Recycling collapses with the economic down turn; what should we do?

I have occasionally expressed concern about “recycling” household waste but mainly from the standpoint that much of it is shipped to China and ends up in land dumps there.  Genuine recycling is important but the economic recession has made recycling uneconomic. That does not mean that we should not recycle, but we should find a way to encourage recycling so that we can free ourselves from the tyranny of the market which has consistently poisoned our environment.

What happens now in most developed countries is that recycling is usually made mandatory by the use of various sticks and carrots. In the United Kingdom there are far more sticks than carrots to drive the donkey on. There is a tax on landfill, so local authorities either have to pay the landfill tax (which they recover from the people living in their area by raising higher taxes) and they have to find an outlet for the household waste.

There have been a number of recycling centres that take household waste all over Europe. Many of them have grown up very rapidly and have enjoyed success as commercial enterprises. Most recycling involves packaging not the actual product that the consumer wants to buy.

The success of recycling plants was based on what seemed a limitless demand for raw materials from India and China. Steel products that could be recycled used to command nearly £300 a tonne; now you cannot find anyone to give away the scrap to, and the same applies to paper and plastic products for recycling. The cost of raw materials has fallen and with those falls so the economic necessity for recycling in developed nations has fallen.

In undeveloped nations there has always been more recycling because poorer people will try to reuse any of the discarded material of the wealthy if they can. It has always been thus.

So what happens if the recycling industries have to put their businesses on pause, or worse still close them down, because for example, they based their business models on selling recycled plastic material which no one now wants ot that everyone can buy at far cheaper rates when made out of un-recycled material, because prices have fallen? The recycling industries are very important to the environmental health of our planet. They slow down the using up of resources and prevent the obscenities of landfill sites, oozing methane and burying problems for future generations.

Recycling household waste is in many parts of the United Kingdom mandatory. People have been fined for trivial mistakes or omissions. Those fines have met with widespread publicity and that creates hostility towards recycling, which is something that we should all do. However, if we carefully separate our paper, glass, plastics and empty cans and put them out for the Council’s recycling contractor to collect, what does it benefit the environment if at the end of the day the recycling contractors cannot sell the carefully, painstakingly sorted waste, so simply dump it or store it?

It is time to rethink the issue and when rethinking anything it is usually best to test first principles. The principle that we operate from now is that anyone can use virtually any packaging to make the goods more attractive, more consumer friendly but the cost of disposal rests with the consumer, through his or her taxes and effort. To my mind that is certainly putting the cart in front of the horse.

We need to develop some rules about packaging, and if we do that making rules about recycling and landfill taxes will be less of an issue. What should we do? I suggest some radical action:-

1.     Make plastic bags illegal

2.     Make plastic food wrapping including polyurethane trays and hard plastic domes on fruit illegal

3.     Some goods need careful packaging; television sets need to be packed carefully for transportation with all kinds of materials. Devise a system so that the vendor of such equipment is under a duty to collect and reuse such packaging.

4.     Return to glass bottles with deposits, rather than using plastics.

5.     Require plastic liners and similar products to be biodegradable.

6.     Tax packaging; you will be surprised how many people will go for the unpackaged option.

If we had these kinds of rules we would eliminate much of our packaging and a significant amount of our household waste. The life changes would not be significant; after all it is mostly simply a question of remembering to take your shopping bags with you before you live the house.