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Mark Hatwood FRSA set up the CoBRA scheme to recycle batteries and Low Energy light bulbs. Despite its success, he hopes for a day when industry and government action on creating a more sustainable economy will make the scheme redundant.

Unlike many of the North European countries, the UK moved early to introduce low energy light bulbs, which save 80% of the energy of incandescent bulbs. Given that 25% of this country’s energy use is in lighting, this equates to a possible 20% saving in UK energy use. So far so good.

But this year alone it is estimated that in the UK 150,000,000 low energy light bulbs will reach landfill. Each low energy light bulb contains about 4mgs of mercury, which, depending on your research source, can pollute anything from 5,000 – 10,000 gallons of water if it gets onto the water table.

So why have we have failed to put procedures in place at that first stage to deal with the product’s end-of-life? And why is that the UK government is only now beginning to think about what can be done to deal with this potential environmental disaster?

After living in Germany for twelve years, it seemed insane to me that on returning to England to live, I had to make a 50 mile round trip (and ferry journey) to recycle my batteries at the ‘local’ civic amenity site. So, I decided to find a way to ‘plug the hole’ that led us to only recycle 2% of the 45,000 tonnes of batteries we use in the UK as opposed to Germany’s 60% recycling rate.

I got permission to do this after overcoming stringent ‘hazardous waste movement license’ rules; despite the fact that only 1% of batteries in the UK are truly considered ‘hazardous’. Before long the media began reporting my village activities and people from all over Cornwall started contacting me to ask if I could help them do the same in their village.

In the last four years, the CoBRA Scheme has grown to be a UK concern with hundreds of volunteers having helped recycle over 50 tonnes of ‘hazardous’ waste with two schemes in place (first batteries and secondly, with the help of an RSA Catalyst grant, low energy light bulbs). The scheme has won six national awards and is working in partnership with two of the biggest waste compliants in the UK.

Fantastic, you may say; using volunteers makes this an incredibly environmentally sound way of getting waste out of hard to reach places efficiently by utilising trips already being made.

But CoBRA should not need to exist.  It is my intention that in the long-term, part of the funds gained from the scheme’s profits will go into supporting and lobbying for a more circular and sustainable economy. The future does look brighter but given that at the moment I can’t even pay myself a wage, this may take some time… but light is on the horizon due to a deal pending which could see over 10,000 new community locations almost overnight.

As highlighted by Dame Ellen MacArthur and Stef Kranendijk, Chief Executive at Desso, at an excellent event at the RSA, the world is not making any more elements. As our need for technology expands, so does our need for those metals used for manufacture goods; even if we forget for a moment the environmental impact of dropping them into a hole in the ground. Apparently we have now considered mining our own landfill sites because of the metals and minerals they contain; an insane waste of energy, which could have been avoided if sustainability had been factored in earlier.

But for now CoBRA does exist and its volunteers will continue to do its bit, while this country (and the rest of the world) wakes up to the fact that there needs to be a more circular approach built in to all economic decisions in future.

Stef Kranendijk understood the connection between needing back the elements he used to create his carpets, and there are plenty more examples. Industry needs to join the dots: if not for environmental or financial reasons, for enlightened self-interest.

As Dame Ellen MacArthur discovered on landing back on terra firma after her 2005 world record solo circumnavigation of the globe, "[at sea] the nearest fuel station is 2,500 miles away. Yet when you sail around the world, you can step off at the finish and refuel. And never had I made that connection with our life on land; because we can’t get off and refuel and gain more resources."


To find out more about how you can support the CoBRA, email Mark or call him on 0845 4080337. Mark David Hatwood is an award winning film screenplay writer and novelist. He runs two social enterprises - CoBRA and the Roseland website - from his Cornish base of Portscatho.

To find out how RSA Catalyst helps Fellows launch new solutions to tackle social problems, please visit RSA Catalyst pages

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