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London's Olympic Park: A model for urbanization, not recycling

The refrigerator dump turned mixed-use community is loaded with green features but lacking in one central area.

It's been a busy two years in London redeveloping the city's 2012 Olympic village into a vast network of commercial and residential space.

For most vistors, it's impressive; what used to be Europe's biggest refrigerator dump houses hundreds of people in affordable homes in an area increasingly rich with biodiversity.

By 2050, around 6 billion of us are expected to live in cities. So in many respects, the former athletes' village paints a picture of how our urban areas could cope with this growing influx in a sustainable way: wide cycle lanes, each apartment insulated to high energy efficiency standards, green roofs to keep the heat in and noise out, electric car charging points in the basement, superfast broadband to make home working possible, underfloor heating, rainwater harvesting that cuts water bills and a district heating system that runs on biomass.

Since I moved to the East Village area seven months ago, I consistently have been amazed by the green spaces and technologies on my doorstep. But while the Olympic Park may look like an idyll in the middle of a major transport hub, it still has failed to tackle a number of environmental problems.

It began a few months ago when some of my neighbors started to ask questions on the East Village Facebook group about recycling. Each flat is equipped with three bins that allow us to separate our rubbish from recycling. But the rubbish collection rooms in the basement do not allow for glass recycling.

Ashamedly, I had not even noticed the absence of specific glass recycling until this point and merrily had been throwing my old wine bottles into the green bins, thinking I was doing my bit for the planet. After some reading in our "East Village handbooks," we came to the surprising conclusion that glass goes into the black bags, where it is taken to the dump and separated out. So somewhat skeptically, my neighbors and I started to throw our bottles into our big black bags, which for even the most reluctant recyclers feels abnormal.

Then last week, the latest recycling figures came out and I started to piece the bits of the puzzle together. They revealed that my council, Newham, has the worst recycling rates in the capital at just 17.65 percent. This was even lower than the previous year, 2012/13, when 21 percent of waste was recycled. As London already has the worst recycling rates in England and England has the worst in the U.K., this puts the Olympic Village's borough firmly at the bottom of the pile.

I began doing some digging around the glass issue, trying to find out if I really am reducing my carbon emissions when I chuck my bottles away in the big black bins. Sadly, I discovered that residents indeed had been misled. In fact, all of Newham's collected rubbish goes to a mechanical biological treatment technology, which uses a combination of mechanical and biological processes to separate and transform the residual waste into several outputs.

Glass is recovered through this process, but usually is contaminated with other waste so it cannot be recycled into another bottle and is instead crushed down into aggregates, used for building materials or roads.

So it is technically reused, but it has minimal environmental benefits. According to WRAP, glass-to-glass recycling saves 314 kilograms of CO2 per ton of glass recycled, and it can continue to be recycled. However, if glass is going into aggregate markets then the CO2 saving is negligible.

The economics of recycling

The problem is that there is no financial incentive for recycling.

Usually, local authority waste management contracts include rewards for recycling which recognize the value of the final resource that is produced — meaning that recycling usually ends up cheaper than other forms of waste management. But in the case of East London Waste Authority, recycling is deemed the more expensive option.

One industry source, already hugely concerned about the area's abysmally low recycling rates, has heard rumors the council was considering removing its recycling services altogether. The council denied that it actively was considering this drastic course of action when I asked, although it did not rule it out as a future option.

"As the local authority that has faced the biggest government funding cuts, and is facing still further significant cuts over the next few years, we are constantly reviewing all services that the council provides to explore whether efficiency savings can be made or other delivery options may provide better value for money," a spokeswoman said. "As part of this officers have explored various options around waste and recycling. There are currently no plans to remove recycling services in Newham. If we were to consider any fundamental change to our cleansing, waste and recycling services at any stage in the future, it would be subject to formal public consultation."

Amid the financial turmoil, improving local recycling rates clearly will remain a major challenge, particularly when enhancing recycling services typically requires upfront investment. It is also a densely populated borough, with high levels of diversity, transience and relative deprivation — factors that tend to result in low recycling rates. In addition, many of the borough's properties are small. There is an increasing number of flats, which often have limited space for waste and recycling storage both inside and outside.

The council argues that it has been working with neighboring boroughs to increase awareness of recycling services and reduce the amount of contaminated recycling. But unless it has the right infrastructure in place and a contract that rewards rather than penalizes recycling, it is difficult to see how the Olympic Park can live up to its claims as a beacon of green living.

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