Bin these authoritarian policies

The attempt to convict a mum of failing to follow new recycling rules shows that green policies are becoming ever-more draconian - and unpopular.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Magistrates in Exeter, England, have binned a test case for the laws making recycling compulsory. But while the local council may be squealing that this makes the rules unenforceable, nobody seems to be asking the more uncomfortable questions about why green policies are proving to be increasingly authoritarian.

Donna Challice, a 31-year-old single mother of three, was charged by Exeter city council with placing food waste in bins designated for recyclable items. Challice claimed that the food waste, including takeaway containers, was being put in her bins by passers-by. The council was unable to prove who was doing it, and lost the case.

Mike Trim, recycling officer for the local council, said: ‘We will have to look at the implications for us and other local authorities. It will be hard to bring cases like this if there has to be direct evidence of an individual contaminating a recycling bin. It’s hard to see how you can carry out surveillance practically on what people do in their own homes and their own back gardens. This case shows the Act is not working in its current form.’ (1)

The prospect of jobsworths from the council environment department staking out housing estates is a less than attractive one. Presumably Mr Trim and his colleagues regard having to provide evidence in court as a messy business – much like separating your waste – and would be happier if they could slap a fine on householders and ask questions later.

Luckily for them, that’s an idea the government has already had. Under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, councils will have the power to hand out fixed penalty notices for breaking the recycling rules. Those fixed penalties could still be challenged in court, but the authorities know that this is much less likely than if a case has to be brought to court in the first place.

The steady drip of letters, notices and fines against individuals charged with breaking the recycling rules might make some sense if recycling was a worthwhile activity. However, as Richard Tomkins points out in the Financial Times, ‘recycling household waste makes little difference to resource depletion because the quantities involved are too small’. Noting that the vast majority of resources in society are used in manufacturing, construction, commercial and public sector activities, he concludes that ‘the sort of recycling that makes a difference occurs outside the home, not in it’. (2)

Daniel K Benjamin, professor of economics at Clemson University in South Carolina, notes that there are numerous myths about recycling (3), including:

— We’re overwhelmed by rubbish. In fact, our rubbish takes up a small fraction of available land. In many cases, rubbish is used to fill holes made by other activities, like mining or quarrying. There are other alternatives, like incineration, which can greatly reduce the volume of what is sent to landfill.

— Waste is harmful. The vast majority of waste is harmless and perfectly safe in landfill.

— Packaging is a huge problem. A combination of technical development and a desire to save money means the packaging on most goods has been steadily reduced over the years, and packaging reduces other forms of waste, like rotting or damaged food.

— We’re squandering resources if we don’t recycle. The scarcity of a resource tends to be reflected in its price – if the stuff we throw away was really valuable, we wouldn’t throw it away. Moreover, we are not concerned with a particular substance but rather with what that substance does – if we find something else that does it better and cheaper, resources can become obsolete long before they run out.

— Recycling is better for the environment. Given that recycling is a manufacturing process in itself, it also uses energy and raw materials – and running separate rubbish collections burns extra fossil fuels. Whether recycling a particular type of waste is really better for the environment needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis.

— Without compulsion, recycling wouldn’t happen. Actually, lots of recycling goes on all the time. Numerous industries, large and small, have grown up around recycling, particularly with regard to commercial and industrial waste. The difference is that in these areas, recycling makes economic sense.

To summarise: household waste makes up only a small part of total waste and it is relatively expensive to collect. In fact, if we are to believe Exeter councillor Pete Edwards, what is collected is so close to being worthless that any contamination (for example, a takeaway carton) appears to make an entire batch of recyclable waste uneconomic to process: ‘Every day, thousands of people in the city diligently sort through their rubbish, separating residual waste from recyclables. It only takes one person to contaminate their green bin and we have to discard a whole lorry-load of recyclables. We cannot let the thoughtless minority spoil it for the selfless majority.’ (4)

None of which takes into account the time it takes all of us householders to separate waste and manage two or three different bins. Some might argue that moaning about this extra work is petty. But if there’s no good reason to do it, then the whole recycling process becomes an expensive charade. No wonder the authorities, unable to convince many of us that recycling makes sense, have resorted to heavy-handed tactics.

Household recycling only makes sense as the practical form of a morality tale: that humans are essentially greedy and rapacious. The physical expression of that greed is the amount of rubbish we create. The lesson is that we should all rein in our expectations and demand less – be less ‘thoughtless’ and more ‘selfless’, to use the councillor’s words. Western politicians have failed in recent decades to provide substantial economic growth. The environmentalist argument is that growth is not just difficult to produce – it isn’t desirable, either. This suits political parties that have run out of ideas for how to carry society forward (see Who’s afraid of economic growth?, by Daniel Ben-Ami).

The environment is also just the kind of lowest common denominator issue that the political classes are scrabbling round for right now to give themselves an excuse for existing. Who, after all, is not in favour of saving the planet? No one should have been surprised that David Cameron’s Conservatives, a party with a particularly pressing need to find a reason to keep going, ran their local election campaign under the slogan ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’.

The case of Donna Challice captures in microcosm where society is headed: to a situation where our leaders try to convince us that we should lower our horizons, and where they wield the big stick against those who think otherwise. What a waste.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Environment

(1) First recycling prosecution fails, The Times (London), 11 July 2006

(2) Is recycling utter rubbish?, Financial Times, 8 July 2006

(3) Eight great myths of recycling, by Daniel K Benjamin, Property and Environment Research Center

(4) Woman is cleared of failing to recycle household waste, Independent, 11 July 2006

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

Topics Science & Tech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today