Battle in Print: Recycling: Reducing waste or waste of time?

Martin Earnshaw

From hand-me-down clothes to the reuse of scrap metal, people have recycled throughout history. However, it was usually poverty that forced people to ‘make do and mend’. It is a sign of our affluence that we can now buy and throw things away without worry. We can afford to replace our clothes rather than mend them and ensure that we have good quality food at all times (a by-product of which is we can throw away some of it). This gives us the time to do other things. It is therefore something of an anomaly that we are today increasingly asked to think about the implications of our waste.

‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ has become an almost unquestioned mantra of our time. It is claimed that recycling will save the planet. Less energy and fewer resources would be used in manufacture and disposal, and recycled or composted food waste would reduce methane emissions from landfills. More pressing from the government’s point of view is the need to meet EU landfill reduction targets. If these are not met by 2013, the UK stands to pay £200 million in fines (House of Commons 2007: 6). Finally, it is claimed that recycling saves money, therefore increasing economic competitiveness.

Changing behaviour

It can be questioned, however, whether municipal (household) recycling is worth it. Recycling has become a prime political issue. As is typical of politics these days, the trend is to exhort us to change our behaviour. Behaviour change is necessary, because as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2007 Waste Strategy tells us, ‘If everyone consumed as many natural resources as we do in England, then…we would need three planets to support us’ (Defra 2007: 9). The waste strategy is essentially a call for ordinary people to ‘share responsibility’ for their consumerism. Recycle Now and similar campaigns offer helpful hints to help us reduce our waste. If the requested behaviour changes are not forthcoming, however, then the carrot and stick are employed.

Despite talk of incentives, there are economic reasons why the stick is more likely to be employed than the carrot. As the House of Commons Committee on Refuse Collection notes: ‘The downside of an incentive scheme is that someone would have to pay for it’ (House of Commons 2007: 32). In other words, people would have to be fined regardless of whether everybody recycles or not. Some methods of encouraging people to recycle, such as fortnightly or ‘alternate weekly’ rubbish collections, are cheap. However, this has the downside of lumbering householders with biodegradable rubbish for two weeks. The Commons committee says that there’s no evidence that this poses a health risk, though it acknowledges that it might be difficult to persuade the general public of this given the strength of anecdotal evidence about flies and maggots (15).

Financial penalties tend to encourage fly-tipping, dumping of rubbish in neighbours’ bins, and transfer of unsuitable waste to the recycle bin. The proposed solutions - ‘bin police’, electronic bin chipping, and most recently the proposal that councils provide lockable bins to prevent disputes over the ownership of rubbish (35) - promote an atmosphere of surveillance that sits ill with the idea that a culture of recycling makes us more responsible.


Sorting rubbish at home is inherently inefficient. Inevitably the wrong things get put in recycling bins. It is not only ‘antisocial’ individuals (the kind of people who throw takeaway food into recycling bins) who confound the recycling trade. Genuinely confused members of the public are often misled by false or over-complex information sent by councils. In addition, there are ‘over-eager recyclers’ who feel that everything should, in principle, be recycled. The workers at the recycling plant end up having to sort out the rubbish at the other end in any case (Girling 2005: 330).

The recycling of food waste runs into similar problems. Organic waste from landfills produces 40 per cent of the UK’s methane emissions (Defra 31.1.2007) and methane is over 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The case for reducing this seems compelling. The methods for dealing with it, however, are very basic and piecemeal. Composting will only work for vegetable waste or for those who have a garden. The waste strategy recommends that food waste be collected by the council for anaerobic digestion, which turns food waste into biogas and solid fuel. It needs to be questioned, however, whether this will result in any significant reduction in greenhouse gases, given the unappealing prospect of having to store rotting food in open boxes and the rather questionable merits of biogas as an energy source (despite ‘vigorously’ pursuing energy from biomass, Denmark only produces 3.6 per cent of its energy from this source) (Defra 2007: 76).

It is often assumed that the amount of time people spend recycling is trivial. However, people have to commit ever-increasing amounts of time to make this effective, devoting time to looking for products with biodegradable packaging or washing and drying old clingfilm (van der Zee 2006). It is no surprise that those most obsessive about waste reduction tend to be pensioners (Trowsdale 2007). It is such an outlook that prompted the government to support the campaign against disposable nappies, despite the fact that parents with babies are the most pushed for time (Smeaton 2007). Households that lack space, i.e. inner city households, can also find recycling bins burdensome (House of Commons: 18-19).

Despite all this, households only produce a small percentage of the total waste stream in the UK. The Commons Committee on Refuse Collection notes, ‘for all the political heat it generates, municipal refuse represents only nine per cent of the total national waste stream’ (this figure falls to seven per cent if you consider waste from households only) (3-5). It is incredible that so much effort has been put into reducing such a small percentage of waste. Although municipal recycling rates have quadrupled over the past decade, in practice this still accounts for just two per cent of the nation’s total waste stream (5).

Zero waste

Perhaps reducing municipal waste isn’t the main point. Recycling is part of a policy outlook that aims to change the way we think about consumption. The slogan ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ derives from the EU’s waste hierarchy. It is the reduction of the consumption of materials that is important (Defra 2007: 9). A popular way of conceptualising this is the idea of ‘zero waste’, an ideal that is impossible to realise in practice, but aims to make producers and consumers think about reducing their environmental impact. This idea shifts the focus away from waste disposal towards considering the entire life cycle of a product. A mobile phone, for example, damages the environment throughout its production (resources, energy), retail (transport), use (energy), and disposal (transport, toxic emissions) or recycling (energy) (22).

