Rubbish is bad, recycling is good? Right. But who’s job is it? Should each individual take responsibility, or is it up to the government to encourage, coerce, or force where necessary, people to recycle their unwanted goods and packaging.
Targets have been set for the UK. By 2020 the UK is expected to have reached a ‘zero waste’ situation whereby all rubbish is turned into energy or recycled. An EU directive in 1999 mapped out targets to cut the amount of biodegradable waste in landfills, with fines of £180m for failure to meet these. The reduction from 18.1m tonnes in 2008 to 9.2m in 2013 is on track to be met, and by 2015 the amount being sent to landfills should be a third of that in 1995 – thanks to who?
Officially, it is the role of county councils, unitary authorities and borough councils to provide the facilities for waste collection and waste disposal, whether this via local council tips, weekly recycling collections, or public bins. Providing the capabilities for recycling to take place is only one stage – people actually have to do it – but it is one that the UK is particularly poor at. Local recycling facilities are patchy and piecemeal, another gamble with the postcode lottery. Homes in some area able to recycle plastic for example, but their neighbours not, whilst others have weekly recycling collections for paper, but must save up food jars for a month.
It should not be too hard for people to take their recycling somewhere else, rather than have it collected, and it is the habit of rubbish collections that mean we don’t. However, where to take the recycling that is accumulating in the corner of your kitchen? Most recycling bins are out of town, often housed at supermarkets, and require a car and a dedicated trip. Practicalities mean that rather than build up a pile of slightly soiled plastic to then battle with on the bus to take to the recycling bank is never an attractive option.
Zero Waste is a collective that aims to achieve just that, and their recent annual activity week centred around the theme of ‘One More Thing.’ If every household in the UK recycled ‘one more thing’, the total amount collected for recycling could increase by more than three quarters of a million tonnes, showing the power of the individual action.
Targets are all very well, but numbers do not always stack up, and vary between sources. Around 60% of rubbish in the average household bin could be recycled. Local authorities are targeted with recycling 30% of all waste in their areas. Approximately 17% of UK waste gets recycled. And we can’t rely on the government – in 2005 a BBC investigation revealed that 500 tons of ‘recycled waste’ had been dumped in a landfill in Indonesia.
It is possible. Other countries are bounding ahead. The vast majority of packaging waste is recycled in Denmark (84%), Belgium (79.1%), and the Netherlands (74.9%). Split bins exist on every street some areas of Eastern Europe. In the US and Canada many universities have banned bottle water – oblivious to the outcry from the manufacturers that is often deemed more important. Most families throw away around 40kg of plastic per year, but if that could be thrown away into the right bin, or saved to be easily collected, this would drastically reduce.
After the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed, trials of bin taxes took place in 5 areas, but were quickly scrapped. Cries of big brother and an uncomfortable feeling at the idea of your rubbish being monitored made people uneasy. If people are adverse to councils and authorities checking that recycling is going ahead, they must do it themselves. There is also the question of whether households should bear the brunt for a manufacturing environment that relies upon producing plastic goods and is over zealous in its packaging. There are estimates that between 10 and 20% of the cost of goods goes on the packaging, which ends up in the bin. Reduction at the source could well be not only the most environmentally friendly answer, but also cash efficient.
Windsor & Maidenhead Council partner with Recycle Bank to run a scheme whereby households are given redeemable points for the amount they recycle. In 2009, its first year of operation the area saw recycling increase from 35% to 45%. One of the keys to success has been the fact that many homes have their own individual wheelie bin – arguably it is not the cash injection, but the effort saving that is really winning people round.
A study by Recycling Guide found that 9 out of 10 people would recycle more, if it was made easier, and the general consensus that recycling is emphatically the right thing to be doing suggests that it is not carrot nor stick strategies that are the way forward, but providing the opportunity for recycling. Whether it can be deemed the ‘job’ of the society and framework in which we operate to allow individuals to take on the responsibility themselves it does seem that this is one of the few ways that it will happen. And we must make it happen.