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Talking rubbish

Certain waste management processes are promoted as the answer to our rubbish-generation problem. But at what cost?

It seems likely that the Municipal Waste Recycling Bill, currently at committee stage in the House of Commons, will become law before Parliament rises for the summer.

The bill, put forward by Labour MP Joan Ruddock, now has government backing. It enshrines in law a target of 50 per cent of municipal waste to be recycled or composted by 2010. Moreover, it demands that local authorities provide recycling facilities 'at or near to the home', and promote waste minimisation, recycling and composting.

This is just the kind of thing to get all-party support. After all, what could make more sense than to reduce waste?

The government's Strategy Unit report Waste Not, Want Not, published in November 2002, cites four reasons for changing the current policy of using landfill for the vast majority of waste: to reduce emissions of methane (a greenhouse gas); to avoid wasting valuable resources; to respond to the unpopularity of landfill; and to address the fear that some areas, particularly in the south east, are running out of space.

Current practice in the UK is compared unfavourably with other countries where recycling rates are much higher. But is recycling really the best answer?

Avocado advocates

One problem is that just because something can be recycled or reused, that does not automatically mean that anyone wants it. It may be possible to recycle more types of waste but if the resulting goods are uncompetitive with those produced from virgin materials, the whole exercise could be pointless. Even if recycling the product is economically viable, there needs to be a demand for it. As one academic put it recently, 'if you no longer want your avocado-coloured bathroom suite, why should someone else?'

This problem is neatly illustrated by the suspension of the municipal recycling program in New York on the grounds that the excess costs outweighed the environmental benefits, especially when the need to provide a separate waste transport service for recyclable waste was taken into account. Another report by the Strategy Unit estimates that in the UK a kerbside collection scheme based on separating different types of waste would cost £500 million per year, not including the additional cost of processing.

Economically, landfill often makes a lot of sense and, with care, can be designed to avoid pollution problems, but other alternatives exist. Incineration, for example, using the heat generated to produce energy, is a viable means of claiming back something from our waste, and could be more economically viable than dealing with the complexities of waste separation and processing.

Biogas facilities capture the waste gases produced by landfill, again allowing the production of erstwhile wasted energy.

Rubbish teaching Recycling remains the Holy Grail of waste management, but if the arguments about economics and environment are not entirely convincing, why is there such a drive to implement recycling schemes?

A clue can be found in the shelves of any school library. Here you will find plenty of books filled with cuddly characters extolling the virtues of recycling. Learning about sustainable development is part-and-parcel of the National Curriculum. Nobody is ever taught the economic advantages of landfill, for example.

One American writer describes the effect of these lessons, even at an early age: 'At the age of four, my daughter earned her second diploma At the graduation ceremony, titled Friends of the Earth, I was lectured by four and five year olds on the importance of safe energy sources, mass transportation and recycling. The recurring mantra was, 'with the privilege of living on this planet comes the responsibility to care for it'.'

Environmentalism provides an arena for values that seem divorced from traditional political disputes.

Who could argue with the need to save the planet? And while many of the big environmental issues seem to be separated from everyday life, recycling provides an opportunity for everyone to make a difference.Moreover, dealing with waste daily teaches us what a greedy and wasteful society we live in. What government would miss the opportunity to teach us that we are too well off?

And it's not just our children getting the message.Waste Not, Want Not describes how the act of recycling changed attitudes to environmental issues for adults, too. The report says: 'Even though many initially only used the service because it was available, the act of participation itself then seems to foster a greater sense of environmental responsibility.'

In the end, the new Municipal Waste Recycling Bill may be imposing additional costs on local authorities and taxpayers for all the wrong reasons. In certain circumstances there will undoubtedly be benefits to waste recycling, reuse and minimisation, but we should not rush headlong into supporting schemes just because they have become the new orthodoxy.

Critical appraisal of the issues, the costs and the drawbacks used to be part and parcel of business assessments. If financial costs are conflated with political attempts to promote civic responsibility and moral behaviour, the resultant schemes could prove to be expensive mistakes.

Rob Lyons is a writer on science and health issues

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