Why They Love the Ritual of Recycling

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‘You should
treat people with respect instead of having a bunch of bin inspectors,
bin police.’ Eric Pickles, the communities secretary in Britain’s
new Lib-Con coalition government, has announced that the government
will not be pressing ahead with a ‘bin tax’ or ‘pay-as-you-throw’
schemes designed to charge householders based on the amount of non-recycled
waste they dispose of.

Yet Pickles
is proposing a new approach that is simply a bit more ‘carrot’
than ‘stick’. (On the same day, however, Bristol city
council announced
to introduce smaller bins and fine residents up to £1,000
if they don’t separate their waste correctly. Plus ça
change…) The incentive schemes Pickles is offering in place
of a ‘bin tax’, which would reward people for recycling
rather than punish them for not recycling, still assume that the
tedious business of separating our waste for recycling is the best
way of dealing with rubbish. Which it isn’t.

The power to
trial pay-as-you-throw schemes was legislated for in the UK Climate
Change Act of 2009. Five local authorities were allowed the opportunity
to test out the scheme. However, none of them actually tried it.
Pickles’ new alternative is based on a different scheme piloted
in Windsor and Maidenhead, a local authority west of London. An
American company, RecycleBank, is working with the council to offer
householders rewards for recycling. Residents sign up for a RecycleBank
account and then receive points for how much material they put in
their recycling bins. They can then exchange those points for discounts
at local shops or give their points, as cash, to charity.

Getting rewarded
for doing ‘the right thing’ seems like a pretty good idea.
‘It does not put the costs up’, Pickles told BBC News.
‘Actually, what it does is it increases the recycling rate
and puts money into the local economy.’ But this money is not
being magicked up out of thin air. Rather it represents the saving
made by councils by not having to pay the punitive costs for sending
rubbish to landfill because instead they are encouraging local residents
to sort the rubbish out. As RecycleBank boss Matthew Tucker told
spiked last year: ‘For every tonne that we help a council
divert from landfill, we take a percentage of that saving. If the
council doesn’t save, we don’t make any money.’ (For
a fuller discussion of the pros and cons of recycling, see Recycling:
an eco-ritual we should bin
, by Rob Lyons).

The saving
comes from the severe regime put in place to encourage councils
(with a financial gun to their heads) to stop using landfill to
dispose of waste. There are two elements to this. Firstly, there
is the landfill tax. This is charged on every single tonne of ‘active’
waste (in other words, anything that might decompose, including
wood and plastic as well as food) that goes to landfill. The current
rate is £48 per tonne. On top of this, councils are also set
targets for a maximum total amount of waste going to landfill. If
they breach those levels, a fine of £150 per tonne is imposed.

There are numerous
other ways to dispose of waste other than landfill and recycling.
For example, many more councils in the UK now use incinerators (or,
to use the proper parlance, energy-from-waste facilities) to burn
waste and generate electricity. If a combined heat and power scheme
is tacked on, then the waste heat can also be used to heat local
offices, factories and homes. So some councils have quickly built
energy-from-waste facilities to get round these fines and taxes.

the rest of the article

14, 2010

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