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Power to the people

Recycling in its widest sense was a voluntary activity until the European Parliament outlawed ‘waste’ with the Landfill Directive 15 years ago. Its view was that the systemic acceptance of waste had been a monumental mistake - waste is wrong and must be banned completely.

In 1990, Waste Watch commis-sioned an opinion poll which showed that the public wanted recycling and they did not like waste. More than 90% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘give us a simple and reliable collection system and we will use it’.

Two decades and billions of pounds of public investment later, the UK is at a place where there is still massive resistance to that popular call for change. Councils, petulantly insisting on autonomy of decision over which system to invest in, have allowed those who profit from the existence of waste to have access to real influence over the change agenda. The result is a confusing fudge.

The truth is that it is people who actually ‘do’ the recycling - voluntarily. Not the collection organisations of any hue, motivation or sector.

For recycling to be successful, every person must participate 100% of the time, whether at work, rest or play. The Waste Watch poll is still the defining analysis as to what is truly needed: provide a simple and reliable system and the general public will use it.

Citizens across the land have delivered on that promise in spades yet, 15 years into the outlawing of waste and 22 years after the poll, we are still only halfway to zero waste. So who is not listening?

I recently attended a waste analysis event in Presteigne, Powys, where ‘slow recycling’ is practised using a converted milk float. Presteigne has achieved a 74% recycling rate.

We were analysing the failure rate: the amount of recyclable material that was still being put in black bags by the town’s residents. I was expecting that, with a recycling rate carefully measured at 74%, we would find the black bag yielding little more. But I was amazed to see that another 16% of recycling could easily be added before we got to ‘difficult’ items. It was proof that 90% recycling is achievable.

Contrast this with the assertions by experts that only 25%, later 40% and now (2012) maybe 65% or 70% are the limits of practical recycling - and what is left must be ‘treated’. You can see the problem and glimpse the opportunity that the pathfinders at Presteigne are demonstrating.

If you can respect the call for a simple collection system, you will get high-quality materials from a respectfully re-educated citizenry.

Some 50 member organisations of Cylch - the Wales community recycling network - have reported yet another year of steady increase in their contribution to the effort in Wales, particularly in the areas receiving the most recent focus: reuse and preparation for reuse. Most Cylch members are reuse organisations and they carry out more than 90% of the reuse currently being reported by Welsh councils to WasteDataFlow.

Cylch believes this gives it the right to a seat at the table when strategic decisions are being made by the Welsh Government about reuse. And Cylch will no doubt be playing its full part in the coming years as the reuse tonnages are targeted.

The fundamentals remain the same in this chapter of the change. To reuse products, they must all be treated with care. The ‘ban the wheelie bin’ campaign needs to start soon to convey this message to the public - it is no longer possible for citizens to leave the responsibility of dealing with unwanted items to third parties.

It is individuals who create waste and so they must cease doing so. Our survival is at risk if we do not make this change and re-education remains the key.

Mal Williams, chief executive, Cylch

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