London can show world how green cities work

Written by: Dr Liz Goodwin | Published:
Dr Liz Goodwin, chair of the London Waste and Recycling Board

Our capital is far from perfect when it comes to recycling, waste prevention and sustainability, but the Mayor’s green ambitions are both laudable and realistic – and if achieved would make us an exemplar for other cities to follow, says Dr Liz Goodwin, chair of the London Waste and Recycling Board

Recycling rates in England are shuddering into reverse, councils are reporting increased levels of contamination, and littering of fast-food packaging has increased by 20% in one year. What is to be done? Clearly we need some real strategic leadership and we need to find ways of re-engaging the public.

This last year has been turbulent and we face some huge challenges – both globally and locally, in our cities, towns and villages – including a growing population (particularly in cities),
a larger-than-ever elderly population, climate change, volatile materials prices and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on a global scale.

There isn’t a city or country in the world that doesn’t face resource issues such as water imbalances (sometimes scarcity; sometimes flooding) along with pressure on land for housing and food. London faces its own challenges including air pollution, turnover in population and the impact of the capital’s huge daytime swell of visitors and tourists.

I have always tried to turn challenges into opportunities. London is in a prime position to work out solutions to complex city challenges and test ideas for others to use around the world. We also have the opportunity of a relatively new Mayor who has set out some great ambitions for the city, including:

* A recycling rate of 65% by 2030

* Transitioning to a circular city, creating jobs and benefiting London’s economy

* Putting London on course to become a zero carbon city by 2050.

I firmly believe that these ambitions are not political – there are few people who could argue with them. It is always best to tackle globally relevant issues from an apolitical standpoint, as it allows everyone to get behind them in a real movement for change.

Against this backdrop, I have recently taken over as chair of LWARB. It is a great time to try new ideas and make London the world-leading city I know it can be. Last week, LWARB published its latest plan, which included some of our thinking about how to address some critical issues.

First, we must reinvigorate recycling. At best it’s stalled across England and figures in London have declined slightly in the past couple of years. We have to turn this around and will be looking specifically at flats – how do we make it easy for people to recycle in flats? How do we ensure new flats are built with recycling in mind? What do we do about existing buildings? We can’t expect people to get behind recycling if it’s a hassle which gets in the way of their lives.

We also need to re-engage people, and help more of us recycle more of the right things, more of the time. This is challenging in London with its high turnover of residents and growth in temporary visitors through innovative platforms such as Airbnb.

There are real concerns about the impact such transience has on recycling – visitors and short-term residents often don’t have the information or motivation to recycle when away from home or in a short lease – but I’m certain we can solve problems like this by refocusing on getting communications right.

Harmonisation is also vital. Years of experience show it will help improve recycling rates – it creates an easy to understand norm which can be communicated clearly and effectively. While there may not be a single universal solution, I am convinced there can be just a few models based on different housing types – all of which should include access to a separate weekly food waste collection. It won’t be easy, but we can make it happen.

One of my passions is tackling food waste. It’s a disgrace that so much food is wasted when we understand the energy, water and land that went into its production and there are people around the world who don’t have enough to eat.

London has a thriving food and hospitality sector, so we should be able to make a real difference through our combined efforts.

A more circular economy will make us more resilient in the face of declining resources, create jobs and build more sustainable businesses. London is increasingly seen as a leader in this field, developing a route map to accelerate its transition and creating pilots and partnerships with businesses to test and deliver innovative ways of being more resource-efficient.

A big theme running through all of this is collaboration. I believe you get the best results through partnership, creating robust, successful solutions which take different perspectives into account. LWARB is well placed to facilitate those partnerships.

At times the world seems very uncertain, but that shouldn’t stop us from working together to tackle issues head-on and change things for the better. I want London to be a leader in resource efficiency, acting as a beacon for other cities and a catalyst for global change.

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