More Waste Please

Catherine Alexander

Certain normative statements about environmental problems and how to address them have become pretty well accepted. We might call them environmental principles or ethical dicta. Briefly, they are that a) primary resource use and CO2 generation is excessive (we therefore ought to cut resource use), and b) too much waste is produced (we therefore ought to deal with waste). Slightly shifting register, a third truism is that energy needs are growing. We therefore need more energy but without compromising on resource and CO2 reduction. These principles are often summoned by states, the EU and corporates alike, to support what might be called a globalized ethics of the anthropocene. This paper interrogates what happens in Britain when these principles are conjoined in an apparently win-win solution: green energy. In what appears to be a virtuous circle, enabled by technologies ancient and modern, waste disappears – converted into energy. Closer examination shows a murkier picture. Several sociotechnical devices are required to effect green energy on a medium/large scale. Even so, technological, social, policy, financial and geographical constraints impede conversion and use. What appears is first, that the picture of green energy is often as incomplete as that of other energy sources. Choices have to be made between these environmental ethical dicta. Second, by emphasizing green energy and ‘disappearing’ waste into energy feedstock … one logical entailment is that we are heading towards a waste economy where more waste is needed to fuel energy needs. But all based on impeccable ethical principles.