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Scottish Parliament Speech: National Waste Strategy (June 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Forty-five years ago at the University of Edinburgh, I took as a special subject urban life and growth in Victorian Britain - otherwise known as "Geoffrey Best's drains" - so there is little about waste that I do not know, and the fouler, the better. Untreated waste kills.

Glasgow had a good sewage system because the city is inland, and if inland cities did not look to their sewage, it got mixed up in the water supply and people died in various unpleasant ways. Of course, Glasgow has used various abusive terms to refer to Edinburgh, and at the time of the Edinburgh festival in 1947, a Glaswegian voice was heard to declare, "What Edinburgh spends on powdering her nose, she saves by not wiping her bottom." Even in 1966, Edinburgh was still pumping her stuff right out into the Forth. The notion of being killed in a fortnight has a marvellously concentrating effect on people's decisions.

We now face the carbon bill for our own future. Longannet power station produces 15.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year, and we only burn 5 million tonnes of coal a year there and at Cockenzie. Longannet is only 36 per cent efficient. That is just one of the burdens that the younger generation will face. From time to time, that makes me moan and say, "At least I won't be around when they have to face it." That is a rather depressing position in which to start.

The situation is partly our own fault. My local town, Galashiels, is a typical enough post-industrial town. It used to weave tweed and knit sweaters, which meant fulfilled sheep, happy farmers, skilled workers, a rich local culture, and crates of sweaters waiting to leave Gala station bound for aa the airts. Now, we have Tesco, Asda, and Marks and Sparks at one end of the town and, on the site of various tweed mills at the other end, a charnel house of scrapped cars piled in rows three or four high. They are unlikely to move from there because there is no longer a Scottish steel industry to recycle them.

Numerical targets will bring results. The SNP Government has certainly been more proactive than its predecessor was in tightening and meeting waste reduction targets and reducing the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill. That is useful, but we must start with individuals, families and communities. I will give some examples.

First, we should eat what we need and no more. Joanna Blythman of the Sunday Herald, in that great book "Shopped", reckons that we throw away 45 per cent of the food that we buy. There are too many two-for-the-price-of-one offers, which are part of a strategy to extort the maximum spend from the car-borne shopper, and too many just-in-time foods, which are too boring to eat. Bottled water, which was unknown 20 years ago, is now a huge, presumably profitable and utterly useless industry.

When the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee visited Denmark's ministries and power stations - Lewis Macdonald was there - I was struck that we were never invited to use the lifts in the buildings. We were instructed by powerfully built, energetic young scientists who would leap up the stairs two at a time.

My second point is that we should avoid polluting technology. We dispose of batteries all over the place without any notion of where they are going. On the continent, batteries are usually classified as dangerous rubbish and destroyed in special ways.

Thirdly, we have massive amounts of giveaway literature, from the forgettable Metro to all the gorgeous brochures from libraries and universities that drop into our wastebaskets. Waste that is not created does not need to be recycled.

I end with another Scottish city joke, which comes from a German diary. A notice in an Aberdeen hotel bedroom stated: "If there is anything missing, please phone the proprietor and he will show you how you can do without it."

Thank you and good day.

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