Saturday, July 21, 2007

What a load of rubbish!

My latest job is "environmental canvasser".

This means I spend 20 hours a week knocking on doors in Gorton asking people if they use the Council's recycling service, taking comments, ordering bins, giving information, and taking orders for compost bins.

Gorton is an area with a lot of social problems - although there's a fair amount of hostility toward the council, who people think I represent, and cyncism about what recycling is all about, personally I enjoy engaging with people in a friendly way. I'm not interested in preaching to people about why they ought to be recycling/composting; I'm interested in hearing about people's lives. If I can help in a small way by letting people ge things off their chests, I'm happy. If I can help to defuse people's cynicism, I'm pleased. If I can get a frightened person to oen the door and feel glad that they did, that's a result im my book. And of course, I'm never happier than when taking on asylum myths, and best of all giving respect and appreciation to people from refugee backgrounds.

But I've also found the whole exercise enlightening, not only about the struggle to maintain decency in an area swamped with deprivation, but about the ins and outs of recycling.

From supporting without enthusiasm the idea of householders separating their rubbish and having separate collections for this that and the other, I've gone to feeling that all this is essentially an exercise in guilt-tripping people, while giving them an opportunity to salve their guilty consciences in a meaningless way.

What changed it for me was the realisation that the brightly cloured bins for paper, glass, etc, cost in the region of 40 pounds each! Perhaps that's acceptable as a once-off cost, but there's a continual attrition of burnt out and vandalised bins paid for from Council Tax. Then there's the cost of the separate collections; the hassle that householders feel about obligatory sorting of rubbish and storing of bins; and the likeliehood of fortnightly collections; the difficulty faced by older people in managing multiple bins and collections; to say nothing of the gross failure of the collectors to collect, and their attitude toward cardboard in the paper collection.

My feeling is that we should move to a completely different system. Communal recycling bins within a hundred yards of every home; optional, paid-for, home collections, which could be provided privately; and the costs of recycling/disposal, as opposed to collection, to be met by the commercial producer of the rubbish.

The rubbish stream could be monitored to ascertain the originator of the material; in practice it should be straightforward to identify the branding of 90% of material and charge the brandholder according to the costs of dealing with that particular material. Manufacturers/branded retailers (Tesco et al) would then have an incentive to use less material that is expensive to handle (plastics) - and council taxes would be reduced by 80-100 pounds a year.

For doorstep collections, the charge should be a flat fee per collection; householders can be encouraged, but not compelled, to separate their waste. Certainly, separation of cans and glass is easily achieved in the depot. Only paper is really worth keeping apart.

Instead of householders feeling browbeaten by the council, the rubbish collection service would be one which they choose and take ownership of. One of the stated aims of householder rubbish separation is to raise people's awareness and force them to take responsibility for their waste; while this does work to some extent, I feel that it tends more to increase people's alienation from the council and the environment generally. Certainly, people can feel that by going to the trouble of maintaining separate bins, they have done their bit for society, whereas in reality the changes society needs to make are far more wide-ranging.

An example is with the consumption of plastics. The theory is that people will become aware of the amount of plastic in their waste, and will then do something about it; in practice, they do become aware, but feel helpless. There is as yet no sign that consumer opposition to plastic results in any commercial pressure on manufacturers and retailers.

It's a bit like a screw mechanism: in theory, you might think that applying downward pressure on a screw would force it to turn and bite into the wood - in fact it might, but you might break your hand first; however, turning the screw will force it to bite down with only a minor effort. Forcing consumers to move manufacturers' behaviour can work eventually, but there's a much more painless way forward.

There endeth the Lesson!


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