Oh recycling eh!
Recycle, recycle, recycle.
There are messages everywhere.
They're on your bins, in the supermarkets, and if you go to the big smoke these days you'll even get hit by the "Recycle for London" slogan on a double-decker bus!
The only way you can miss it is if you've got your head buried in a newspaper, but even then you can't get away from the campaign, as you turn the page and see the words "Please recycle this paper".
Before I started The Rubbish Diet, I used to do my bit. It all started in my student days, returning the empties to the bottle banks. Now that's what I call responsible drinking. I might have had a hangover but at least I recycled my bottles.
However, I never really understood the importance of it all.
I just followed instructions. There was a bottle bank, so I used it. Then came the paper bank. I used that too and before I knew it there were recycling facilities on my doorstep. Not just at the community centre or the supermarket, but actually next to my front door in the form of a recycling box, which was eventually followed by a wheelie bin.
It used to be simple with glass, paper and tins.
Then came plastics...so many different plastics...and then Tetrapaks, which contained all sorts of materials in one package.
And with all this array of products came so many new rules...crush this, wash that and remove whatever. Stamp on it, squeeze it but whatever you do, don't use plastic bags or overfill your bin! Then whenever you're passing drop the rest in at the HWRC.
Bimmin' 'eck. It was no longer about following simple instructions, it was like remembering how to operate the VCR.
And I still never considered the big picture.
I just carried on rinsing, lifting, separating and squashing. But with so many things to remember there were lots of times when I simply couldn't be bothered. I was far too busy! What with work, kids, hobbies and other responsibilities. Forget washing up yoghurt pots, it was much easier to bung them in the rubbish bin. And what about the jar of mouldy whatever-it-was, oh yes, just chuck that in too, fully intact with the jar included!
Stuff that could have been recycled, just ending up in landfill.
All because I'd never made the connection and even if I had there might not have been the facilities to lead me to the holy grail.
And because of that I must have despatched so much rubbish to landfill in the last 10 years that if you laid it all out it would be large enough for a game of professional football.
But with the way things are now and if the trend continues over the next 10 years I'd struggle to fill my small garden with all the rubbish we throw out.
Because at last I've looked beyond the bin and have realised why it is so important to recycle whatever I can.
And I can't believe how it took a Zero Waste Week to make me come to terms with my responsibility.
In a modest fashion I class myself as an intelligent old bird. I might be a bit dizzy at times, but my academic credentials are there, with a Masters degree in Information Management and certificates in Marketing, I understand processes and systems and am responsive to communications too. And geez how I've buried my head in so many magazines and newspapers, absorbing information all the time. I've watched the news and read the Internet, but I still didn't really get it until the zero waste challenge came along.
It was only then did I realise that how bad things have got and that there were targets that our councils had to meet to reduce the amount of waste we send to landfill. Meanwhile landfill tax was rising and we as taxpayers had to foot the bill. And God help us if we go over the landfill allowance because somewhere down the line, we'll have to pay for that too.
But why hadn't I connected all this before?
Suddenly my rubbish became my responsibility and throwing any recyclable material into landfill felt like I was paying twice. Once to buy it in the first place - remember packaging doesn't come free - and paying again to dump it in landfill. Again, that service comes at a cost too because the more we dump into landfill, the more we have to pay.
I woke up to the fact that all this stuff I'd been throwing away had value.
The realisation hit home that bunging a yoghurt pot, jar and the odd bottle into the rubbish bin was just the same as throwing money in there too.
And who in their right mind would throw cash in the bin?
But what about the supermarkets and retailers? Surely they play a huge part and should pay to get rid of their packaging? After all it's their responsibility too and not just mine, but the reality is that we'd still end up paying for it somewhere down the line, through product costs and VAT on our purchases. And to get rid of all that packaging would be futile, we'd simply end up with more food waste hitting landfill, which is another issue in itself. We just have to be patient that producers are making changes slowly and changes are coming.
But it didn't stop at money. I learned that landfill was running out and our rubbish still had to go somewhere. Digging another hole was not the answer, not just due to limitations of space, but because of the effect of landfill on the environment, with leachate entering the water table and methane impacting on climate change. Yikes.
But it's got to go somewhere and the alternative is incineration, or Energy from Waste, which is another hot topic amongst environmental campaigners. I'm no environmental scientist, and on this I have no answers. All I know is that we'll end up having to pay for that too and as responsible citizens we should be aware of the arguments for and against, not just the money but our health and the environment. Only then can we make up our minds.
What worries me too is what will happen to the rubbish that is collected which contains materials that could otherwise be recycled? Will that be extracted from the low quality residue or simply burned as fuel? Other European countries with Energy from Waste plants actually have excellent recycling results but they are different cultures, incorporating different methods of collection systems, with greater frequencies of collection and often pay-per-bag incentives to keep residual waste down. Try that here and we could find rebellion on the streets.
We are a society that needs incentives. At face value recycling is a simple fact of life, a process that underpins - or should underpin - our consumer culture, but beneath the surface it can be perceived as a responsibility that goes against our civil liberties, our choices and personal freedom.