The purpose behind recycling municipal waste may, therefore, be that by getting people to be more mindful of their consumption, we can put more pressure on businesses to be less wasteful in the production of products in the first place. This is most popularly articulated though the idea of reducing unnecessary packaging. Recycling helps in raising awareness of this ‘issue’ because ‘as more and more people are asked to separate their garbage and see the “green” bin brimming with packets, cartons, and plastic pots (all nicely rinsed please) etc. [they] come round to [the anti-packaging] point of view’ (Girling 2005: 290).

‘Excess’ packaging may seem unnecessary, but it is essential for a consumerist economy. Packaging allows goods to be sold in bulk and keeps food fresh. In accordance with the cost-cutting motive, manufacturers are likely to reduce packaging over time anyway, one example being the milk carton replacing the heavy glass bottles of 20 years ago (Morris 2003). To some extent there is a convergence between the priorities of business reducing waste and Defra. ‘Waste is a drag on the economy and business productivity’ (Defra 2007: 9). Last year Wal-Mart saved $3.4bn by cutting its packaging by five per cent (Economist 7.6.2007).

It may seem like common sense that government-imposed targets help reduce waste even more. Julian Morris (2003), however, worries that such targets distort or create more waste. ‘The government’s (or regulator’s) knowledge of what use of resources is most efficient is likely in most cases to be less complete than that of the individual manufacturers, who must day after day assess the costs of inputs and prices of outputs’. Nor are the general public likely to know what packaging is or isn’t essential. A 2003 report from the Department of Trade and Industry noted, in response to a complaint that a packet of dishwasher tablets held less than half of its capacity, that laying the tablets side by side would require an army of packers whereas the current, more cost-effective method was to pour in the tablets by machine (Girling 2005: 294).

The problem is that the message of environmental sustainability is incompatible with the ideal of economic efficiency. The environmental point of view is anti-consumerist, and stresses carbon neutrality. In this view any energy expended is inherently wasteful. For manufacturers the most important thing is cutting down on costs while ensuring that products are still high quality. While this tends to mean that cutting waste makes economic sense, it does not make sense to put ‘saving the planet’ above other considerations.

One response to the lifecycle issue, for example, is the development of the idea of ‘cradle to cradle’ design (Economist 7.6.2007). This essentially means that waste is reduced at the design stage: ‘all materials should either be able to return to the soil safely or be recycled indefinitely’. The problem with the idea of the ‘closed loop’ is that it implies that the same resources should go back into production. As Defra (2007: 9) puts it: ‘We must break the link between economic growth and waste growth’. This aims to decrease our impact on the environment, but it only seems to work if you assume a static economy where the same number of goods is produced over time. However, because growth means the expansion of economic activity, you would expect human use of resources to increase in spite of efficiency gains.

China: Sustainability vs. reality

The furore over waste for recycling ending up on a landfill in China is another example of the way that the discourse of sustainability doesn’t fit in with the reality of a modern economy. China is the largest importer of recyclable materials in the world (Economist 7.6.2007), accepting roughly 50 per cent of plastics collected for recycling in the UK (Girling 2005: 350). A major reason for this is that China can buy materials in bulk, a benefit of cheap labour, undercutting UK buyers (Vidal 20.9.2004). The standard objection to this is that all waste should be recycled locally and that shipping vast consignments around the globe contributes to climate change. It is not immediately obvious why this should be a problem. Given that the products are made in China anyway, why should they not be recycled there? A more convincing objection is that the recycling practices employed in China are crude and dangerous to workers and the environment. Migrants in China’s coastal regions dismantle anything from plastics to electrical components without protection, melting down toxic components in woks for example (Girling 2005: 351). China has outlawed such practices, however, even if they still go on under the radar. Pieter van Beukering, an economist, has noted that in time developing countries might be able to develop proper economies of scale based around recycling (presumably wiping out the illegal cottage industries in the process) (Economist 7.6.2007). For better or worse, the recycling industry is subject to the same laws of the market as any other enterprise and was never likely to fit its ‘sustainable’ public image.


Cutting waste is something that manufacturers have always sought to do, and despite the current limitations of recycling technologies, for example, in dealing with plastics and electronic waste, these technologies are bound to get better (see Economist 7.6.2007 for an interesting discussion).

The assumptions that underpin the public debate about recycling, however, are unsustainable. Despite the disproportionate focus on household waste, this accounts for a small percentage of the overall waste stream. The process of sorting waste can be inefficient and burdensome to households, and to councils. Neither does the reality of recycling conform to a public image of sustainability. Given that most people wouldn’t spend their free time up to their elbows in muck to save Wal-Mart money, we need to ask whether household recycling is a waste of time.

Martin Earnshaw is a researcher and editor for the Future Cities Project.


Defra (31.1.2007). ‘Methane Emissions by Source 1970-2005’. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) e-digest Environmental Statistics.

Defra (2007). Waste Strategy for England 2007. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). May.

Economist (7.6.2007).’The truth about recycling’. Economist

Girling, R. (2005). Rubbish: Dirt on Our Hands and Crisis Ahead. London, Transworld.

House of Commons (2007). Refuse Collection: Fifth Report of Session 2006-07. House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee. 10th July.

Morris, J. (13.1.2003). ‘Markets, government and waste’. Spiked Online.

Smeaton, R. (14.3.2007). ‘Real nappy week stinks’. Spiked Online

Trowsdale, A. (9.7.2007). ‘My war on waste’. BBC News website.

van der Zee, B. (2.11.2006). ‘Zero tolerance’. Guardian.

Vidal, J. (20.9.2004). ‘The UK’s new rubbish dump: China’. Guardian.

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