Is the recycling argument pure rubbish?
JOSEPH KELLY: Tuesday’s Feast of the Epiphany was a somewhat ironic occasion for me – on the one hand many of us were celebrating the arrival of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts, whilst others were putting away the tinsel and taking their sagging Christmas tree to the council tip.
As it happens a close neighbour of mine oversees our local Christmas tree recycling effort, and he’s something of a mine of information and facts on the subject. It seems around six million ‘real’ Christmas trees are sold in the UK each year, so getting rid of them is a serious business. Apparently, our local authorities have to pay nearly £100 for every 40 trees sent to landfill, so recycling a tree can reduce your carbon footprint by 80 per cent.
And what happens to all those recycled Christmas trees? Well, generally they end up as that familiar brown woodchip stuff you get in kids’ parkland play areas, or on woodland footpaths. Larger trees stay intact, are rot treated and then end up lining riverbanks and vulnerable coastlines to help protect them from erosion. So that’s Christmas trees sorted, but it’s only the start of the Christmas waste problem. This year we will have used and dumped around 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper – enough to wrap up the island of Guernsey quite comfortably. Or if you prefer, that’s 227,000 miles worth – nine times around the world. And then there’s all that packaging from our 10 million turkeys and 26 million Christmas puddings to deal with.
Oh, and talking of food – our 2015 festive gluttony has seen us throw out, yes, throw out, the equivalent of two million turkeys, five million Christmas puddings and a staggering 74 million mince pies (almost twice the number M&S sells every year.) Aside from the immorality of creating all this waste in the first place, the UK is actually quite good at recycling it. It’s reckoned that around 37 per cent of the UK’s household waste is recycled, composted or broken down by anaerobic digestion. Of course what that actually means is that 37 per cent of UK household waste goes somewhere for recycling, rather than necessarily ending up being reinvented and reintroduced to the system.
How so? Well, the recycling game isn’t all it seems to be, and in many cases is in reverse gear, with some experts suggesting it may even be doing more environmental damage than it seeks to resolve. So is recycling just a feel-good gesture that keeps the EU off our government’s back, but provides little environmental benefits at a significant cost?
On the face of it, recycling some items is a no-brainer – metals for instance. Aluminium in particular is almost endlessly recyclable with low energy costs, and the demand for it is high, so washing and returning all those used food cans is good environmentalism.
Paper too is worth the bother, as recycling requires a lot less energy and fewer raw materials to produce than manufacturing from new. The downside is that paper is only good for around six reprocessing treatments.
From here on in the picture is far less clear – the value of recycling glass might seem obvious, and the UK public are great at returning bottles and jars, with more than 752,000 tons processed annually. Unfortunately, because of this, the glass recycling industry is in overload, mainly because the demand from producers for certain glass colours far exceeds the colours being produced by recycling. For instance, we import far more full green wine bottles than the demand for recycled green glass, so we have to sell the surplus abroad.
The real surprise is plastic, mainly because just about everything we use in our households these days is sold to us in handy plastic containers. We also seem to love putting hundreds of tons of the stuff back out for our councils to collect. A good friend of mine runs a very successful business in north Wales making those coloured plastic petrol cans that you use whenever you’ve run out of fuel. The base material for these items is white, bleached plastic pellets or balls that you can buy by the truckload for small change.
Or at least you used to be able to. A few years back there were so many plastic milk, drinks and shampoo bottles coming in for recycling that the quantity of processed product being made available quickly swamped the market, and the value crashed to virtually zero.
As a consequence cash-strapped councils made a strange decision. They’d still keep up with the pretence of encouraging the public to put out plastic for recycling, after all that was a valuable habit to encourage. But, rather than reprocess all this material that had no market value – you’ve guessed it, most plastic you now put out for recycling goes straight to landfill. Firstly, though, it needs to be put in one of those ever increasing number of colour-coded plastic wheelie bins that local councils buy by the tens of thousands, before being collected by fleets of specially manufactured lorries, driven by bespoke council recycling technicians, administered by office-loads of desk clerks.
