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A confession: I’m not a localist when it comes to recycling

Nick Golding

There are many columns in which I write as a Local Government Chronicle (LGC) journalist and aim to use my knowledge of local government to serve the information needs of its most senior officers.

It is fortunate that I have a genuine passion for localism, because it’s vital that this shines through.

This column is more written as a consumer of council services – in this case my far from unique status as being someone who empties the bins.

In this instance my passion for localism is somewhat obscured by a cloud of real-world life experience.

It may be that I have mislaid some correspondence from my London borough, but I don’t always know what I’m allowed to recycle. There is a sticker on the top of my wheelie bin which says a bit, but my recollection is that it doesn’t go into sufficient detail. This is especially true with regards to which types of plastic should go in the green bin.

Which bin should yoghurt pots go into? Tetra Pak-type cartons?

My general assumption is that they can be recycled. Indeed, I think I’ve checked this before, but I cannot say I’m 100% sure. And I’m pretty sure that aluminium foil cannot be recycled.

When I ask my colleagues in the office, there is a general understanding of what can be recycled. However, questions about whether yoghurt pots and Tetra Pak cartons should be recycled meet with answers preceded with terms like “I’m fairly sure…”.

I am fairly certain that I’m not allowed to recycle shredded paper. I’m sure I’ve read that. However, a colleague who claimed to be 100% certain about what he could recycle is shocked to learn that it shouldn’t be. This is unless, of course, his council allows it, or I am wrong.

I holidayed in Yorkshire this year and couldn’t see any information displayed where we were staying on what could be recycled there. And the bins were different colours to those at home.

While it didn’t take much effort to find out what should go in which bin, I could conceive that, had I gone on a first night bender and sought to clear up at midnight so the kids didn’t see the evidence in the morning, mistakes could have been made.

I regard myself as being someone with a social conscience, especially on green issues. However, I am imperfect and don’t remember everything all of the time. My colleagues are generally decent, right-thinking, socially-minded people but they’re not always certain.

Why mention all of this?

LGC carried a report from our sister title Materials Recycling World saying how the Local Government Association had rejected a call from the environmental group Keep Britain Tidy to standardise national recycling rules.

The charity said it was “barmy” that there were more than 150 different waste management systems in the UK.

However, in response, LGA environment spokesman Martin Tett (Con) insisted that recycling has been a “real success story”, with rates quadrupling in the past decade.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to waste collection services,” he added.

A similar viewpoint was expressed in a conversation last week by a council chief executive whose views I respect. “It’s only those who’ve got homes in two areas that are confused,” was the gist of his point.

I’m not sure that I agree.

People lead busy lives; they mislay information; they move houses. Some do not speak English as a first language. We are not perfect; we are not receptive to information which is either hard to get or not as easy as it could be to obtain. People make mistakes.

It is therefore unsurprising that 76% of English households put stuff in their recycling bin which should go elsewhere. Contamination is rife.

Having 150 different sets of rules for recycling makes it far harder to launch a memorable publicity campaign about what can and cannot be recycled.

A single set of rules or even four different sets of rules across the country would make it far easier: “I live in recycling area group ‘3’ and my yoghurt pot has a tick by a number three.”

I get the point that councils are all locked into different contracts and that they have built different local waste infrastructures to meet local needs. However, it just feels that local government as a whole is being a little bit customer unfriendly.

Environment secretary Michael Gove recently said: “One of the things that we hope to do…is to bring a degree of coherence so that, across the country, wherever you are, you will know how to recycle and make it easier and clearer for everyone to do the right thing.” I’m inclined to agree.

So there you have it. The LGC editor confesses he’s not a localist when it comes to recycling. And I’m backing Gove.

The resignation’s in the post, readers.*

Nick Golding is editor of Local Government Chronicle

* Joke

Readers' comments (1)

  • You might be looking at the wrong end of the process, Nick. Imagine a world where packaging came with simple colour-coded symbols (traffic lights) to indicate 'recyclability'. Would that influence your buying and cut the amount of poor-quality secondary materials you throw away? Something similar is used for energy ratings on fridges. How often do you see a fridge with a B rating these days? Manufacturers were too embarrassed to put anything less than As on the market.
    Packaging could also carry numbers matching numbers on your bin so you would know which piece of packaging goes where.

    All the above requires buy-in from the waste producers, not the hard-pressed waste collectors. And way better design. Design locks in waste before the products even hit the shelves.

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