Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The decline of recycling

I can think of better incentives
The recent elections may not have shown a huge surge of Green voters a la Ukip, but there certainly are more of us taking the party seriously. So it's a bit of a shame that councils are having trouble with recycling.

Until recently, recycling in the UK was on the rise, but now it is dropping. This is seen as a bad thing for two reasons. Recycling can result in a reduction in use of scarce materials - or a reduction in the need to dig big holes in the ground to produce them - and it cuts down on the phenomenal amount of stuff we send to landfill. But, to be honest, I'm not at all surprised that councils aren't succeeding, because it's a classic case of an intermediary being expected to spend money on something that doesn't benefit them directly. It's pretty well all stick and very little carrot for the councils.

I'd suggest there are five steps that could be undertaken to significantly increase recycling pretty well instantly.

  1. Simplify sorting. At the moment, too many councils confuse the householder. What's needed to recycle would be to have four 'bins' - paper/card/fabric/wood (which you need to keep dry or it loses it is less effectively for recycling), hard stuff (glass, metal, plastic) and squishy stuff (green waste and food waste) - with hopefully very little left over as landfill. But, for instance, our council insists on plastic going in clear bin liners separate from the other recycling. Of course, the ideal from the user's viewpoint would be if you just had a bin everything went in, and it was recycled from there, but I can understand the difficulties if, for instance, paper gets covered in food waste.
  2. Don't charge for green waste. This is just bonkers - our council, along with many others, have started to charge extra for green waste. All this will do is result in green waste going in landfill or being dumped by the roadside.
  3. Incentivise recycling. There have been occasional attempts to charge people for the weight of their landfill. This gets things totally back to front. We should be paying people for recycling. The more stuff in the recycling (provided it's sorted correctly), the more cash you get back. We also should have walk-in recycling centres (not all car-based as they are now), where you get cash for bringing in, say, a bag full of bottles. When I was young we used to go hunting for discarded glass bottles, because you got a deposit back on them. If recycling centres paid for waste, we could see this kind of 'vigilante clean up squad' operation getting rid of litter.
  4. Don't have a one size fits all policy. One of the big problems councils face is that they all have the same targets, but for some, for instance, it is financially viable to recycle food waste, for others the cost is prohibitive. Similarly, near where I live, landfill is not as much an issue as it is elsewhere because we have a lot of big holes in the ground due to gravel extraction that need filling.
  5. Include electronic/electrical goods in the 'hard stuff' category. This is the most valuable of the recycling opportunities - and one that is legally required - yet most councils make it difficult, expecting you to take this stuff to a recycling centre. So the smaller stuff goes, technically illegally, into landfill. Make it easy to recycle and the council could reap real financial rewards. If it's too big to go in a recycling bin (TVs to washing machines), have free collection. If the council can't be bothered, it's time to have a modern equivalent of the rag and bone man of my youth, coming round picking up your electrical/electronic waste for free.
Will this happen? Almost certainly not. Does it matter? Sort of. Recycling often makes commercial sense. Glass, for instance, is often recycled to be used in roadbeds. (Did you think it was turned back into a new glass bottle? Dream on.) That's good commercially, and means there is less need to dig gravel up, making fewer unsightly holes. In terms of 'saving the planet' (or rather 'saving the human ecostructure' - the planet doesn't need saving), the electronic stuff would have the most leverage, but bizarrely at the moment it is made hardest to recycle. It's worth recycling because it makes use of the most scarce (and hence expensive) materials. Otherwise, recycling's best benefit is it brings environmental concerns to our notice. It might not actually result in a lot of environmental good, but it keeps us aware. Which is even more reason to make it easy (and rewarding) to do.

This has been a green heretic production.

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