Blame the Minoans. They had the bright idea to dig large pits away from their homes, fill them with their rubbish, then cover the lot over with earth. Three thousand years on, and not much in municipal waste disposal has changed, except that where they left something to excite archaeologists by throwing out their broken amphoras, we now mark our place in history with discarded tyres, plastic bags and empty cereal packets.
It's taken a bit of time, but we are finally, albeit with the speed of a turning tanker, starting to confront our "out of sight, out of mind" attitude towards our rubbish. Or rather, we have been forced to confront it as available landfill space rapidly runs out or faces death by EU directive. The options now before us are stark: we can consume less and thus throw out less, we can try to reuse or recycle as much of our rubbish as possible, or we can wallow in our putrescent effluence and be damned.
Sadly, given our nation's addiction problem when it comes to shopping, the first option seems a distant fantasy; a bit of a downer when you consider that 80% of what we buy ends up being discarded within six months and that UK homes are currently tossing out 26m tonnes a year (40m tonnes by 2020). Which leaves us - assuming we don't want to face the last option - with recycling. Cheeringly, whether it's because of a growing awakening to the problem by us, the tossers, or through increasingly persistent arm-twisting by local councils (themselves under pressure due to the threat of missed targets and fines), we are starting to adopt the habit of recycling. In fact, last week the government even gave us a little pat on the back for our efforts. The amount of household waste being recycled over the past four years has doubled, it said.
The sound of party poppers, however, is dampened somewhat when you learn how our recycling and composting rates - on average, 17% - compare with other countries. Swiss households, for example, recycle 53% of their waste.
But is recycling really the answer? What of the oft-heard claims that it can take more energy to sort, collect and recycle something than it does to produce it in the first place? And what of the cynical belief that what we send to be recycled is just tipped, out of view, on to landfill anyway?
Having once visited my local recycling centre, in large part to put my mind at rest about the latter point, I can confirm that what we put out for recycling is definitely separated and sorted. I stubbornly stood and watched my bottles - with about 40 tonnes of other bottles - being driven off in a truck to be reprocessed. The energy-comparison argument comes down on the side of the recyclers, too. According to WasteWatch, the energy used to recycle plastic bottles is eight times less than required to manufacture the same virgin polymer. Producing recycled paper uses up to 70% less energy than virgin paper, as well as using far less water. And recycling just one glass bottle saves enough energy to power a TV for 20 minutes.
There are some caveats, though. "Trash miles", like food miles, are becoming a problem. Much of what we recycle is sent abroad, often to China where worker conditions can be poor, because there is simply no market here for most of the materials. For example, half the plastic bottles we diligently put out for recycling are now thought to be sent to China where they command a price of £50 a tonne, whereas here they are virtually worthless. China has quickly become the world's leading rag-and-bone man, but what some see as a sensible market-driven solution can seem short-sighted when you factor in transport-related emissions and the health of the workers (who often sort through toxic waste, such as old computers, with their bare hands).
It would be much better - and laws are soon to start enforcing this - if much of what we bought was designed with reuse or recycling in mind. It would be better still if we interrupted the waste stream by curbing our overall consumption, as well as buying goods made from recycled materials where possible (Recyclenow.com has examples). Recycling should really be seen as the last resort.
You say ...
Susanna White, Bath I'm committed to recycling, but until the supermarkets learn to stop over-packaging goods that local councils are not prepared to recycle, we are fighting a losing battle. I return all unnecessary packaging to my supermarket. If everybody did this, it would send a message that consumers are tired of paying for unwanted packaging.
Claire Lackford, by email Recycling would be worth it if I didn't have to drive out of town to do it, only to find the paper bank full and a sign telling me to chuck it in the household waste bins.
Next week: Should I use loyalty reward cards?
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