By Alex Ross
When I lived in Leeds, I chucked all my recyclables into a bin and, issues with the local bin men throwing them into the general waste lorry aside, I knew it would go away to be sorted and recycled. Upon moving to Bradford, I had to sort my recyclables myself, and throw away things like plastics and cardboard that, previously, I could recycle. A friend, moving from Wakefield to Leeds, put all his glass bottles into his recycling bin, where it was left for months as the bin men refused to handle glass even though they do in Bradford and Wakefield.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s ever found this situation perplexing, and although it’s good that our recycling rate has risen under Labour to over 30%, after inheriting a measly 8% from the Tories, the fact is we’re still well behind our European neighbours. A friend who lives in Cambridge, where they have a bin for food waste as well as a recycling bin, told me that his German friend found even this amount of recycling laughable. In Germany the national ‘Green Dot’ system has yielded packaging recycling rates of over 70% and overall recycling rates have topped 50% in several European countries. These countries will be paying far less in fines than the UK will over the next few years as EU fines really kick in.
Sometimes it’s not even an issue of which local authority you live in, but the type of residence. My mother lives in a council house in Leeds and it was only within the last couple of years she actually had the opportunity to recycle anything. I lived ten minutes away in a private residence and could recycle most of my household waste. Up and down the country people in flats and maisonettes struggle to have access to any recycling facilities. This means that while some people are recycling none of their waste, others will be recycling upwards of 60%.
The problem as I see it is that we have a partly decentralised recycling service, where each council deals with recycling in the way they see fit. In such a situation it is inevitable that more niche recycling of products falls by the wayside, as it is uneconomical for councils to deal with it on their own. Someone who worked for Bradford Council told me that one council offered plastic recycling and ran it at a loss.
A further problem is that by sending so much of our recyclable waste abroad for recycling, even if more economical and green than sending it to landfill, encourages cynicism and inaction among cynics and climate change sceptics. A lack of recycling infrastructure encourages this approach, as well as encouraging councils to look to incineration or ‘energy from waste’ as it has been re-branded, to avoid sending waste to landfill.
As a consequence of this we do not as a country have a single consistent recycling policy. My solution to this, and the theme of my campaign on the Labourspace website, is threefold:
1. For the government to take over the control of recycling in this country and create a National Recycling Service guaranteeing everyone access to basic recycling facilities.
2. A massive ‘Green New Deal’ infrastructure expansion building new recycling factories up and down the country, providing long-term jobs and minimising how far our waste has to travel for it to be recycled, reducing CO2 emissions and cynicism in the recycling process.
3. The third step would be for the government and all local councils to set up procurement contracts for the resultant recycled products, such as paper and card, to stimulate demand for recycled materials, guaranteeing a minimum level of demand allowing the green industry to expand, providing further jobs and boosting our economy. A government procurement contract could help provide value to recyclable materials. The NHS, for example, is one of the world’s largest organisations, and has a purchasing power of £20billion a year. Having just published a strategy to reduce its carbon footprint such a recycling-orientated procurement strategy would make a huge difference. It would be more economical to do this within a national programme than piecemeal through individual councils where few can afford it, the results don’t provide value for taxpayers’ money and the government picks up the tab in the form of EU fines.
Once the NRS was up and running, it would be expanded to include plastics and more awkward to recycle items such as tetrapaks and batteries, 12.5% of which have to be recycled by 2012 under EU law. As it would be rolled out nationally, and as the Green New Deal would build facilities to deal with the waste, it would be far more economical to do this with a National Recycling Service, providing long-term ‘green jobs’, improved recycling facilities and bringing value for money for taxpayers.
So if you like the idea of a National Recycling Service, matched with unprecedented investment in recycling factories and government demand for recycled products and materials, head on over to my Labourspace campaign and sign up to support it!
Alex Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.