Kicking up a stink: debating London’s problem with rubbish


A review of our annual debate featuring an expert panel discussing the ‘peak garbage’ threat

Vicky Richardson - writer and curator

Dr George McGavin - BBC presenter of The Secret Life of Landfill: a rubbish history
Biba Dow - Director at Dow Jones Architects - authors of the award- winning strategic report Rubbish In, Resources Out
Hazel Forsyth - Historian at Museum of London, curator of Junk exhibition

An Open City debate hosted at Margaret Howell, W1


Let’s talk rubbish: every year the British bury 12 million tonnes of waste in the ground – landfill, in other words – enough to fill 12 Wembley stadiums to the brim. And every Briton, over a lifetime, will create 30 tonnes of their own rubbish. And every day, across the whole world, we – humanity –  dump 4 million tonnes of waste. Or in the words of Dr George McGavin, the entertaining and fact-filled host of the recent BBC programme, the Secret Life of Landfill, “we’re pretty close to peak garbage”, the dire consequences of which are still to be fully mapped out.

These were some of the fascinating details to emerge from the annual Open City debate at Margaret Howell on Wigmore Street this week which saw a panel of experts discuss this evolving, nightmarish problem, reflecting Margaret’s own passion to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Alongside Dr George McGavin, who provided the facts and figures behind ‘peak garbage’, architect Biba Dow shared her vision for a network of waste processing and recycling centres – community buildings at the heart of neighbourhoods throughout our cities that would upend how we think and relate to our everyday ‘rubbish’. And Museum of London curator Hazel Forsyth provided an overview of London’s historic relationship with trash (for example, London’s oldest surviving map only exists because it was etched on copper that was binned then recycled by Dutch painters who liked the quality of their paint on metal. The resultant paintings themselves, nothing special, have faded and since revealed their original use).

Each speaker made a short presentation with chairwoman Vicky Richardson then posing provocative questions to each of them: can’t we just use technology to mitigate waste problems without having to reduce consumption? (“Technology can help but we need to begin to understand – or reacquaint ourselves with – materials and their properties again”  – Hazel). Aren’t jute bags more ‘polluting’ than plastic bags because of their embodied energy? (“The problem is more that plastic bags don’t biodegrade” – Biba). And why shouldn’t we be able to have access to anything we want, wherever we are? (“Because there’s a finite pool of resources!” – George).

Biba also explained that in London, despite Sadiq Khan’s pledge to 100 per cent waste recycling by 2026 (“Impossible” – George), a major problem remains: each borough has its own approach to waste and recycling, reflecting diverse packaging approaches by manufacturers such as those who insist on using black plastic (to make food look better apparently) but which, as George pointed out, “you can’t recycle.”

Rounding up, following a lively session with audience questions, Vicky asked each speaker to suggest a simple way forward for each of us to usefully influence change in waste culture. “Move away from built-in obsolescence”, said Hazel. “An end to fast fashion”, said George. The funniest – and perhaps the most effective suggestion however was Biba’s: “unpack whatever you’ve bought in the shop and leave the packaging with them!”