Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"Recycling is great for the kids"

This is the argument I had to deal with on the Richard Bacon Show on Radio Five Live in the early hours of this morning. It doesn't save precious resources and it costs money (even if it's not a huge amount) - but the real problem is that recycling is used to project a moral message: we're all greedy and we've got to change our ways. And for kids, it's apparently a great way to teach them about responsibility. But if we're not screwing up the planet, then how can they be 'responsible' for it?

Here's something I wrote on the subject in 2002:

Recycling religion

'Hi! I'm Recycle Rex, spokesdinosaur for the Department of Conservation. My message is simple: "Recycle, reduce, reuse and close the loop." Recycling is one of the easiest and best things we can do for Planet Earth. By recycling and then buying recycled products for home, school and play, we can really make a difference.'

Recycle Rex features on the California Department of Conservation website. While this spiked debate weighs up the pros and cons of recycling, he's just the kind of cuddly character that is ramming the message down our children's throats. British kids can plough through school libraries full of books on the subject. Or they can have fun online as Ollie Recycles: 'Join Ollie and his friends and find out about the 3R's - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.' So much for reading, writing and arithmetic.

One startled American writer recalls how early the lesson gets learned: '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 privilege comes responsibility" as in "With the privilege of living on this planet comes the responsibility to care for it."'

Environmentalism has been latched on to by those keen to teach kids civic responsibility. And while we can't all do something directly about global warming or air pollution, we can all recycle. So, children get taught that separating the rubbish, collecting cans and bottles and keeping paper to one side is a Good Thing.

But it's not just the young'uns that are getting the message. Apparently, adults need to be taught, too. The UK government's Strategy Unit recently commissioned MORI to find out about people's attitudes to recycling: 'While the public considers the disposal of society's waste a significant environmental concern, it is not an issue at the forefront of their minds. The transient nature in which it is considered appears insufficient to establish and maintain habitual patterns of recycling.'

Yet once the recycling habit is inculcated, people can soon find themselves filled with a self-satisfied glow each time they pop down to the recycling bins: '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.'

The problem is that the benefits of recycling are still far from clear. While some products have been recycled or reused routinely for years (aluminium, paper for newsprint and water, for example), in each instance there has been a clear economic case for doing so. It is likely that further recycling, at least in Britain, will continue to be more expensive than landfill or incineration - unless the government artificially doctors the market.

The UK government Strategy Unit also commissioned a subsidiary report on the cost of collecting waste for recycling 5 . Costs for collection alone, based on refuse levels for 2000/1, have been estimated at over £500million per year. That does not take into account the costs associated with actual processing, although these costs can be offset against savings made in landfill and through sale of recycled products.

Another cost often overlooked is the time it takes householders to separate rubbish. How will the success of a waste separation scheme be ensured? The choices seem to be moral blackmail or the heavy hand of the law, as Germans have discovered.

In the absence of an economic incentive, governments' interest appears to be in using environmental issues as a kind of secular religion: weekly worship at the bottle bank. With traditional forms of allegiance like the church, trade unions and the monarchy receiving diminishing respect, new ways of creating a sense of common purpose are needed.

Environmentalism has a commonsense quality, in that most people can see that messing up the planet must be wrong. It is also conservative, an argument for slowing down the rate of change. And in recycling, it implies a form of activity that is suitably individualistic and a direct consequence of our increasing wealth. Bless me Father, for I have binned.

Recycling is just one means among many for dealing with waste. One of the benefits of economic growth is that we can choose to do things in a way which is not necessarily the cheapest but has other advantages (eg, aesthetic) which make it worthwhile.

Sticking with a system dominated by landfill won't 'cost the Earth'. Switching to recycling might cost a small fortune. When we assess how to deal with waste in the future, however, we should take the moral dimension out of the discussion.

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