Wednesday, 17 December 2008

It's all about compost really

Recycling is one of the bedrocks of the environmentalist religion. Every local council exhorts us to sort out paper from metal from plastic from glass and put them each in different bins so they can be taken away and turned into something else, failure to do so can result in hefty financial penalties and being named and shamed as a murderer of fluffy seal pups. The problem I have with the religious fad for recycling is that it conflates two distinctly separate points and, at least to some degree, can do more harm than good.

First, let's take what tends to be called green waste. Grass cuttings, weeds, wood, vegetable peelings, leaves and the rest are the original recyclable materials because that is what happens to them in nature. Every plant eventually dies and every leaf, twig or branch that falls off it also dies. They break down and become part of the soil, in doing so they improve the quality of the soil for the benefit of other plants. That is why gardeners make compost heaps and have done so since the garden of Eden. The apple core and intimate fig leaves did not go to waste. Today councils collect vast amounts of compostable material from their own parks as well as from household collections and build enormous compost heaps. The resulting product is then used in the parks and, in some areas, sold to the public at a competitive price. The choice for councils is to reuse all this green waste or throw it away, and if they choose the latter course they have to buy compost for flowerbeds in parks at a far greater cost than the cost of piling up the stuff they have collected and leaving it to rot for a few months. All natural products should be recycled by composting for the simple reason that it is part of their normal life-cycle and will always save money.

Wool, cotton and paper fall into this category. All my newspapers and cardboard boxes go on the compost heap at FatBigot Towers - mix grass clippings 50-50 with paper and/or cardboard and you get a wonderful compost. Old socks, shirts and bedding take longer to rot down, so undecomposed bits are just added to the new compost heap when the old needs to be used. Apparently the market for paper waste has fallen through the floor, that should not be a problem it should just be added to the huge council compost heaps and recycled in the most efficient and economical way possible. As an informative aside, I will add that I have a separate heap for leaves because they take longer to rot down and do so by fungal action rather than bacterial decomposition; the resultant material is not rich in nutrients but wonderful for conditioning soil.

In an entirely separate category sits all the plastic, metal and glass they collect. This will rot down over time, in many instances a very long period of time, but the resultant product is not readily useable; so recycling these items is all about finding an alternative use for them. If there is no economically viable alternative use the whole exercise is futile. Unlike green waste there is no natural element to the process. They are potential raw materials for businesses to put to use and whether time, effort and money should be spent recycling them depends entirely on whether it is economic to do so.

When I was young glass was recycled by being washed and reused. Pills came in bottles which were taken back to the chemist, milk came in bottles which were returned to the dairy, beer came in bottles which were returned to the brewery. Such a simple and sensible system. To encourage customers to return bottles a deposit was often charged, quite a substantial deposit in many instances, up to tuppence (1p) on a bottle of lemonade that cost two shillings (10p). It was far cheaper for the producer to wash and reuse bottles than to buy new ones and the customer would have to pay two shillings whether or not he returned the bottle so there was an obvious incentive for him to do so. These days we put bottles into big bottle banks from which they are sent to a crusher for the start of a whole process of turning them into something else. I can't help thinking it would be much more sensible to encourage glass bottles and jars to be kept whole and reused in their current form. Those that do break and those glass items which are not reusable (such as broken window panes) should be turned into something else if possible, but many a bottle can be reused safely time and time again; it seems a great shame and a great waste of effort to destroy something that does not need to be destroyed.

I would guess there are far fewer metal or plastic items which can be reused in their existing form, so for them the only question is whether they can be turned into a raw material for use in a future industrial process. Metals present fewer problems in this regard than plastics because they can always be melted down, purified and reused, whereas the same cannot be said for all plastics. What can be said with absolute certainty is that nothing is saved, least of all the planet, if there is no market for used plastics. Collecting them separately, chopping them up and turning them into something else is a waste of time if no one is prepared to buy or use the new product, it is equally a waste of time if the stuff produced by the recycling process is more expensive for manufacturing businesses than alternative raw materials.

Green waste is one thing; plastic, metal and glass waste are another. The two should not be treated the same.

My further point is that religious recycling of plastic, glass and metal diminishes the incentive to avoid using these materials in the first place. We are all familiar with excessive packaging and how much waste it produces. I recently bought a memory stick because I was planning a journey by train and these days it seems compulsory to leave a message stick on a train seat. I suppose it's a quaint British tradition like a minty chocolate on a posh hotel pillow. The item is about two inches long, half an inch wide and weighs less than one of poor Gordon's fingernails, yet it came encased in a moulded plastic package six inches by three with a cardboard insert and staples to hold the cardboard in place within the plastic. To my mind that is a complete waste. All I needed was the memory stick and some instructions ("before leaving your seat ensure you have loaded confidential material on the memory stick, do not put it down the back of the seat, the memory stick must be visible to any passing journalist"). Put them in a little cardboard box if you have to, but a large plastic package is just absurd.

Although many of us would prefer not to have the plastic packaging in the first place our guilty consciences are salved to some extent by the knowledge it can be put in the recycling bin. We are expected to feel we do good by giving the council our plastic. I wonder how much greater the pressure would be for dispensing with unnecessary plastic packaging if that fluffy sentiment did not accompany disposal of the offending item.

I don't want it to sound as though I think councils have got it wrong because my view is that they have done the right thing by encouraging recycling (albeit that they have been forced to do so by the EU's landfill tax). My concern is that everything with the recycling genre is seen as the same when the reality is that some material will always be recyclable from its very nature whereas other stuff is only potentially recyclable depending on cost. Now that the market for recycled plastic and for many metals is lower than for many years, attention should be concentrated on using less rather than using the same amount and pretending what we use can be reused.


dmc said...

I live in a block of flats.We have a rubbish shute for household waste and a cardboard store too.On tuesdays both sets of bins are emptied into the same lorry.On wednesdays the row of 6 recycle bins are all emptied into the same lorry too.Glass,plastic and paper,what is the point of people religiously sorting when it is ignored.I am thinking of camcording it all in case some poor soul gets done for not sorting their rubbish.

dmc said...

Another waste of an asset is sewage.Its either treated or flushed out to sea to pollute our coasts.It would be very easy to turn it into power through methane digestion using underground digesters.Once built there are few moving parts and the end product is fertiliser as well as gas.I cannot understand farmers not utilising this to power their farms.
Hopefully now,with the price of power getting do expensive,it will become a viable proposition.

TheFatBigot said...

I've heard two different versions of the "all in the same lorry" business, Mr DMC.

Apparently some of the lorries have internal compartments so the various types of detritus remain separated, whereas others just go straight to the landfill site.

Anonymous said...

Yes ive seen those too but this lorry is right outside my window and i can watch the rubbish get scrunched up together as the rear faces my direction.I think sometimes the internal compartment explanation is used when there isn't one to get them off the hook.They are not always practicing what they preach.There are also 2 compartments in every recycle bin and they are for different items again all tipped up together.
Sorry im anonymous today,i'm fed up with google making me sign up each time as it wont recognise my password.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, the reason for vast amounts of packaging on small items is to prevent them fitting easily into a pocket.....

selsey.steve said...

My brother runs a company in South Africa which re-uses a wide variety of waste platics. He makes fake logs which are used by the SA Forestry people to make benches and tables which need no maintenance.
He has to beg for his "raw" materials, they are so rare!

TheFatBigot said...

Exactly the point, Mr Steve. For so long as he can sell the final product at a profit the recycling exercise is worthwhile.