Azara Blog: Recycling is not all it is made up to be

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Date published: 2006/04/07

Timothy Cooper (of the University of St Andrews) says on the BBC:

Recycling has become a moral obligation for our times.

If we do not take the trouble to wash and sort all those reusable plastics, papers and tins, then we risk - at the very least - guilt.

In some places, those found infringing the sanctity of our multiplying multi-coloured bins run the risk of being fined or face the withdrawal of their waste removal service.

But why do we go to so much trouble? How useful is recycling? Can it really solve the "waste crisis"?
The amount of household waste generated increased from nine million tonnes in 1939 to 14 million tonnes in 1968. By 2005 the figure had doubled, reaching about 30 million tonnes.

At first, local authorities responded to the crisis by tipping. Out-of-sight out-of-mind was the watchword, and everyone was content to forget their waste.

However, the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s made forgetting increasingly difficult. Waste was everywhere, ruining the pristine condition of nature and reducing reserves of raw materials. Rather than delivering progress, the affluent society was rapidly running into the environmental buffers.

This was not at all what capitalism was supposed to deliver, and it put the ideology of consumerism under threat. If supermarket shelves were to continue ringing up profits, if old cars were to go on being replaced with new, people had to be persuaded to forget their waste again.

What better means to achieve this than to persuade them to recycle?
What the revival of recycling has really done, like the myth of "ethical consumerism", is to give the impression that the environmental crisis presented by global capitalism can be indefinitely delayed if only we all do our bit.

It places the blame for environmental problems not on those who make the profits, but on a faceless mass of "consumers".

It prevents us asking the important question of capitalism: how much longer can this go on, and if it is to end then how?

This addresses one part of the issue. Indeed, EU and UK regulations directly promote the idea that it does not matter how much waste you create as long as you "recycle" a large percentage of it. But the article fails to address the important question of whether "recycling" in this way is better or worse than landfill (in terms of energy use, etc.). If it is better, then by all means do it. Unfortunately the article instead veers off into the usual academic middle class diatribe against "global capitalism". Millions of people have to work long hours doing horrid jobs and paying a lot of tax in order that the government can fund academics (amongst other things). Like it or not, it is capitalism that allows this to happen.

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