Why they love the ritual of recycling

The real purpose of recycling is not to ‘save the planet’ but to remind us how wasteful and destructive we are.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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‘You should treat people with respect instead of having a bunch of bin inspectors, bin police.’ Eric Pickles, the communities secretary in Britain’s new Lib-Con coalition government, has announced that the government will not be pressing ahead with a ‘bin tax’ or ‘pay-as-you-throw’ schemes designed to charge householders based on the amount of non-recycled waste they dispose of.

Yet Pickles is proposing a new approach that is simply a bit more ‘carrot’ than ‘stick’. (On the same day, however, Bristol city council announced plans to introduce smaller bins and fine residents up to £1,000 if they don’t separate their waste correctly. Plus ça change…) The incentive schemes Pickles is offering in place of a ‘bin tax’, which would reward people for recycling rather than punish them for not recycling, still assume that the tedious business of separating our waste for recycling is the best way of dealing with rubbish. Which it isn’t.

The power to trial pay-as-you-throw schemes was legislated for in the UK Climate Change Act of 2009. Five local authorities were allowed the opportunity to test out the scheme. However, none of them actually tried it. Pickles’ new alternative is based on a different scheme piloted in Windsor and Maidenhead, a local authority west of London. An American company, RecycleBank, is working with the council to offer householders rewards for recycling. Residents sign up for a RecycleBank account and then receive points for how much material they put in their recycling bins. They can then exchange those points for discounts at local shops or give their points, as cash, to charity.

Getting rewarded for doing ‘the right thing’ seems like a pretty good idea. ‘It does not put the costs up’, Pickles told BBC News. ‘Actually, what it does is it increases the recycling rate and puts money into the local economy.’ But this money is not being magicked up out of thin air. Rather it represents the saving made by councils by not having to pay the punitive costs for sending rubbish to landfill because instead they are encouraging local residents to sort the rubbish out. As RecycleBank boss Matthew Tucker told spiked last year: ‘For every tonne that we help a council divert from landfill, we take a percentage of that saving. If the council doesn’t save, we don’t make any money.’ (For a fuller discussion of the pros and cons of recycling, see Recycling: an eco-ritual we should bin, by Rob Lyons).

The saving comes from the severe regime put in place to encourage councils (with a financial gun to their heads) to stop using landfill to dispose of waste. There are two elements to this. Firstly, there is the landfill tax. This is charged on every single tonne of ‘active’ waste (in other words, anything that might decompose, including wood and plastic as well as food) that goes to landfill. The current rate is £48 per tonne. On top of this, councils are also set targets for a maximum total amount of waste going to landfill. If they breach those levels, a fine of £150 per tonne is imposed.

There are numerous other ways to dispose of waste other than landfill and recycling. For example, many more councils in the UK now use incinerators (or, to use the proper parlance, energy-from-waste facilities) to burn waste and generate electricity. If a combined heat and power scheme is tacked on, then the waste heat can also be used to heat local offices, factories and homes. So some councils have quickly built energy-from-waste facilities to get round these fines and taxes.

However, there are also recycling targets imposed by law in addition to the landfill taxes, targets and fines, with the aim that one third of waste will be recycled within five years.

This is Alice-in-Wonderland economics. Landfill is so much cheaper than recycling that in order to get councils to change their waste disposal policies, absolutely swingeing charges must be put on to landfill. Only then does recycling start to make financial sense. Yet with a little ingenuity, we can get most of the benefit of recycling more cheaply and more conveniently.

For example, one of the main justifications for recycling is to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, one of the main sources of such emissions in relation to waste is the methane gas – the same stuff that powers your cooker or central heating – produced when waste rots at the dump. But modern landfill schemes can capture this gas – called biogas – and burning it already makes a small but pretty reliable contribution to UK energy production.

Even recycling itself doesn’t need to be such an almighty pain in the neck. While Pickles and others have highlighted the rewards side of the Windsor and Maidenhead success story, the other element is something called co-mingling. Basically, instead of following endless arcane rules on which kind of rubbish goes into each of the veritable epidemic of multi-coloured containers that local authorities currently provide, with co-mingling there are just three containers: wet waste, like food; dry recyclables, like paper, plastic, card, metals and so on; and everything else. The dry recyclables are then separated out by machine at a depot. The machines aren’t quite as good as doing it all by hand – yet – but they’re still pretty good.

By taking out much of the confusion and hassle associated with separating waste, householders are more likely to do it. This convenient solution, however, doesn’t play well with greens. This is partly because of an obsession with recycling every last iddy-biddy bit of waste. But the main reason why co-mingling irritates greens is because if you take away the complexity of recycling, the ritual of thinking about it and doing it – if it’s barely any more than shoving stuff in the bin, just like it used to be – then we don’t have that daily eco-message drummed into our heads: ‘We are greedy, wasteful people who throw too much stuff away.’

There would be no point in spending lesson after lesson at primary school teaching kids about how to recycle, and why to recycle, if it’s just sticking stuff in the same bin. For greens, the attraction of complex, confusing systems of recycling is that they remind us, as we carry them out, what wasteful and destructive creatures we are. It is more like penance than a practical activity.

When pressed, the more sensible recycling advocates will admit that separating out our waste – like another fashionable idea, banning plastic shopping bags – has little impact on the environment. They will also admit that recycling schemes will always require a certain amount of subsidy. (What’s a few hundred million quid between friends when the national debt is heading rapidly towards a trillion pounds?) Household recycling is a waste of money and time that only makes sense as a form of self-punishment for the eco-sin of consumption.

In other words, those who want us to recycle our rubbish are really trashing us.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said recycling is an eco-ritual we should bin and a waste of time. He also called for binning authoritarian recycling policies and 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.

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