My neighbour from the council tip tells me with great glee that a bespoke dog waste collecting truck costs around £80k, and there are 16 of them in our area, and that each of the 500 or so dog waste bins around the county cost £1,000 each. Actually I think that’s money well spent, but whether or not it’s good economics, or environmental management, for the UK to be investing in thousands of diesel-fuelled household recycling lorries ate around £100k each, is another matter.
Whilst we’re on recycling lorries and their on-costs, many councils are now having to fit these vehicles with expensive CCTV cameras in an effort to offset the compensation costs of accidents, and in GFreater Manchester back in 2011 some barmpot decided to supply all of Bury council’s bin lorries with iPads – yes, iPads – so their binmen could monitor individual household’s recycling habits.
If you’re wondering why I’m getting hot under the collar about all this, it’s because this week Prime Minister Cameron was heaping praises on a local resident in my area who, to his credit, has got our community involved in recycling more than 50,000 Christmas cards over the past five years, which has helped raise more than £60,000 for a Neuromuscular centre.
Many of you may remember that the great slogan of the final stage of Mr Cameron’s 2006 election campaign was “Vote blue, go green”, which must have hit the mark, as he got in, and promptly went on to promise us “the greenest government ever.” Subsequently under relentless pressure from the EU and G8, this government has been keen to press the recycling mantra, with the emphasis that, as always, it is a matter of ‘educating’ the public.
What governments of all hues invariably fail to understand is that the UK public are a pretty educated bunch, and don’t appreciate being patronised, bullied and penalised by agencies far more responsible for injustices than they are. It’s all very well for the government and councils to encourage us to ‘do our bit’ for the environment, but increasingly punitive methods are being employed to force us into these mechanisms which, in many cases, are running out of control and actually damaging the environment.
More significantly, there seems to be little understanding that the whole recycling problem lies not on the doorsteps of you and I, who are hapless purchasers of all this detritus, but at the feet of manufacturers and sellers, who are the people actually demanding that millions of tons of pointless packaging is provided. And for what? To ensure their goods sit smartly upright on their shop shelves.
As far back as 1994 the EU expressed its deep concerns about this, and introduced the EU Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste (94/62EC), which has become the Europe-wide benchmark for dealing with excess packaging. Did it call for manufacturers to limit their packaging needs? No, it merely set a series of annual targets to increase the percentage recyclability of all this waste.
The principle is pretty clear, and is a sad attitude of human nature that seems to be afflicting so many things in modern society. We want to have it all, but we don’t want the consequences. So the drive is not to reform or moderate our habits and behaviour, but – whether its food, sex, lifestyle or consumption – we plan to continue our lives of excess, but seek merely to ameliorate the side-effects.
One of the first principles of our faith, recorded in Genesis and reiterated in countless encyclicals is that we are all ’stewards of the earth, of God’s creation’. That’s a gift that brings with it significant responsibilities, and Christians through the centuries have understood that the earth’s bounty is finite, which basically calls us to a life of frugality and sensible stewardship. Thankfully the general public hasn’t quite lost this ethic entirely, unlike many of our policy-makers.
Good government ought not to be about managing economies and stripping the earth of its resources, but reversing this terrible trend towards the exercise of consumption without stewardship, of power without responsibility, We Catholics are very familiar with the concept “have a little less, so that others may have a little more”, but the relentless excess of our westernised lifestyle is starting to raise more fundamental questions about whether or not, in all Christian conscience, we can continue to endorse those mechanisms of production and consumption that are already creating such huge injustices around the world, and such lasting damage to the environment.
In generations past some far-sighted Catholics fled this mayhem in favour of more simple lives based around frugality, simplicity and prayer – in short the example of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Few today would advocate deserting the battlefield so completely; far better to stay and make our voices heard, and loudly, as we strive for a more humane, sustainable and equitable way of life for all the inhabitants of our precious world.
• Joseph Kelly is the CEO and Editor of the Catholic Universe.