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Never mind the millennium - it's time to focus on waste disposal

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While the hum of self-congratulatory Millennium madness hovers over exhibits devoted to such esoteric matters as 'the development of civilisation, culture and technology', it is easy to forget that humanity's more pressing problems will still need solutions, even after 1 January 2000. Waste disposal, for example.

This is a subject that has been smothered by propaganda about recycling for years, despite the fact that there is a mountain of evidence to show that it doesn't work. Not that you would know that in England. We don't want to know about downbeat stuff like that. We want to know about the great triumphs of civilisation, culture and technology. Fortunately, not all countries are in the grip of such millennial boosterism. I spent last week touring high-tech industries in the Bay Area of San Francisco. There, the Millennium has long since shrunk to the status of a date on a calendar, while the problems created by the failure of recycling loom larger with each passing day.

In the United States, recycling has been treated as good news ever since the first heart-warming pictures of suburban moms motoring to recycling centres in their 350-hp station wagons appeared in the 1970s. It reached its epiphany in 1990, when the Coca Cola company announced that it would henceforth use recycled plastic in its soft-drink bottles. This promise of 'closed-loop' recycling was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm that preceded the dismal failure of the giant London Ferris wheel - but it ended in more or less the same way, with the company quietly abandoning the programme and all the surrounding publicity suddenly vanishing away. Then it turned out that despite binding legislative commitments in some states (notably California and New York), requiring at least 50 per cent of municipal solid waste to be recycled by the end of 2000, nowhere had the figure ever exceeded 30 per cent. As a result, cities and counties in states with 50 per cent mandates now face a 'Trash2k' rather than a 'y2k' problem as the millennium dawns. They will either have to achieve hitherto-unachievable rates of waste recovery, or be required by law to operate recycling programmes that generate products worth less than the cost of reclaiming them.

The seriousness of this situation is difficult to exaggerate for, once accepted, it begins to unravel the entire technicolour dream-coat of popular thinking about waste disposal. For example, it lets the cat out of the bag about waste-disposal companies that make more money compacting municipal waste and trucking it to landfill than they could ever hope to make by separating and recycling it.

At heart the waste-disposal business is about value. As Americans see it, recycling doesn't make much sense when it involves spending $10 to make an $2 product. Successful recycling comes from reprocessing high- value waste like aluminium beverage cans, which are presently worth about $33 a tonne in the United States and consequently attain retrieval rates of 80 to 90 per cent. The five million tonnes of plastic bottles found in the waste stream sell for only $6 a tonne and only a negligible quantity is recycled.

Could sufficient value be added to such items as glass bottles or polyethylene terephthalate (pet) containers by designing them to facilitate a secondary use somewhere in the construction process? That's a question that has exercised some minds ever since the creation of the 1960 Heineken 'World Bottle'. This was a glass beverage container designed to be used as a brick for housebuilding after its contents had been consumed.

Wouldn't it be nice to think that somewhere in the millennium's celebration of the 'development of civilisation, culture and technology' there was room for something as down-to-earth as this?

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