Recycling: the role of local councils in perpetuating an environmental myth.

This article was first published by the Offwell Environment Link in their summer 2004 magazine. OEL are a charity associated with the Offwell Centre. The references to East Devon District Council (EDDC) and Devon County Council (DCC) could apply to many local authorities in the UK - the article was first published in Devon.

Three years on, at the end of 2007, several things have changed. The price of scrap metal has reached an all time high because China is industrialising so fast that it is sucking in vast quantities of all raw materials. One unwelcome consequence in the UK is that with the price of scrap metal so high, scrapyards now crush cars before people have much chance to dismantle them for spares.

Some scrapyards where hundreds of people used to obtain cheap spares to help keep older vehicles on the road are nowadays less disinterested in 'reuse' of perfectly good parts. They just crush most older cars as soon as they are drained of fluids (nowadays mandatory under an EU directive) and "keep the council environmental people happy" by having few uncrushed vehicles on display. This is all wrong-headed if viewed as part of minimising the total environmental footprint of motoring - but why should that matter?

A few of the arguments in what follows are now skewed because of the steep rise in scrap prices. But the overall message of environmental naivety is as valid as ever.

"Most people today try to be environmentalists. They recycle rubbish, drive a bit less, and shop for energy-efficient products. They think they're making a difference - but they're wrong."

S Athanasiou.  Slow Reckoning. 1996

A personal view of recycling
by Dr Stephen Wozniak, Offwell lecturer 1998.

Many people may feel heartened upon reading about the success of recycling. The news from East Devon looks good - as was reported in the Spring Newsletter. New initiatives are planned and there is even talk of enforcement being needed to meet targets. Recycling is certainly part of the answer to the looming problem of landfill capacity, but it has a darker side.


We need to go back 30 or more years to the three Rs, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. It was acknowledged in those enlightened days that recycling was very much the poor relation. Indeed, it was almost a dirty word, something perhaps best done in private if you hadn't managed very well with either of the other two acts.

The three Rs came originally from the chemical industry but were quickly adopted by the environmental movement. For a short time, all three were looked upon with official favour. However, the priorities of the consumer society and of "sustained economic growth" soon curtailed widespread advocacy of Reduce and Reuse. The terms are still used in glossy publicity material, including by Devon County Council, but they rarely if ever feature in policy documents - and certainly not when it comes to promoting the rapid expansion of local airports as an aid to business and tourism!

Leaving aside the intellectual bankruptcy of an environmental policy that has recycling as a prime article of faith, repeated exhortations on recycling has led many people to believe that so long as they recycle they may consume with a clear conscience.

Here then is the dark side of recycling. It often requires large amounts of energy, if only in all the car journeys of 20 miles to take a bag of hedge clippings or yoghurt pots to the local (and far too distant) council site. It is expensive for local taxpayers, it deflects attention from the need to re-evaluate our whole way of life, and it bestows on local authorities far too many opportunities for self-congratulation. In all, indulgent recycling has become rather a bad habit and it is time we grew out of it.

It might help if a value could be put on each of the three Rs - maybe 100 points for Reduce - not buying an article in the first place or avoiding a foreign holiday; 30 for Reuse - give something to someone else who can make use of it - and 5 for Recycle - driving to the tip causing energy to be consumed and yet feeling virtuous.

Recycling costs money

Much of the blame here must lie with County and District Councils. DCC's latest booklets (all available at their Recycling Centres or "amenity sites") contain grossly simplistic diagrams. These imply that all material such as cardboard and newsprint is recycled whereas in reality a certain quantity of 'virgin' material is always needed to maintain the quality of 'recycled' products. Also, no mention is made of the large costs incurred by recycling - these are a principal reason why local councils have been reluctant to increase their recycling efforts until forced by impending EU targets to do so.

In fact, the costs of recycling could act as a good measure of how much more worthwhile reducing consumption could be. Knowing how much has to be paid to contractors in the recycling industry (including transport costs) to persuade them to take a skip full of cardboard or mixed metal could help determine the 'worth' of reducing consumption.

I believe the expense of recycling needs to be highlighted. This might be enough to encourage people to question its environmental credentials. The true economics have become clouded both by EU directives and the imperative of reducing landfill before we run out of suitable sites, and by political reluctance to applaud Reduce and Reuse. In effect, Recycle is heavily subsidised whereas Reduce and Reuse have to fend for themselves.

Food for thought?

