'Green guilt' set to transform Britain's throwaway society

Britain is rubbish when it comes to recycling, but now a £10m campaign aims to change the country's attitudes towards waste. Michael McCarthy reports on a revolution in the making

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What happens when the throwaway society runs out of holes in the ground to bury its waste? A great new national habit begins, that's what.

What happens when the throwaway society runs out of holes in the ground to bury its waste? A great new national habit begins, that's what.

At least, that's what the Government is counting on happening, as today it launches the biggest campaign yet to promote recycling in Britain.

Ten million pounds is being spent on a series of national television advertisements and local council publicity, featuring a specially designed recycling logo, to try to persuade us to change our old ways of thinking about waste disposal.

Many people believe it's long overdue. For years recycling waste has been something only foreigners did, especially those well-ordered and regimented foreigners from northern Europe, such as the Dutch and Germans. Britain has languished very near the bottom of the European recycling league, our poor performance exceeded only by Greece and Portugal.

Although the position is rapidly improving, the latest figures show that Britain still recycles less than 15 per cent of domestic refuse, compared with more than half in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands and about 40 percent in Belgium and Sweden.

The reason is the British love affair with the rubbish dump. (Or to use the technical term, the landfill). We have been so well supplied with derelict land and old quarries in industrial Britain, and with impermeable layers of clay in the soil, that the temptation to dump our rubbish in huge holes in the ground remains irresistible.

For decades, Britain has massively over-relied on these noxious and potentially dangerous sites to cope with a municipal waste stream, which has been mushrooming unsustainably. The throwaway society is an accurate name for the phenomenon.

Fifty years ago, the main contents of our dustbins was indeed dust, or in fact, ashes from domestic coal fires, upon which much household rubbish was burnt, thereby shrinking its volume enormously.

Now we burn nothing at home. We load our bins instead with a steadily-growing pile of pizza cartons, drink cans, fast-food remnants, packaging of all kinds and mammoth piles of paper. Our annual domestic waste mountain is close to 30 million tons and has been growing at up to 3 per cent per year.

However, this seemingly irresistible force is about hit an immovable and radical piece of European Union law. Much of the extensive clean-up of Britain's environment in the past 15 years has been driven by Brussels legislation and the EU landfill directive is yet another example: it will put a legally binding halt to Britain's long love of dumping. It requires that, by 2010, rubbish disposed of in dumps be reduced to 75 per cent of the 1995 level, and by 2020, to 35 per cent.

These are huge reductions and only two options are realistically open to the Government: either a vast rise in incineration or a massive increase in recycling.

Given that any planning application for a new refuse incinerator meets ferocious local opposition, there are no prizes for guessing which course the Government has chosen.

Four years ago, its national waste strategy introduced statutory recycling targets for local councils for the first time. Yet it was starting from an astonishingly low base: Britain's national recycling figure was then only 8 per cent.

Although it has climbed to 14.5 per cent for 2002-03, and will probably reach 17 per cent for 2003-04 when the figures are announced in December, it still may not reach the official target of 25 per cent for 2005.

Why has our country seemed so reluctant to recycle? Is it something in our national character? Are we simply less disciplined in our habits than the northern European nations?

Elliot Morley, the Environment minister, does not think so. "I don't believe that," he said. "I really don't think there is a fundamental difference between the public in Britain and the public in Germany and Denmark and other countries. I would put it down simply to lack of facilities and lack of encouragement.

"We've had access to cheap landfill in a way that many other European countries have not. Now it's a question of recycling becoming a habit and then it becomes second nature. It becomes a matter of routine, as it is now in other European countries."

It is certainly the case that domestic waste recycling is effectively impossible unless both facilities and encouragement are provided by local councils. Two things are needed: individual bins or boxes to separate different kinds of waste and kerbside collection. This is the Government's proclaimed objective and it has provided more than £100m in special funding for local councils, but over the past four years it has left them with an enormous amount of individual latitude as to how they go about achieving it.

The result is a chasm between the performance of the best and worst local authority recyclers. The latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published last month but referring to 2003, make fascinating reading.

The figures show that the best recycling authority in the country is Lichfield District Council. The historic small cathedral city in south Staffordshire, with its surrounding villages, recycles no less than 46.2 per cent of its domestic refuse, which is approaching continental levels. Lichfield officials say their level is so high because they have implemented a scheme that separates four waste streams - household waste, compostable waste, paper and card, and glass and plastic, with regular kerbside collections. They did it four years ago after extensive public consultation and it has simply caught on with the citizenry. "It's just become a way of life for a lot of people," said a council spokeswoman.

