Recycling: an eco-ritual we should bin

Reprocessing waste might one day be cost-effective, but for now it's a moralistic reminder that humans are greedy.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Maybe there’s a shortage of sceptical thinkers at the moment, but in the past couple of years I seem to have become the UK media’s go-to guy when they want somebody to say that recycling is a waste of time. As it happens, I’m not ‘against’ recycling – it’s pretty hard to have a principled position on a method of waste disposal – but I am against the way that recycling has been placed on a pedestal as not merely a means of dealing with rubbish, but as potentially a saviour of Planet Earth and a basis for the moral renewal of society.

So it was that I found myself one early morning a few weeks ago in a deserted canteen in BBC Television Centre chatting to Matthew Tucker, CEO of an American recycling rewards company called RecycleBank, as we waited to do a turn on BBC1’s Breakfast programme. ‘The principle behind RecycleBank’, Tucker tells me, ‘is that we reward you for recycling. The more recycling you do, the more points you get.’ Householders can then redeem the points in shops and restaurants, or use them to donate money to charities or environmental projects.

RecycleBank is a win-win for councils and the company, says Tucker. But that seems to be mainly thanks to the eye-watering charges imposed on councils and businesses if they send waste to landfill. One element of this is a landfill tax, which currently stands at £40 per tonne. The UK government plans to continue increasing the tax by £8 per tonne per year for at least the next couple of years. As one eco-blog notes, if a company (or council) spent £75,000 per year on sending waste to landfill in 2007, it would be paying £300,000 per year by 2013, an enormous increase.

In addition, the government has introduced a Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS). The aim of the scheme is to avoid fines levied against the UK if the country fails to meet European Union targets on reducing the amount of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) dumped. From 2010, councils will be fined £150 for every tonne of waste that goes to landfill over and above an allocated Landfill Allowance – and those allowances will shrink rapidly. This is the first financial year when the EU targets take effect, and the UK must reduce landfilling of BMW to 75 per cent of 1995 levels, falling to 50 per cent of 1995 levels by 2012/13 and 35 per cent by 2019/20.

For a nation that has traditionally disposed of rubbish by sticking it in a hole in the ground, building the facilities needed to meet these targets will be a tall order. Yet the UK faces fines of £180million if these targets are missed.

Hence the win-win for councils like Windsor and Maidenhead, just west of London, which are piloting the RecycleBank scheme in the UK. ‘For every tonne that we help a council divert from landfill, we take a percentage of that saving’, says Tucker. ‘If the council doesn’t save, we don’t make any money.’ Offering rewards for recycling certainly seems a more palatable way of motivating householders than refusing to collect waste or even imposing fixed penalty notices, as has been the norm elsewhere.

Indeed, Tucker doesn’t see himself as being in waste management at all – he describes himself as being in the ‘human motivation business’. But he’s a salesman, too. ‘Recycling is a business’, says Tucker, ‘and if everyone else is making money out of it, why shouldn’t consumers benefit, too?’

The pros and cons of recycling

Given the perverse regime of fines and allowances into which councils have been thrust, the RecycleBank scheme makes plenty of sense if it succeeds in getting people to recycle. But from a wider perspective, does it make sense for society more generally to place such an enormous emphasis on recycling?

The first question is: does recycling make economic sense? The fact that councils and businesses need to be fined enormously to force them to do it suggests not. As it happens, until about a year ago, prices for recycled materials were rising to the point where it started to make some economic sense, with boat loads of British plastic, paper and so on heading east to be used in Chinese businesses. Those days are long gone, with prices for these materials having collapsed. Councils and recycling companies must now either take a miserably low price for many recyclable materials, store the stuff in the hope of rising prices in the future – or burn the lot to generate electricity and cut their losses.

So, for the time being, the economics of recycling aren’t great. But are, perhaps, the costs of recycling a price worth paying for an enormous environmental benefit? Quite apart from the aesthetic problem of creating enormous holes in the ground filled with rubbish, rotting waste produces methane, a gas with over 20 times the greenhouse effect associated with carbon dioxide. Furthermore, there is thought to be a net energy saving in collecting and recycling materials compared to using new raw materials.

However, the overall balance of environmental benefit is not as clear cut as recycling’s proponents would lead us to believe. The UK Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) claims that 18million tonnes of CO2 emissions are saved each year thanks to recycling. However, it would appear that just 6.5million tonnes of CO2 is saved from household recycling of the type that causes so much controversy.

Furthermore, the savings very much depend on the kind of material in question and what alternative disposal method recycling is being compared to. For example, producing metals from ore is an energy-intensive process, particularly for aluminium. So recycling metals would seem to make a lot of sense. The differential is not as clear cut with plastics and paper, which are easily burned to produce plenty of energy. The WRAP figures seem to come from a report prepared for the organisation in 2006 by Danish researchers, which compared recycling to ‘the current mix of landfill and incineration with energy recovery to the same materials’. In other words, if landfill and incineration became more sophisticated – which they have – the relative environmental benefits from recycling would fall.

