Going for zero

With a new book out about ‘untrashing’ the planet, Paul Connett sits down with Charles Newman to discuss the anti-incineration movement, zero waste and the need for real political leadership


“John Lennon said it best in his song, ‘Beautiful Boy’: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’” This, Paul Connett tells me, helps explain how he found himself at the centre of the US’s anti-incineration and zero waste movements – somewhat to his own surprise. 

Having studied natural sciences at Cambridge and – following an extended interruption to his studies by protesting the Vietnam War and other unexpected life events – completed a PhD with a specialisation in organic chemistry, Connett was expecting to settle into a life of teaching chemistry. But a fateful encounter in 1983 with a librarian at Saint Lawrence University in upstate New York (where he expected said life of teaching to happen) changed all that. The librarian asked him his opinion on incineration and, he says, he reacted as many people do when they first come across the idea: “I said, ‘Well it sounds like a good idea to me. You get rid of all those dreadful leaking landfills, you’ll make energy and I assume it will be tightly monitored – it sounds like a win/win situation.’” In response, the librarian handed him a couple papers by Barry Commoner on the formation of dioxin during incineration, research that pointed his career in an entirely new direction.

“That was a huge shock to me”, he says, adding: “because hitherto I’d only heard of dioxin in the context of a) Agent Orange and b) some industrial accidents like Seveso in Italy. The whole notion that you could make the same substance simply by burning household trash was incredible.” So, Connett began doing his own detailed research in the matter, and opposing the local incinerator, as well as being asked to articulate his scientific concerns to other communities – eventually taking him to nearly every US state and on to 60 countries around the world.  

And perhaps the reason he’s been invited to articulate his concerns about incineration to so many communities is because his concerns are so compelling. While he points out that incineration doesn’t solve the problem of landfill (as you’re still left with a lot of ash), that the amount of energy it actually generates is “pitiful”, and that it encourages the destruction of resources, his biggest concern is with the chemical reactions incineration produces. Unlike other toxins, he explains, dioxins (which are created by the combustion process and can lead to cancer, developmental problems and so on) cannot be made water soluble by the liver to be expelled from the body, instead accumulating in fatty tissues. Connett explains: “A woman who is exposed to dioxins and furans in the air, or in the food that she’s eating in particular, is going to accumulate those dioxins and furans in her fat for 20-25 years. Then, if she has a baby, for nine months she’s going to clear quite a large percentage of those dioxins and furans to the foetus, and that’s when things become horrendous, because the foetus has very little fat at this point… so the effective concentration of these things in the foetus is very, very, very much larger than in adults.” 

Because of their accumulative effect, Connett says, it can take decades for the consequences to start appearing, and he notes: “No risk is acceptable if it is avoidable. No community should have to accept the risks of the emissions from incinerators or the emissions from ash landfills, or the leachate from ash landfills since it is totally unnecessary.”

In addition to speaking on incineration’s potential impacts, Connett also helped form a national group called ‘Work on Waste USA’, a project that involved trying to spread the word across vast distances in the US through a newsletter called ‘Waste Not’ and a series of videos. These, he explains, “first became a chronicling of the problems associated with incinerators and ash landfills, and then more and more began capturing successful alternatives”. 

This progression, from fighting a problem to offering a solution, Connett laments, was often left out of the very successful anti-incineration movement in the US. “I would say our biggest problem is that we didn’t put anything in place. Many, many communities once they’d beat the incinerator went to sleep. It’s understandable because for two or three years it ruined their lives  – people had to drop everything to keep this monster from coming to town and when it was over, they gave a sigh of relief. And what that resulted in more often than not was regional landfills, and again that meant that people didn’t really notice that there were continuing problems.”

