The sermon on the compost heap

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It is Ash Wednesday this week, when the faithful traditionally mark the start of Lent with a cross of ashes on their foreheads. In these more secular times, there are different ways to show that you number yourself among the righteous. You can wear the correct lapel ribbons, buy Ms Dynamite CDs – and recycle your household rubbish.

A modern equivalent of that black mark between the eyes might be a black box outside the front door, supplied by the council so that good citizens can sort recyclable paper and glass from the rest of their garbage. (Although, as with other confessions, there is a temptation to keep something back; who wants the neighbours to see quite so many empty wine bottles?)

Now, however, some leading environmental and waste campaigners from the green heartland of Sweden have challenged the belief in recycling and endorsed the heresy of incinerating our rubbish instead. The group, which includes the former head of Sweden’s environmental protection agency, claims that, with today’s improved methods of incineration, burning household waste ‘is best for the environment, the economy and the management of natural resources’, and that the extra costs of recycling are unjustified.

Whatever the merits of the Swedes’ argument, it has immediately been rubbished by green groups and the Government in Britain. The apparently omniscient Greenpeace declared it ‘a nonsense to say incineration could ever be better than recycling’.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested that proposing incineration over recycling must necessarily be wrong, because ‘it sends out a negative message about re-use’. These responses demonstrate that the dogma of recycling has nothing to do with economics or resource management. Indeed, the case for more recycling remains unproven. Its promotion is more about preaching a new code of personal morality.

That is why Defra seems less concerned about debating the best way to clear up society’s mess than with clarifying the correct ‘message’. The boring of our children about the importance of recycling waste now seems a central theme of the school curriculum. The Government’s Strategy Unit report, merrily entitled Waste Not Want Not, also wants ‘better education and awareness programmes’ to re-educate adults in the hidden joys of going through our garbage.

The underlying aim is to clean up our minds, to sort the worthy ideas from the rotten ones. There are now circles in which, if you refuse to recycle rubbish, you are looked upon as antisocial trash. To recycle might make no practical difference to the environment, but it does make a personal statement that you care about the planet.

A trip to the bottle bank can cleanse the soul. As one of my colleagues, Rob Lyons, put it, the recyclers’ prayer is ‘Bless me Father, for I have binned’.

The old religion expects its followers to give up luxuries for only the 40 days of Lent. But the recycled religion demands that we make sacrifices all year round. At the top of BBC Online’s brazenly propagandist section on recycling, it protests that: ‘In a consumer society, we have lost the ability to make do and mend.’ And a good thing we have, too, if the alternative is wasting my time rooting through the rubbish bin.

The fact that our society produces more waste is not a sin, but a sign of economic advance. Working out how to manage it efficiently is not helped by those who want to deliver a sermon on the compost heap. The ash used on Ash Wednesday was supposed to come from burning the leaves used on Palm Sunday. Presumably today that would be condemned as an environmental hazard, if not a waste of palm leaves that could make a perfectly serviceable shelter for the homeless.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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