Bring in the bin police with their warning cards and fines and the situation gets even stickier, especially due to the confusing nature of recycling itself. If you're doing your bit to the best of your knowledge and your bin gets rejected or you get a fine, it's so easy to get angry and then recycling becomes just one commitment too many. A thankless task for no reward.
But there are rewards. Take the council tax for instance. If we recycle more and landfill less, then we save the landfill tax associated with dumping our rubbish in the ground. But it's not easy to identify those savings because each year the council tax keeps going up with inflation and rising costs from other services elsewhere, which may even be associated with waste management. Perhaps a separate waste tax would help, so we can feel there is financial benefit somewhere along the line.
And what about at the other end. While we're recycling at home, it's easy to forget and not even consider where this stuff is ending up and how it's being reprocessed.
The only time it hits the public consciousness is when the headlines get sensationalised with mentions of landfilling recyclables and stockpiling. They never tell you what's actually working. It's just all doom and gloom. Take this week's Tonight programme for instance, where a researcher roamed the country with a wheelie bin of plastic looking for somewhere to recycle it. If he'd come to my house in Suffolk, I could have popped it into my wheelie bin. The nearest he got was Hertfordshire and with a sense of failure returned the plastic contents back to its owner.
So if you look past the headlines and dig a bit deeper, you'll find that progress is taking place.
And as my own awareness has developed along the way, I've realised that to make it really work it's no good just being committed to recycling. To reap the benefits of your efforts with the old recycling bin, commitment is needed at the other end too by buying the recycled products that are hitting the market.
And it is becoming easier to buy such products, from drinks bottle, stationary and even electronic products. In an interview last night I was even alerted to the new Motorola phone, made from recycled PET (rPET), which is a huge step in the right direction indicating an optimism and confidence in using recycled polymers in the manufacturing of mass market consumer goods.
For a while I have been interested in finding out what actually happens to our recycled plastics and last night I was lucky enough to talk to Keith Freegard, director of Axion, a UK business that produces high-grade plastics made from recycled post-consumer raw materials. The company specialises in taking shredded plastics from all sorts of products including hairdryers, televisions, fridges as well as end-of-life vehicles and converts them into polymer resin or compounded pellets that can be used in injection-moulding machines to make new products.
The polymers have been developed to the same grade as virgin material allowing manufacturers to easily switch between virgin and recycled resources and Keith revealed that customers who buy their recycled polymers pay only 75% of the cost of virgin plastic. What's more, the company highlights that using the recycled materials also offers massive carbon footprint savings, equating to just 200 kilos of CO2 per tonne of recycled plastic compared to 3000 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of virgin material. That's a potential saving of 93%.
So their job is not just to sell the financial benefits but to sell the environmental advantages too.
And for anyone who doubts the value of this as a unique selling point (USP), you've only got to witness the demands currently made by retailers. For example, Keith told me about a dominant supermarket chain who has rejected a manufacturer's product but said they would consider it if it was made from recycled plastic.
As consumers, our hands can often feel tied, so producer and retailer responsibility are a vital process in making sure the recycling loop works efficiently.
But there are some key issues in the manufacturing of consumer goods. For instance, Keith asserts that manufacturers need to be more effective at designing products that are easier to recycle. He quotes lacquered plastics, such as silver televisions and laptops, are harder to convert to a high quality polymer than those made from black plastic. There is also the issue over the number of plastics that are used in products.
"In some products 80% of the plastics used are made from 10 different polymers." he told me. "We also find huge mixes of polymers in smaller electrical goods too. It would be much more efficient to reprocess these products if the mix of polymers was reduced to just one or two".
But Keith Freegard is confident that change will come and with emerging technologies and market demand he hopes that one day this will lead to plastic manufacturing enjoying the same levels of closed loop recycling as other materials such as paper and steel. However this won't happen quickly. It could take as long as two decades.
While interviewing him, I couldn't help but think that his business was part of a new kind of Industrial Revolution.
And when you consider the significance of the first, it's rather exciting to consider the innovation that is driving the current levels of change.
You see despite being committed to Reducing and Reusing, I still love the thrill and the value that certain new items bring.
Some day in the future I would love a new television and no doubt a new hi-fi too or whatever the latest term is by then. And I mustn't forget the new laptop when this current one gets old and crawls along on its last legs. Then in a decade's time a new car may be needed too.
And if these could all be made from recycled plastic components instead of virgin resources, wouldn't that be great. It would mean I could still have my cake and eat it, without any guilt about the planet.
You could call it a state of perfect consumption or even Utopia. Then again, others would call it closed loop recycling.
It's not about tree-hugging hippies, or just about saving the planet, it's also about sustaining our consumer driven culture that is so hard to leave behind.
I truly believe that we are in the middle of a new revolution.
And every time you pop something in your recycling bin, you're contributing to the innovation that will drive that change.
And when you look at it that way, responsibility takes a different turn. It's no longer just about avoiding guilt or worrying about the state of the planet. It's also about contributing to technological change and securing the future availability and affordability of consumer goods produced by sustainable manufacturing methods.
How exciting. I love change, I love technology and I can't wait to see the results of the innovation that lies ahead. It might be a while, but it will come.
And something tells me, while I'm waiting, I'll never look at my recycling bin quite the same way again.
Thursday, 5 March 2009
Oh recycling eh!