Where there's muck there's brass - and it could be yours

Plans to reward us for producing less rubbish could end up in the bin. By Nicole Veash
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The Independent Culture
"You know that space just between the top of the kitchen cupboard and the ceiling?" says Emma Flynn. "Well, at one stage we had 400 bottles crammed up there."

Like millions of others, Emma, 27, and her four housemates intended to be conscientious recyclers. But things got in the way. Work commitments, lack of transport, someone else's responsibility, that kind of thing. And what began as a plan to recycle became a distinct reluctance to throw anything away.

Many households are familiar with the symptoms of good intentions. First the empty wine bottles mount up on top of the cupboards and flow on to the floor. Then the orderly pile of newspapers becomes so huge that it becomes almost impossible to open the door. And finally, someone in the household gets fed up and puts the whole lot out for the dustmen in black bin bags.

As Environment Minister Michael Meacher knows, domestic waste is a problem. On average, each household produces a tonne of rubbish each year. And each year, the options on how to dispose of it are narrowed down.

When the long awaited Government paper on a National Waste Strategy was unveiled yesterday, Michael Meacher flatly denied suggestions that households would be taxed in relation to the amount of rubbish they produced.His own spin on the proposals is that an incentive would be provided for those households producing less rubbish. In other words, if there are fewer black sacks outside your door you will benefit financially.

Emma Flynn has shared with students, and most recently with four young professionals. "We would put out stacks of rubbish each week," says Emma, "At least six black bin bags. More often than not, we were cooking individually so you would have rubbish from around eight meals going in the bin each day. I reckon we went through a four litre milk container a day, which takes up a huge amount of room in the bin."

"We always felt we should recycle, but it was never done. Because there wasn't an actual doorstep collection we had to hump the things down to a local supermarket, which was difficult without a car.

"Some kind of incentive might encourage people to take individual responsibility for their own waste."

Many European countries, and some states in the US, require residents to separate their rubbish at source. In Germany, kitchens come complete with at least two bins, one for food scraps and the other for products such as glass, paper, plastic and tins, all of which are recycled. If householders throw away waste which can be recycled they are liable to be fined. Britain lags far behind much of Europe on recycling issues. We haven't yet assimilated environmentally friendly waste disposal methods into our culture.

"Recycling is low down on our priorities," says Steve Eminton, editor of Material Recycling Weekly. "We have a disposable culture and we need a positive approach to change this. Financial incentives could encourage people to change their habits, but the Government must introduce pilot schemes to determine whether this is actually an effective move in the right direction."

Suzanne Barry, a 43-year-old mother of two, used to live in Aberdeen, whose council which was so in tune with recycling needs that householders had two collections a week: one for general rubbish, one for recyclable rubbish.

"When I moved to London I was shocked at how few recycling facilities were available," she says. "I would call myself semi-green. I used to buy recycled products and save all my bottles, tins and newspapers, but because no-one comes to the door things are much more difficult."

Each week, Barry puts out ten black sacks of rubbish for the dustmen. It's mostly nappies, she says, but of course they are neither bio-degradable or eco-friendly. She is wary of the proposal to tax families which produce more rubbish. "I think families should be allowed to have a certain amount of rubbish each week," she says. "Obviously a couple without children will always have less waste than us."

Michael Jacobs, general secretary of the Fabian Society and author of The Green Economy, says that although the Government's first pronouncements on the recycling debate are positive, major strides forward still need to be taken.

"Our foremost need," he says, "is to have the right infrastructure in place to accompany the Government's suggestions. Most people think that when they take their waste to recycling bins it is automatically recycled. But very often this isn't the case.

"We've seen huge amounts of waste paper build up because we don't have the recycling plants to cope with it. Manufacturers and packagers need to start producing a wider variety of recycled products. Only when they do that will we have the fully integrated recycling system that we need."

Jane Stephenson, chair of Waste Watch, runs a community recycling consortium in the west country.

"Bristol is one of the few parts of the country that provide free kerbside collections," she explains. "Without this type of service across the country, the Government's proposals have little chance of working."

Having been involved in kerbside collections since the early 1980s, Stephenson says that recycling isn't an exclusively middle class thing, as some commentators believe.

"It's all about education," she says. "People need to know more about the effects of rubbish on the environment. And if someone actually comes to their door to collect their waste, then recycling affects them directly. They don't even need a car to go to the bottle bank."

Stephenson's acknowledgement that many local authorities are playing a far from proactive part in encouraging their residents to recycle is something, but the important thing, according to Suzanne Barry, is planning and follow-up. "The Government must set reasonable limits, taking into account things like nappies and kitchen towel. And they need to back it up with services, like door to door collections. If they don't, then people might just dump their rubbish on waste ground. And where would that get us?"