Cambridge 2000 memos

October 2004

Cambridge City Council has sent out a questionnaire about recycling. According to the accompanying leaflet, the UK government is requiring that 36% of rubbish must be recycled in 2005/2006. (This target is probably for household waste only, although the leaflet does not make this clear. One also assumes the percentages quoted are based on weight, but again the leaflet does not say.)

The leaflet claims "recycling our rubbish means that precious resources are saved and energy consumption is reduced". They provide no evidence that this is the case. If recycling is so wonderful then why is it so expensive? It is so expensive because it takes a heck of a lot of energy to do, so in fact it's possible that energy consumption is increased. The only way the government can make recycling look better than landfill is to try and tax the latter to death (which they are doing).

You could argue that landfill should be taxed, since it is possibly creating an environmental problem. Recycling is also taxed (indirectly) since the energy required to recycle is taxed (a bit). Needless to say the government does not bother to inform the electorate what it believes the true environmental cost of either method of disposal to be, and so we have no way of evaluating whether the current levels of tax are fair or sensible.

The current typical situation for a household in Cambridge is that ordinary rubbish is picked up every week from a large covered black bin. Every other week recycling is picked up. This consists of a small open black box which can contain (ordinary) paper, tin cans and glass bottles, and a large covered green bin which can contain compostible waste, including kitchen waste and cardboard. Currently the city does not pick up plastic or more exotic mixed materials (e.g. orange juice cartons) for recycling directly from houses. (You can bring plastic to fixed recycling points.) With this system the leaflet says that the city recycled around 24% of rubbish in 2003/2004, so far below the 2005/2006 target of 36%.

The main proposal of the city to increase the percentage of recycling is to reduce the weekly black bin collection to every other week. Evidence from nearby areas (e.g. South Cambs) implies that this will probably hugely increase the recycling rate. It will also have a few other side effects:

But the main problem with this entire exercise is that it is based on the percentage of recycling achieved, independent of the quantity of waste produced. Thus according to the government, as long as you recycle a large percentage of your waste you are a good citizen and it does not matter how much waste you create. And no matter how little waste you create unless you recycle a certain percentage you are a bad citizen. This has ridiculous implied side effects:

The only truly environmental approach is to weigh all your waste and make you pay a certain amount per kilo for waste going to landfill and another certain amount per kilo for waste going to municipal recycling. The amount per kilo should be based on the total (actual plus environmental) cost of the waste disposal. (Of course this is still simplistic, in that some waste is more harmful than other waste, but it is not practical for the collectors to do a more careful analysis than just weighing the rubbish.)

For those who are interested in the gory details, the questionnaire comes in two sections. We give the questions as stated, followed by commentary.

Section 1: This consists of 12 questions about recycling and 7 questions about the respondent.

Question 1: Please tick which materials you recycle in your black box:

Commentary: This is one of those horrid black and white questions. For example, foil after it has been used is often full of grease or otherwise dirty. It is not clear (the government has never bothered to give clear instructions) whether or not that kind of thing should be recycled or put in general waste, so the average citizen would judge it on a case-by-case basis. Similary, loads of mail (not just junk mail) comes with little plastic windows behind which the address shows, and the citizens of Cambridge have never been told whether it is allowed to include that in the recycling or whether one is supposed to carefully cut out the plastic before recycling the rest. A good indication that it is mostly the chattering classes who return the questionnaire will be that the usage of the black box claimed by respondents to this question will be much higher than is observed in practise by the city. (And similarly for many of the other questions.)

Question 2: When you put out your black box for paper, glass and cans is it:

Commentary: Another black and white question. First of all one is supposed to judge what "full" means (believe it or not it is not that clear). Secondly, the amount a household puts out almost certainly varies from week to week so presumably one is supposed to take an average. Thirdly, the average is almost certainly not half or one or greater than one, which are the only options. Finally, most people probably do not remember how full their box is (especially averaged over multiple weeks), they have better things to think about. The results of this question should be treated with great scepticism. The city might just as well have asked the rubbish collectors what the answer is, they would have a much better idea.

