There’s much more to recycling than the headline rate

Green politicians, just as they have always led on recycling, on Zero Waste, etc., need to take a lead in weaning the media, the political class and the electorate off the drug of purely quantitative ‘rising recycling rates’.

The Instituttion of Civil Engineers (ICE) made some headlines earlier this year (see this from BBC News) with a report forcibly indicating there is a serious risk that a ‘quantity not quality’ approach in recycling-policy will undermine the usability of Britain’s recyclate (the stream of materials-to-be-recycled), and be a false economy.

The issue has bubbled along in the trade press etc., but there are concerns that what has not emerged into public view is what Greens (and the occasional tuned-in journo) have been saying for the last few years.

Namely, that things are in fact already worse than ICE suggests: ‘commingling’ of recycling on doorsteps (i.e. mixing together different kinds of to-be-recycled materials, such as glass and paper) is already reducing the usefulness of what we in Britain recycle.

The glass-paper combination is a particularly serious example, as one fragment of glass in the recycling stream can render useless up to about 200 kg of paper. As Friends of the Earth reports have indicated (pdf) for the last few years, ‘commingling’ of recycling is already seriously reducing the usability of Britain’s ‘waste’ stream.

The fundamental problem here is that most politicians have been attracted to upward sloping lines on graphs like this:

Landfill-incineration-recycling-data-2000-01-2008-09
But such headline images tell only part of the story. And not even the most important part.

The eco-bottom-line is that there is a very serious downside to the improved recycling rates that ‘commingling’ can yield. Namely, that much of what is then ‘recycled’ has in fact to be thrown away, and the quality of much of what remains is lower – and so is worth less than it could have been.

We may have to begin the difficult task of weaning the media, the political class and the electorate off the drug of purely quantitative ‘rising recycling rates’ and onto the realer but harder terrain of producing qualitative criteria (and proper full-lifecycle / no- externalities economic criteria) for measuring the effectiveness of different recycling schemes.

Green politicians, just as we have always led on recycling, on Zero Waste, etc., need to lead on this, too.

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5 Responses to “There’s much more to recycling than the headline rate”

  1. myinfamy

    There’s much more to recycling than the headline rate: http://bit.ly/fIok2U says @RupertRead

  2. Recycle

    Thanks for this great post. If you’re lazy to do your own recycling yourself, then find a recycling kiosk near you. Check out this video I found on YouTube from the GreenopolisTV channel to find out how.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngIGru_nRNk

  3. Mr. Sensible

    Recycle, only 1 problem; our local council has closed 3 recycling centres.

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