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The great recycling myth

There's absolutely no need to separate our rubbish by hand

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

My frail elderly mother has recently moved in with us in Epsom and in so doing has joined the 15 million people worldwide who spend their days sorting through rubbish. Mum, however, does not get paid $1 a day. She does it for nothing. This is because we now have five separate bins and every morning she and the other 10,000-plus members of Surrey’s army of housewives sort through their rubbish to make sure it all goes into the right one.

I am of course describing the phenomenon known as kerbside recycling, and Epsom Council would like you to think that it is good for the environment. But my day job is raising money for environmental projects, including waste plants, and I know that kerbside recycling is all a big con to save the public sector money. Everybody involved in the waste industry knows this simple fact: all rubbish can be sorted much more efficiently by machines without the need for any human intervention.

That may come as a surprise to you, but think about it for a moment. We are the generation that built the large hadron collider. Do you really think that it has been beyond human ingenuity to invent a simple and cheap machine that can distinguish a tin can from a glass bottle? Of course it hasn’t, and there is now a whole industry supplying clever bits of technology to separate your unsorted rubbish into the component parts of glass, metal, food, paper and plastic. One of my clients even has a machine that uses reflected light to distinguish between different types of plastic and different colours.

So given that these machines exist, why are we still sorting through our rubbish? The legislation behind kerbside recycling originates in Brussels, with the laudable aim of making Europe a ‘recycling society’. The EU bureaucrats then get very prescriptive about exactly how to do this: clause 28 of the 2008 EU directive on waste says that member states should ensure ‘that waste is separately collected if technically, environmentally and economically practicable’. Our government has decided that yes, it is practical for households to do this, and so from 1 January 2015 local councils must collect waste paper, metal, plastic and glass separately. No explanation, no discussion of alternatives: just do this because we tell you to.


However, what is very telling about all of this is that ‘practicable’ is a forgivingly subjective concept and gives the government a handy get-out to avoid imposing source separation on the rest of the UK waste stream. Of the 288 million tons of waste that were collected in the UK last year, only about 31 million or 11 per cent was domestic waste.

The remaining 259 million tons were cheerfully collected by a thriving private-sector industry contracting directly with waste producers and even householders. Nobody there is insisting on five different bins or limiting the amount of waste you can put out or saying they will only collect it every two weeks. The commercial and industrial waste producers are not circumscribed as we householders are because the government knows the disastrous impact it would have on our economy if they were. Legislation for 90 per cent of the waste stream is aimed at the end treatment of waste, not how it is collected.

And despite being left alone to get on with it, disposal contractors can achieve very high levels of recycling. One of my clients runs a big skip business and with mechanisation achieves recycling rates from completely unsorted skip waste in excess of 90 per cent. In comparison, local councils achieved about 43 per cent last year and Ashford in Kent came in at a measly 12 per cent. My client is incentivised to buy the equipment to do this because the increases in landfill tax over the last few years have made the cost of putting untreated waste into a hole in the ground so punitive.

It is worrying that our economic rivals outside the EU are not imposing this obligation on their citizens. The odd angsty liberal country like Canada and New Zealand may be following suit but the global powerhouses of India, China, Russia and Brazil are not.

So having survived the Blitz, tuberculosis and the Wilson Labour government, my mother is ending her days sorting through rubbish like a slum-dweller on a landfill site in Nairobi. She does this because the bureaucrats in Brussels tell her she has to. They know that there are mechanised ways of getting the garbage to the same place, but these machines cost money.

Turning the whole of Europe into a recycling society is a bit like building the Pyramids. It’s a worthy and ambitious aim, but very expensive unless you use slave labour along the way.

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