Question 3: Do you home compost in your garden (answers "yes" or "no")?

Commentary: Of course this does not ask what or how much you compost. Many people are unwilling to compost meat leftovers or bones because they believe it attracts rats, but compost vegetables, etc. So another black and white question.

Question 4: Please tick which materials you recycle in your green bin/brown sack:

Commentary: This is a question where if you do not tick one of the first four answers it is not clear whether this is because you compost the material yourself or whether it is because you dump this stuff in general waste (i.e. the black bin). So the results are rather meaningless.

Question 5: What materials do you take to recycling centres?

Commentary: Another question whose results cannot be interpreted meaningfully unless the questionnaire processors are clever enough to cross-check the first three categories with the results of Question 1. (You never know.) And many people who want to "recycle" books will probably take them directly to charity shops so that they can be reused (i.e. sold). So if you do not tick this box it is not clear if that is because you throw books in general waste, give unwanted books directly to charity shops, or generally do not throw books away because they are too precious. Similarly with textiles.

Question 6: Do you put out your rubbish every week (answers "yes" or "no")? What are the 3 main items in your rubbish (black bin or plastic sack)?

Commentary: The first part is another black and white question. Probably nobody puts out their black bin literally every week since people do go on holiday now and again. Presumably one is supposed to mean on average and it is up to the respondent to determine some threshold above which the answer is "yes". And many people put out their bin every week just because otherwise it gets very smelly.

Question 7: How full is your black rubbish bin when you put it out?

Commentary: The problem here is similar to that in question 2.

Question 8: Looking at your black bin for refuse and the lists of recyclable material in Question 1 and 4, how much that is in your black bin could be recycled?

Another black and white question.

Question 9: Do you ever have excess rubbish (apart from bulky items) that won't fit in your bin (answers "yes" or "no")?

Commentary: This belongs with Question 7 (after all Question 2 has an "overflowing" option). But again, if you have excess rubbish once a year it is different than if you have it every week, so the question here is too black and white to be useful.

Question 10: Which of these would you find useful (and therefore use):

Commentary: This is one of those questions where they do not tell you the cost to the city and so it is not clear whether any of these is a good idea. For example, the city does not currently recycle plastic at the kerbside because the trucks that pick up the recycling do not have a spare slot for plastic. So recycling plastic at the kerbside is almost certainly going to involve a great expense, much greater than any possible benefit. And with textile recycling it is not clear whether they mean that the textiles would be reused (by being given to charity shops) or recycled in the usual sense of that word (by being composted or incinerated).

Question 11: If you are a parent of young children or are planning a family in future, would you be interested in:

Commentary: Another bad question. If you do not tick the boxes it is not clear whether this is because you are not a parent of young children (and not planning a family in future) or because you are and are not interested in such things. Of course most parents probably would tick one or other or the boxes (heck, one is being offered something for nothing so of course one would respond enthusiastically) so we could assume this is true. It is widely believed by the chattering classes that "real" nappies are more environmentally friendly than disposable ones but no evidence for this is given one way or the other. "Real" nappies involve more work which is why people prefer disposable ones. This is a perfectly good example of why people should pay for the cost of disposing of their waste. But they should also pay for environmental damage caused by the use of the energy it takes to wash "real" nappies (and also the damage caused by the washing powder). There should be no "incentives", which are just a way to pass the real cost to the environment onto other people.

Question 12: What things prevent you from recycling more with the services that exist already:

Commentary: It's hard to believe the results of this question will be accurate or believable in any sense, it is too black and white.

Question 13: Do you live in a:

Commentary: Useful if correlated carefully with the results of the first 12 questions.

Question 14: Do you have a disability?

Commentary: A bad question because it does not specify the disability (e.g. having young children is a disability), it's possible someone else in the household other than the respondent does not have a disability, and perhaps worse of all it implies that people with disabilities should somehow be distinguished from other citizens (why?).

Question 15: How many people live in your house?

Commentary: Useful if correlated carefully with the results of the first 12 questions.

