Just 25 miles from the ivory towers of Cambridge University, a pile of 5,000 refrigerators, double stacked, gleams white in the springtime sun. Like sugar cubes spilled from a bowl, the fridges cover almost an acre of land.
"Fridge mountains" are sprouting up around the country, affronting the British sensibilities and reinforcing the gulf that sets this island nation apart from continental Europe.
A recent European Union regulation requires that compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), believed to damage earth's ozone layer, be removed from the insulating foam in walls and doors of discarded refrigerators. But Britain has yet to acquire a single piece of equipment to do it.
With the used appliances stacking up, Kay Twitchen, chair of Britain's Local Government Association's waste committee, foresees a "nightmare for local councils and an expensive one to boot. One in 10 British families throw out a fridge or freezer a year," she says, "which should mean we'll end up with up to 2.4 million fridges on our hands by the end of 2002."
The cast-offs highlight Britain's dismal record on recycling. In all, Britain recycles only around a tenth of its household waste, leaving it low on the list among first-world nations, below most of the other European Union member states, according to figures compiled by Friends of the Earth, an environmental group. By comparison, the Swiss recycle over a half of their household waste, while Americans manage to recycle just under a third of theirs.
With the new CFC regulation, the small-scale fridge recycling that was done has been put on ice.
Before January, when the regulation took effect, John Blake recycled old fridges for the second-hand market and export to the third world. Now they're accumulating in the field near Cambridge.
"I used to export up to 25,000 fridges a year, particularly to Africa, where they're needed to store medicine," Mr. Blake says.
He finds it depressing to now store, for future destruction, what he once recycled. "Anything in your house you don't want, surely it should go to someone who needs it."
Most of Blake's fridges come from Cambridgeshire County Council. According to Lewis Herbert, the council's waste manager, more than 2,000 fridges and freezers were thrown out in Cambridgeshire in January alone. And he's expecting the numbers to rise as more and more of Britain's appliance retailers abandon their long-established policy of picking up customers' old fridges when they deliver new ones.
Cambridgeshire council is making plans to open another fridge park, as John Blake's is expected to be filled before the year is out. The new European Union regulation should, according to Lewis Herbert's calculations, cost the council around $1.4 million by the end of the year, including the cost of hauling off the appliances, eventually recycling the CFCs, and then disposing of them.
Ms. Twitchen says local councils will need a total of at least $90 million to deal with the old fridges. "So far, the government's only promised us £6 million [$8.4 million], which we've yet to see a penny of."
Michael Meacher, the British minister responsible for recycling, blames the refrigerator debacle on the European Commission, which he says didn't inform him about the CFC regulation until last summer, only a few months before its introduction. "The incompetence has nothing to do with the UK government," he told the House of Commons. "It is entirely the responsibility of the commission." The commission, not unsurprisingly, described his claim as "entirely unfounded."
Twichen blames the British government.
"We should have seen this coming," she says. "Other European governments were aware of this long before we were and managed to make all the necessary provisions."
Though Britain got a late start, there are prospects for chipping away at the "fridge mountains." A German company is currently seeking permission to run a mobile fridge-recycling plant in the south of England, while the first two permanent plants are due to be in operation by the summer. These are expected to be able to deal with only about a quarter of Britain's fridge recycling needs. Meanwhile, local councils are seeking tenders from private companies to provide recycling.
Karine Pellaumail, of Friends of the Earth, believes that "Britain's fridge mountain represents only a small part of its failure to recycle enough of its waste.
Removing CFCs from fridges is important," she says, "but equally important is increasing the amount of household waste recycled as a whole."
And with the EU setting tough new targets for recycling and reducing the use of landfill sites for waste disposal, environmental campaigners say Britain very much needs to improve its recycling record if it wants to avoid further embarrassments like "fridge mountains."