Contrast this with Liverpool, the worst performing authority in the country, where the city council is only recycling a minuscule 3.8 per cent of its waste. A council spokesman was unable to comment on this last week, although it is clear that such a low level must mean the facilities provided are minimal.

But Liverpool and all other low performers will be forced to get their recycling act together very soon, because next spring the Government will begin to cap the amount of waste any local authority can send to landfill. Special permits will have to be bought for any amounts over the cap, at considerable expense which will eventually be passed back to voters through higher council taxes.

The cap represents the stick in the Government's recycling strategy; but there will be carrots, for example entry into a prize draw for people who recycle. The publicity blitz launched today (entitled "Recycle Now") should also be seen as a carrot more than stick.

It is a different sort of campaign, as it seeks to get away from "green guilt" (which is very much the feeling underlying a current television recycling campaign in the Irish Republic, for example.) Instead, it seeks to transform the very idea of recycling in British minds, from a burdensome duty only carried out by environmentalists, to something quite natural and even pleasurable for everyone.

"We want the idea of worthiness to be replaced by the idea of celebration," said Gareth Lloyd, communications director of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap). The Government quango was set up to promote efficient resource use. Wrap is running the campaign, which features a series of wry cartoons with voice-overs with the comedian Eddie Izzard finishing with the manic exclamation: "Recycle! The possibilities are endless!"

Mr Lloyd said the core of the message was that recycling was normal. "We want to make people think positively rather than negatively about it," he said.

"You may remember that some years ago, seat-belt wearing in cars was seen to be something that not many people did, but now it's seen to be perfectly normal behaviour. We want to do that for recycling - make it part of a normal day, part of the normal way we go about things."

The campaign is bringing two-and-a-half cheers from the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE), which has long been the Government's most consistent and prominent critic of its waste record. Georgina Bloomfield, FoE's recycling campaigner, warmly welcomed the Government's campaign but pointed out that a lot more still needed to be done.

But the reason to recycle was not just to meet EU targets, she added: "Recycling saves huge amounts of energy and resources, so we don't need to mine virgin materials and transport them around the world.

"If you recycle an aluminium drinks can, you save 95 per cent of the energy it would take to make one from the raw material," she said.

"If you can avoid having landfills, you avoid sites that are very unpleasant for people living near them, giving off methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide and sometimes allowing toxic substances to leach into the water table. The United Kingdom should follow the example of our European neighbours who are already recycling over half of their domestic waste. But we will not have a recycling record to be proud of until recycling is as easy as throwing out the rubbish."

Perhaps in the end we will wonder what all the fuss was about. It seems likely that we may come to think of recycling as just another European social habit which, like wine, skiing and pavement cafes, ultimately just had to catch on.

EUROPE'S TOP RECYCLERS

The Netherlands

There are several reasons why the Dutch are Europe's top recyclers. First, they have to be: they live in the Continent's most crowded country, where 16 million people cram into an area a sixth the size of the UK, two-thirds of it below sea-level, meaning landfill is a limited option.

Second, they have one of the earliest recycling traditions: glass bottles have been collected since the 1970s, and the value of cans and paper is long recognised.

Third, they have a mix of tough policies which include a high landfill tax, landfill bans and restrictions on incinerators.

Denmark

One of the biggest sources of pressure on Denmark to recycle its waste has been the high level of environmental concern of the people. (It used to be said that there were more members of environmental pressure groups in Denmark, in total, than there were people.) This has made it difficult to get planning permission for landfills, for example, although perhaps surprisingly, Denmark relies much on incineration. The government taxes waste and packaging and bans landfill, but most Danes like to feel they are helping the environment anyway.

Sweden

Sweden has achieved its 40 per cent recycling rate by going after producers rather than consumers.

Its policy of extended producer responsibility, or EPR, puts the onus on manufacturers to attain mandatory recycling targets in various waste streams.

Rather than get involved in doorstep collections themselves, companies set up parks containing various waste banks where people can bring their refuse. Paper, tyres and packing have all been subject to EPR in Sweden for a decade. A landfill tax and landfill bans have also been introduced.

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