One of the simplest examples of where 'recycling' is a poor option is the problem of supermarket bags. Abandoning their manufacture would take only the agreement of about six people - the heads of major supermarkets. Instead, we have endured 20 or more years of silly campaigns encouraging people not to use a product that is stuffed under their noses free of charge several times a week. Some supermarkets even provide large bins where perfectly good plastic bags can be dumped, en-route to collecting some more with the daily groceries. If it didn't happen you could hardly make it up.

People watching.

Some people follow football (apparently even fewer than go to church), some are devoted to tennis and some take a stroll 'along the prom' on a summers' day. I go to scrapyards and amenity sites, for it is there that you can study human nature in all its variety and malevolence.

I suppose "amenity site" has a positive ring whereas "rubbish tip" was at least verging on the descriptive. The truth about the consumer society and the extent to which attitudes have changed for the worse may be gleaned from only a few visits.

Dressed as a beggar and driving a car that is 20 years old I am easily mistaken for one of society's losers. Thus disguised, I once enquired of the manager of an amenity site 'up north' what was the most valuable thing he had ever found discarded. "Well, don't let on, but we once found 620 in old plant pots" - obviously the cache of an elderly person and thrown out by relatives intent on clearing the greenhouse as quickly as possible. "And last week we had clothes - never seen owt quite like it, all designer labels and half with the tags still on. Never been worn mate. We see a lot of it here. Women get mad and throw out everything some man has ever given them. Can't even be bothered to take them to a charity shop. Wicked it is mate. I tell you, we see it all here"

Sensing a kindred spirit, he continued, "What gets me though is the toys. Hundreds of them, often still in the boxes, never used. You would think that rich people with children would think of those that have nowt before they just throw toys away. I tell you, some of the things we get in, breaks your heart it does. Only yesterday we had a chap bring in about 200 videos. I stopped him dumping them but he took them off me and broke each of 'em in turn. Why? Because if he didn't want 'em no-one else was going to have 'em. That's people for you."

The 'couldn't give a damn' attitude is evident also in how people make use of carefully marked waste containers. On one advanced site there are huge containers carefully marked for different types of 'rubbish'. Wood, chipboard only, green garden waste, metal, paper, cardboard, window glass, electrical items, textiles, plastics and so on.

Unlike at many sites in Devon, you do not even have to climb steps to throw things away. At considerable expense, the car park has been constructed at higher level with containers beneath. It could hardly have been made easier to use. Yet one of the biggest problems remains getting people to sort their rubbish. Salvaging modern computers and TV sets is undertaken as and when time is available and these are stored separately and under cover in their hundreds, to be bought by people who can make half or more of them work well again.

The sheer volume of 'reusable' goods suggests that far more effort should be given to salvage and resale, perhaps using the long term unemployed to do much of the menial work in exchange for their state benefits. It would give them something to do, boost their self esteem and be environmentally friendly. Imagine the howls of protest both from the chattering classes and the Unions, and from shop keepers anxious to maintain sales of new products.

Rubbish in the streets.

Decades ago, rummaging around on building sites was useful if you wanted a few bricks or bits of copper pipe - and in those days there were no safety fences to keep children out. In the industrial Midlands, scrap was good business. "Where there's muck, there's brass". Collecting old copper tube, bits of lead (not from church roofs) and even the odd discarded aluminium road sign could earn a shilling or two. Little non-ferrous metal was thrown away.

How times have changed. The average builder is nowadays so wealthy that separating waste to make a few pounds would be thought derisory. Investigate many skips (if you can get near them for all the 'keep out' notices) and you will find large quantities of salvageable material. All of the alarm system wiring in my home was obtained (with permission) from a skip in Sidmouth where a large store was having its phone system renewed. I sold the switchboard for 35 to a collector!

I once removed so much old copper pipe from a skip in Sidmouth whose contents were due to be landfilled that I paid for my next trip 'up north' - 40 worth of scrap! It is worth taking cartons of brass and copper to the Midlands - the prices are so much higher because it is closer to where the material ends its recycle journey. In this part of the world, you can hardly give it away. We hear a lot about households being encouraged to separate their waste but very little about encouraging tradespeople to do the same - and they often handle large quantities. In essence it is a matter of morality, of caring about the fact that for all raw material needlessly landfilled, somewhere in the world more has to be extracted and with unwelcome environmental consequences.

The consumer society - oiling the wheels of commerce.

