Monday, July 7, 2008

Recycling Ideas

A few weeks ago now I met with some Council officers to discuss recycling performance in Cambridge, and the apparent contradiction between the City Council’s claims to be leading its ‘peer group’ of Council’s when it comes to recycling, and the fact it has fallen behind neighbouring Conservative lead Councils in Cambridgeshire like Huntingdonshire and Peterborough in recycling performance.

It is fair to say that few people find refuse collection the most riveting topic (in the list of exceptions to this, a certain City Councillor springs readily to mind) – but it is also true that for many people refuse collection is the only Council provided service they can readily identify, so when life is made harder or more expensive, residents want to know where their extortionate Council tax is going. Moving general refuse collection to fortnightly is bad enough for some people, spying on bins and fining people for not recycling causes another level of outrage.

I didn’t blog at the time on recycling with some of the huge amount of detail I picked up the other week, but Gordon Brown’s headline news today asking people not to waste food has caused me to think again about the issue. Rather than the usual Labour spin/gimmick/initiative, today’s news may be rather more meaningful for a change. One of the facts I learnt when I met the recycling officers was that the average household throws away £400 of food per year. Imagine not doing that, and saving £400 a year – a reduction in Council tax of this amount would be huge.

The trouble with recycling is that what is sensible and what appears obvious aren’t always consistent. We ship plastic chips from bottles for recycling back to China. Seems daft – except the ships may be going back empty, and China is the only place where waste plastic can be used. And on today's topic of food waste, a commentator pointed out that planning ahead – buying ingredients days in advance at the supermarket may actually cause waste if plans change and food goes out of date - better to keep the minimum of fresh food in the fridge on a necessity rather than 'may be needed' basis.

I believe the Council can and should be doing more to encourage recycling, but how should it go about this? – I have some general principles:

1.Although many residents do care about recycling, or rather reducing waste, in general local Councils care much more. This is because they have to deal with much bigger problems than fortnightly bin collections, such as where to site controversial landfill pits or incinerators, management of said facilities to reduce their toxic by-products, paying landfill tax etc – hence the disconnect between the extreme measures some Councils want to introduce and resident’s acceptance. We need to educate residents, and encourage the idea that it is a social responsibility to reduce waste where possible.

2. Carrots not sticks. We shouldn’t attempt to coerce, fine, or bully people into reducing waste and helping with recycling (we already pay enough to the Council) - it needs to be positively in people’s interests. Hence my enthusiasm for Gordon Brown’s announcement today, but with high prices for all commodities such as packaging, it should become increasingly clear that throwing away useful materials is ultimately costing people money.

3. Recycling needs to be made as convenient as possible. The current rules and sorting required are just too complex – we need to make more sorting and recycling automated and mechanised, we need to make collection of all types of recyclable materials easier for residents so that recycling is easy to understand and easy to do. Other areas are better at this than Cambridge.

4. Finally, more of the focus should be on producers of waste – manufacturers, as this is where the real progress needs to be made in reducing the amount of waste with products, and making them more recyclable. The WEEE waste directive is a step in the right direction, but it is pressure from the consumers, not the government that will move producers fastest. For example, on food products all too often consumers go out of their way to buy the pretty/overpackaged/overpriced products (for reasons best known to experts in behavioural aspects of marketing) – a product in a colourful outer cardboard wrap will outsell a bland, minimally packaged tub of essentially the same foodstuff. We need a widespread change in consumer attitude to start looking critically at how products are made and packaged, and avoiding those with excessive packaging. Campaign groups are already working on this, we need to get to the consumer tipping point that will result in real action.

I hope to be able to develop these ideas into some specific policy suggestions over the next 4 years!

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