The grassroots movement did succeed in stopping the construction of more than 300 incinerators, and since around 1995, hardly any have been built in the US, Connett says, before acknowledging the UK is currently in a parallel situation to where the US was in ’95. Connett, who was born in Sussex and spent half his life in England, notes: “I’ve come back again and again to England, and wherever I can, I’ve tried to help communities stop incinerators, and I’ve had various occasions of meeting government agencies, but they never listen. The government never, ever listens. A couple of years ago it was Defra, and I could not believe that these guys were still determined to keep incineration in the mix at all costs… I don’t know why incineration has such a hold on the bureaucratic mindset.”

Instead of incineration and the Landfill Tax, Connett suggests, the UK should institute a ‘penalty and rebate’ system, whereby you have to pay a penalty for doing ‘the bad things’ that are lowest in the hierarchy (landfill and incineration) and receive a reward for every tonne that is reduced, reused, recycled or composted (along the same lines, he suggests reframing ‘Pay as You Throw’ as ‘Save as You Throw’). He laughs when I point out the UK government currently retains the money from the Landfill Tax, rather than investing it in progressive waste management activities: “You’ve got to have some explanation for stupidity, and there you go.”

There are, however, governments out there that have got it right, Connett thinks, specifically highlighting San Francisco (see Resource72) and Capannori in Tuscany (see Resource73), and Connett’s latest book aims to show how other places can follow in their footsteps. In writingThe Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time(see review on p. 39), he explains: “What I’m looking for are model examples so that in the future, any community in the world can say we live in this particular size village, town, city – where have similar places been able to start the zero waste process, and can we copy them?” 

The book’s most important section, in which Connett sets out a formula for achieving zero waste, is ‘Ten Steps Towards a Zero Waste Community’. The steps are: source-separation; door-to-door collection systems; composting; recycling; reuse and repair; waste reduction initiatives; economic incentives; residual separation and research facilities; better industrial design; and interim landfills, which should all have screening facilities at the front end to control what goes into the ground. Key to achieving zero waste will be getting everyone involved, not just environmentalists or waste experts, because “we want everybody taking a responsibility in this gigantic paradigm shift from the throwaway society to a sustainable society”.

This includes involving industry, which Connett notes was previously left out of most visions of zero waste, as it was seen as a sort of community utopia. But Connett makes ‘industrial responsibility’ the fourth ‘R’ in his vision of zero waste, noting “the community can get 70 per cent, 80 per cent, maybe more, but to get the last 20, you’re going to have to make changes at the industrial level”. (In fact, he suggests, the very reason incineration was ever deemed necessary was because industry was never engaged to produce products that could be properly handled at their end of life: “The attraction of incineration is it gets rid of the residuals, but what you’re really getting rid of is bad industrial design – you’re getting rid of packages that should never have been used in the first place.”)

This article was taken from Issue 74

But some, especially here in the UK, baulk at the suggestion that we’ll be able to get everyone on board with the vision of zero waste, a suggestion Connett finds frustrating: “I’m told this all the time – It’s ‘the people won’t do it’, or ‘our culture won’t do it’, blah, blah, blah – but I can take you to two communities [in Italy] that are three kilometres apart, and one is getting 10 per cent diversion and the other is getting 70 per cent diversion. The culture doesn’t change in three kilometres. What does? Answer: political leadership.

“I believe that the far greater problem is not public participation, but public leadership. We need strong leaders to persevere and know what’s right, pursue it doggedly, and overcome the obstacles. It’s about creativity, you’ve got to make it fun.

“We’re going from a very boring system – incinerators are really boring and bureaucrats who have to administer these things and work for Defra, etc. are really boring people, they’re there to measure the amount of nanoparticles, how much dioxin is coming out of the stack… Now, when we start getting really exciting zero waste programmes, the challenge to bureaucrats is quite different - it’s how do you organise, how do you educate, how do you market things, how do you find markets for some of the materials that you’re separating?”

There are examples out there of places that have successfully been creative and made zero waste fun, with Connett highlighting a reuse park in Gothenburg where bands play, dogs demonstrate how to sort recyclables into different containers, and clowns educate children in the art of recycling. This is a place, he says, where creativity and political leadership – two qualities that don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand – have combined for great success. So, let’s send in the clowns – just not the political sort…