Years ago, I was rummaging at an amenity site looking for furniture for one of my rented flats. Many evil landlords obtained good furniture this way. A man driving a 30,000 car came in with a 'scrap' microwave oven - all stainless steel and digital. I asked him if it worked. "Oh yes, but the wife wanted a new one - have it if you want!" The site operative, a man who in a past life must have been a hawk, intervened. "Anything that comes in this site is ours. Three quid to you guv'nor." It seemed churlish to argue. That was eight years ago, when microwave ovens were still relatively expensive, and it is still working perfectly. These days, they are so cheap I suppose they are thrown away rather than being cleaned.

The lure of 'the latest model' is responsible for a huge amount of 'waste' but so are the ridiculously high prices of spare parts - part of a deliberate commercial policy of discouraging repair. One example will suffice.

I once made an impulse purchase of a 500 Zanussi washer dryer that was only a few years old. It seemed worth 10 and I was going through a phase of mending washing machines, much as more normal people aspire to go to concerts. Finding that the water pump seal was leaking and that a new pump cost 50 I sold the whole unit to a dealer for 35. He was delighted - spare parts for these notoriously unreliable and (in those days) rare machines cost a small fortune and he could get his money back several times over.

In a society genuinely concerned with the environment, spare pump seals would be available to a standard design for 2. It would be useful to enact an EU law forcing manufacturers to make spare parts for all their goods available at a reasonable cost for at least 15 years after sale of the product ceased. Jobs in manufacturing would give way to local repair. Needless disposal of equipment only a few years old would become a thing of the past. The cost of new products would have to rise - so no politician would risk it.

The EU intervenes - but unhelpfully.

EU waste management laws now cover most 'industrial' waste. They dictate that once something has been put into an approved waste receptacle (a skip to you and me) it cannot lawfully be removed except by someone having the required EU approved licence. All well and good if you are dealing with blue asbestos, but rather silly for pieces of wood or steel. Two real life examples will suffice.

I recently visited a large timber yard in East Devon. They sell all sorts - fence posts, panels, hardwood, softwood, binder twine and metricated ten inch bolts. It was inevitable that I would be drawn to one of the waste skips. I espied just what I needed for making shelves for an ex-girlfriend's lounge. A large number of hardwood planks, all offcuts from an even larger flooring contract. They would have cost a small fortune to buy. My first thoughts were for the hardwood forests destroyed to provide the acres of wood flooring that are now fashionable in parts of Europe.

"Can't have those mate - Health and Safety - EU regulations - we used to let people have bits but if we do now it is more than my job is worth if anyone sees you". Neither reasoned argument nor a few quid on the side could resolve the impasse and the wood was probably landfilled instead of being usefully deployed and lovingly polished perhaps for a hundred years.

It reminded me of the EU Common Fisheries Policy. This dictates that hundreds of tons of fish must be thrown away after being killed rather than landed and utilised.

The next example concerns not wood but steel. It has been common practice for generations in the industrial north for people of modest means to obtain offcuts of steel from large stockists for a few pence. The scrap value of steel is nowadays so low that (in many areas) you have to pay to have it taken away. Giving it away, or even selling it would seem a good idea. Last year I walked into a stockists where they sell steel by the ton.

"Eh, you mate, what you after in there? You're not authorised.. Once anything goes in the skip it's not allowed out again - EU regulations".

I was directed to the booth where customers had to wait in turn for the arrival of a qualified estimator - fair enough I suppose if you wanted three tons of stainless and a bit of galvanised on the side. To cut a long story short, I did get the offcuts, but it was arranged that I pay for only two of them, the other two having mysteriously sought shelter from the midday sun beneath my car.

I often think that before people are allowed to write EU regulations and directives they should be required to spend a year or more working in the real world. They should be required to sift through 'rubbish' for at least three months and see just how much could be reused. They should be required to work in charity shops in affluent areas (there are none in Devon by the way) and see how 90% of almost unworn clothing is landfilled because noone wants it even at charity shop prices. And they should be required to write an essay on the need to educate society on the real value of reducing and reusing. Only those who were awarded high marks would be allowed to stand as councillors or for Parliament.

We might well be making great strides in recycling. At best we are delaying commencement of a serious discussion of how to limit resource usage to sustainable levels. At worst, we are giving people a wholly false sense of environmental achievement.

"The real threats to our environment can't be halted or even slowed by the feel-good environmentalism of the industrialised world. Global warming, soil loss, overconsumption, ozone depletion, over-population, and habitat and bio-diversity losses are a lurking catastrophe that will engulf the world all too soon."

S Athanasiou.  Slow Reckoning. 1996

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