Question 16: Please describe your ethnic origin:

Commentary: These are the usual racist categories used in the census. A thoroughly objectionable question especially in a questionnaire about recycling. One assumes it is here only because the city wants to know if respondents are typical of the ethnic mix of the city (why?). Ethnicity, age and gender (see below) are not the important factors here. What really matters is how rich the respondent is, for rich people will almost certainly be over-represented.

Question 17: Age:

Again, one assumes the question is here only because the city wants to know if respondents are typical of the age mix of the city. Of course Cambridge has a large student population. The questionnaire was sent out during the summer when most students are not here. So it is almost certain that they will not be fairly represented.

Question 18: Gender:

Quesion 19: Postcode (free form answer)

Section 2: This consists of various options, all to be rated on a 1 ("good idea") to 5 ("not a good idea") scale.

Option 1: We would reach our recycling target and save some money which could be used for other environmental projects.

How do you rate this option?

Commentary: This is the status quo except for the black bin collection moving from every week to every other week. Note that nowhere on the questionnaire does the city allow people to express an opinion about the status quo. This is because like most questionnaires, they don't want to hear opinions that disagree with their own view. Even if all the respondents chose the option "not a good idea" you can guarantee this will not change what the city will do, i.e. they will definitely stop weekly black bin collections.

Option 2: It is likely that we would exceed our recycling target. This option would cost more than option 1 but could still be met from the existing budget.

How do you rate this option?

Commentary: This has got to be an expensive option. The questionnaire does not state how much because as usual the city does not want to give a cost benefit analysis, they only state that they estimate it will be within the existing budget (a fairly useless statement, we can all no doubt think of better things to do with the money).

Option 3: In addition to either option 1 or 2 above, we could put more resources into enforcement, such as fining people who don't recycle enough of their rubbish. This could boost the recycling rate further but it would cost extra money. Do you think it is a good idea for the Council to take enforcement action against people who don't recycle enough of their rubbish?

Commentary: The chattering classes in Britain, as elsewhere, are generally control freaks, and this is the question for them: fine all those "sinners" who don't recycle enough. Unfortunately this question is exceedingly poorly stated since it is not clear what "recycling enough" means. If you compost your own organic waste then your recycling rate is lower than for people who do not, so is composting now considered a social evil? Or is not "recycling enough" only meant to refer to people who put glass bottles in ordinary waste (i.e. the black bin) when they could put it in their black box. If the control freaks of Cambridge really want to fine people who do not "recycle enough" then they had better make sure the rules are perfectly clear. For example, if a glass bottle is broken should it be put in the black box (which means that rubbish collectors might cut themselves, since that material is dealt with by hand) or should it be put in the black bin (which is dealt with by machine) and possibly incur a fine from the recycling police. And as before, there is no cost benefit analysis given although it is pretty clear that here this is a negative situation.

Option 4: In addition to either option 1 or 2, we could make extra provision for certain materials that it is difficult to recycle, such as nappies. This could boost the recycling rate further but it would cost extra money. Do you think it is a good idea for the Council to make extra provision for certain materials that are difficult to recycle?

Commentary: Again there is no cost benefit analysis given. And the beneficiaries are hardly going to say no since they are passing the cost of their waste onto other people. Also if you say this is a "good idea" it is not clear at all what materials you want extra provision for. If the real purpose of the exercise is to make people pay for the waste they create (as it should be) then it is stupid to make exceptions for politically correct categories such as nappies.

Option 5: In addition to either option 1 or 2, we could make extra provision for certain houses or flats where it is difficult for people to store recycling bins and boxes. This could also boost the recycling rate further but it would cost extra money. Do you think it is a good idea for the Council to make extra provision for certain houses and flats where it is difficult for people to store recycling bins and boxes?

Commentary:Again there is no cost benefit analysis given, so it is impossible to make a sensible choice.

Finally, at the bottom of the questionnaire they say "If you have any further comments please tell us", only the space provided is about a square inch, so it is obvious that they don't really care what we think.

Cambridge 2000 memos