Precautionary Tales


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A waste of time

Recycling household rubbish is a moral exercise with little social or environmental benefit.

The effort to get Britain recycling has taken another step forward, with the news that a London council is introducing fines for those who don't separate their rubbish.

Barnet Council is threatening fines of up to £1000 for around 25,000 residents in four selected wards who do not put glass, tins, cans and paper into a separate box for the binmen. Defending the scheme, councillor Brian Coleman said: 'Compulsory recycling is a radical and innovative approach which will help us reach the challenging targets we have been set. We want to create a cleaner greener borough and I am confident that residents will want to do their bit and get the recycling habit.' (1)

The government's stated aim is to reduce reliance on landfill and increase the degree to which value is reclaimed from household waste in one way or another. To this end, it has introduced targets for recycling of household waste of 25 per cent by 2005, 30 per cent by 2010 and 33 per cent by 2015.

This sounds quite sensible. Simply burying waste seems like a missed opportunity - after all, many of the components in that waste are things that could be used again in the future. Landfill is always discussed as smelly, polluting and potentially unhealthy. But the question is whether recycling actually makes economic and social sense at the moment. Is it appropriate to devote more of society's energy to recycling waste on this proposed scale?

It is still cheaper in the UK to landfill or incinerate most waste, despite the levying of a landfill tax to skew the market in favour of other forms of disposal. Apart from the south east of England, there seems to be little difficulty in finding land suitable for landfill. And even with recycling, landfill will still be required for the residue.

Recycling is not the cheapest alternative for reusing materials - and may not even be the least polluting. Incineration that uses the energy produced to generate electricity is much more straightforward and cost-effective, and could replace to some extent newly extracted carbon fuels. The much-overstated pollution from such plants can be greatly reduced with new designs, such that a group of Swedish experts has suggested that incineration may be better for the environment than recycling (2).

Even the gases produced by landfill can be used in a similar manner. For example, according to one source, 'Landfill gas currently provides approximately 250 megawatts (MW or million watts) of electricity in the UK, about 21 per cent of all electricity produced by renewable sources. This figure is set to increase further in the coming years.' (3)

Recycling only makes sense if there is a demand for the goods and materials produced. If those prices are higher than for newly created goods, then most companies and individuals will not want them. In the future, it may be that more efficient methods may make recycling more viable, but that isn't the case yet.

Making separate collections of recycled waste is costly in terms of time and money, even with all the free labour provided by householders doing the initial sorting. The UK government's Strategy Unit has estimated that household collections of waste for recycling could cost £500million per year - although this may be offset by sale of the subsequent products and a reduction in landfill costs (4).

In any event, household waste makes up a small proportion of overall waste. In 1998/99, there were around 400million tonnes of waste produced in England and Wales, of which 300million tonnes were from construction and demolition, agriculture, mining and sewage. Industrial and commercial waste accounted for a further 70million tonnes. Household waste made up 30million tonnes - less than 10 per cent of total waste (5).

It seems that recycling household waste is a costly distraction from more useful social priorities, and will actually make little difference to the amount of waste we produce. So why the obsession with promoting it in the UK?

The discussion about recycling has far more to do with a moral message than with economics. In the absence of any widespread belief in God, Queen or Country, the need to 'save the planet' is one of the few certainties that society has left. If we accept that human beings are wasteful and polluting, as we are clearly supposed to, then who could disagree with the notion that we should all do our bit to undo the damage we do? Recycling is a physically tangible way that individuals can express this outlook. By separating out our waste paper, cans and bottles, we offer some kind of penance for our sinful consumption (and, better still, be seen to do so).

The real aim of recycling schemes is change individuals' relationship to the rest of society. The government wants to create active, responsible citizens - in other words, people who take their lead in their everyday lives from the edicts of the authorities. Caring for the environment fits into a wider pattern of apparently non-political activities through which the government attempts in one way or another to get us to accept its authority.

The trouble is that the authorities have utterly failed to make the case for recycling with most people. The middle classes may be guilt-tripped into doing it, but engaging the great unwashed in this exercise may prove impossible. The resultant frustration in the corridors of power inevitably leads to schemes involving some form of compulsion.

Barnet's scheme reflects this frustration, while at the same time revealing a real lack of ambition. 'All we want is for you to put something in the black box,' councillor Coleman told This is Hertfordshire. 'We already have 60 per cent of people who return their black boxes in these wards, which is good, but we would like you to put in all your papers, glass bottles and textiles. That's what we would like, but anything will do.'(4)

The problem for the government is that forcing people to do things doesn't help to carry society along with it. In fact, turning the exercise from one of moral conscience into a matter of compulsion is likely to irritate the very constituency who have been playing ball until now. Barnet resident Dr Kent Deng, a professor at the London School of Economics, complained: 'There is an enormous problem in the approach. I am not against recycling, but the way the council has proposed to penalise all the residents who are not recycling is illegal.' (5)

This scheme may help Barnet meet its recycling targets, but as a sensible use of resources or a positive advertisement for civic participation, it is just rubbish.

Read on:

Recycling religion, by Rob Lyons

(1) Barnet leads the way on compulsory recycling, Barnet Online, 26 March 2004

(2) Swedes trash myth of refuse recycling, Daily Telegraph, 2 March 2003

(3) Energy from waste, Encyclopaedia of the Atmospheric Environment

(4) Waste not, want not, Strategy Unit, November 2002

(5) Waste strategy for England and Wales, Defra, 10 August 2000

(6) 'I won't be forced to recycle', This is Hertfordshire, 31 March 2004

(7) 'I won't be forced to recycle', This is Hertfordshire, 31 March 2004

This article was first published on Spiked, 2 April 2004

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