The truth is that we don’t really know how much, if any, benefit there is from the actual methods we use to recycle waste at present. As one of the leading lights in the British waste industry told the BBC earlier this year: ‘We haven’t really in retrospect made sure that we’re making the right decisions at the right time. Therefore, we’ve got to urgently get a grip on how this material is flowing through the system – whether we’re actually adding to or reducing the overall impact in terms of global warming potential in this process.’

Nor is it the case that recycling provides an endless loop, where the same materials can be used again and again. The best that can be hoped for, metals aside, is that the usefulness of materials is greatly extended. Good quality paper from virgin wood pulp becomes slightly scrappy-looking paper, becomes newsprint, becomes useless. Plastic might get used again as food packaging, but might easily end up on a one-way trip to produce lightweight fleecy material for clothing. Glass might end up as new bottles, but it might just as easily end up being used as aggregate to build roads.

Boxes, boxes, everywhere

Then there is the thorny issue of how to recycle. The government still seems to be obsessed with a proliferation of different containers for householders to put waste into. At my home in south-east London, for example, we have: a blue box, for glass, tins and plastic; a turquoise bag, for paper and card; a brown bin, for garden waste; a green wheelie bin for everything else. The next step will probably be a ‘slop bucket’ for food waste. Environment secretary Hilary Benn declared in a speech last week that councils would need to collect six different materials – paper, card, cans, glass, plastic bottles, food and packaging – by 2020. That’s a lot of containers and added complication for bin men – and a pain for householders.

In the meantime, around half of UK councils now only collect waste once every two weeks, somewhat undermining the central purpose of waste disposal: to dispose of waste. Instead, we are all increasingly in the business of waste management, processing and storage.

A (slightly) better way?

A less widely publicised element of the Windsor and Maidenhead scheme is co-mingling. Instead of a household using many different containers, all dry, recyclable material – paper, card, metals and plastics – goes into a single bin. That’s far more convenient for individuals and, unsurprisingly, recycling rates are higher with co-mingled systems. This mixed material is taken to a materials recovery facility where it is separated by machine, bundled up and sent off to be reprocessed. (Watch the video below for an example of how this works, if you can bear the cheesy music.)

There are two problems with co-mingling – one technical, one political. The technical problem is that what comes out of a material recovery facility is still not as well separated as if it’s put into separate containers by hand, by householders and binmen, from the word go. But like any other automated process, the systems will surely improve over time.

The political problem is more tricky: the whole moralistic, aren’t-people-greedy, love-the-planet bullshit goes right out the window if recycling is turned into an efficient, mechanised process that happens somewhere other than in our homes.


This moral aspect of recycling is particularly clear in schools, where separating out waste and making trips to the recycling bank provide an element of ritual to sit alongside the catechism of environmental teaching that is now central to Britain’s national curriculum. As Frank Furedi notes elsewhere on spiked: ‘At a time when traditional institutions find it difficult to connect with popular concerns, environmentalism is still able to transmit ideas about human responsibility through appealing to a sense of right and wrong. That is why the authors of children’s books and school officials also use environmentalism as a vehicle for socialising youngsters.’ (See In search of eco-salvation, by Frank Furedi.)

There’s also a smugger-than-thou attitude amongst many enthusiastic recyclers that would have made the Pharisees of biblical times proud. When being a model and moral citizen seems difficult these days, ‘doing your bit’ by recycling provides a sense of purpose for many people. Whenever I do radio phone-ins on the subject, I’m always struck by how many pensioners call in to praise recycling. It’s something new to be snobbish about, too; recycling is a great way to be seen to be green. It is certainly one of the few ways in which government feels able to connect with people.

Recycling teaches a valuable lesson to us all, young and old – you consume too much, mend your ways. And the whole tedious process of putting the right material in the right container is all about making us fall into line as ‘responsible citizens’, a lesson to be drummed into us by repetition, like doing lines at school.


Thankfully, there is also an instinctive and healthy reaction from many people against separating out waste, especially when the whole business is imposed upon us by the authorities. It may be that all this plastic, paper and garden waste that we used to throw out as worthless is, in fact, just about worth something to someone if we separate it out and bundle each type together. But isn’t there something more useful we could be doing than rinsing out tins of beans and sorting out those non-recyclable window envelopes from the rest of the paper? Couldn’t we aspire to something a little more worthy than tidying up after ourselves?

Hilary Benn’s big vision for Britain in the future is that we become a ‘zero waste’ nation. But while he’s making sure we reprocess every scrap of newsprint and compost every last potato peeling, there’s one thing he’s only too happy to waste, and that’s our time. When economic progress has been built on the relentless saving of labour, is this wasteful attitude to our lives a foretaste of the dynamic, green economy that the government has promised us?

If we could make recycling and reprocessing waste into an efficient, convenient and cost-effective process, all well and good. Having gone to the trouble of digging stuff up out of the ground in order to make things, it might be better in the long run not to put it straight back down there again. But if we could find a way of safely disposing of all those eco-moralists at the same time – and this is where a big hole in the ground looks pretty good – so much the better.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said recycling is a waste of time and called for binning authoritarian recycling policies. Elsewhere, he asked: ‘Who’s afraid of rubbish?’ Emily Hill explored London’s rotten boroughs. Austin Williams highlighted the dangers of OCD: Obsessive Carbon Dogma. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

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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