million, and Greater London.  For some time we have been progressively expanding the geographical area to cover the whole of South East England, and now work mainly within a line from Norfolk west to Berkshire then south to Hampshire.  Those outside these areas may increasingly find us a useful reference source, as we also carry considerable information about organisations operating nationally, often with head offices outside this area; we also feature unusual examples of good practice in reducing, reusing or recycling 'waste' from anywhere in the UK.  

Responses have been overwhelmingly favourable - Michael Meacher suggests that we should attempt to expand to cover all regions of the UK.  Maybe later!  Suggestions for funding while remaining impartial and progressive are welcomed.  The publishers welcome comment on the content of the site, suggestions for improvement, and updated information.  Please email us at info@wastebook.org or doh@boltblue.com .
(Updated Jan 2005)