Azara Blog: Cambridge Matters: recycling for the city

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Date published: 2005/07/03

The city of Cambridge has an unfortunate tendency (as do all other bureaucracies) to produce endless streams of junk mail for its citizens. The latest arrived this week, "Cambridge Matters: recycling for the city". Needless to say, the most likely first destination in most households for this magazine is the recycling bin.

The main point of the magazine is to warn people once again that starting in October the ordinary waste will only be collected once every two weeks, instead of weekly as now. And we will be given a blue box for plastic recycling, to go along with the black box for newspaper, glass and cans, the green bin for organic waste, and the black bin for other waste. This kind of effort is being repeated all over the world. Whether it actually does any good has never been demonstrated by the city, but it is certainly something the chattering classes who run Cambridge believe in. Indeed it is stated blithely in the magazine that the new system "shifts the focus away from the outdated approach of landfill and towards the more sustainable approach of recycling". Well anybody who uses the word "sustainable" obviously has no real justification for their statements.

Of course there is the usual selection of patronising commentary one expects from government propaganda. For example, did you know that washable nappies "come in lots of cool colours"? Oh, that's alright then, the lack of colour was the one thing that was stopping people from using them. And did you know that "not all packaging exists solely to ensure that your goods make it home in one piece, some packaging also provides a great opportunity to carry advertising directly into your home"? Thanks, we didn't know that, so that's why the plastic bag says "Sainsbury's" on the side.

There is also the usual flurry of statistics for the sake of statistics. Did you know "that emissions of the powerful greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide have fallen by a huge 41% since 1990"? Unfortunately the blurb fails to mention exactly whose emissions. But hey, it's 41%, and that's impressive. (And a number that high makes one suspicious that they are also leaving out some other relevant point of information.)

There is also the usual confusion between correlation and causation: "If you live less than a quarter of a mile from a landfill site, your home is worth on average £5500 less than a similar house situated further away. It is calculated that the value of UK housing stock has been reduced by £2.48 billion due to landfill." Well, needless to say they do not put landfills next to Buckingham Palace or in Kensington and Chelsea, or on Latham Road, they put them in relatively poor rural areas where the locals can be safely ignored by the powers that be. It is hardly surprising that their homes are worth less, even ignoring landfill. Of course it has got to be the case that your home is worth less if there is a landfill next door, but how much has been caused by the landfill (rather than just correlated with it) is another question. And your house is also going to be worth less if you are right next door to a huge recycling centre. Or indeed an industrial warehouse. Maybe we should ban all those as well. And if the city is willing to state the landfill harm so explicitly, then perhaps they should offer compensation to the people of Milton who live near the city landfill site and "recycling" centre (i.e. dump).

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