Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Clearing out

Recently, we’ve had to clear out my father’s house. The process was emotional, but also brought the catharsis of getting rid of unwanted things. We gave piles of furniture to local charity shops, filled a skip, and finally relayed several carloads to the tip. Chelmsford recycling centre in Essex is a far cry from council landfills of the past. Tipping in your mixed waste has been replaced by a discipline of sorting into steel containers your metal, plastics, monitors, garden refuse, timber and glass, for example.  It’s now is the place to be! Busy even on a Monday at lunchtime; one man even turned up with a taxi full of plasterboard. The popularity is symptomatic of the way the District Council promotes recycling through local events, education programmes and its comprehensive website, but also via stringent policies on recycling and (formerly) sanctions for rule-breakers.

Even back home in rural Cumbria, local collections of recyclable are regular and convenient. Indeed, data on UK recycling from 2002–2011 shows a dramatic increase in the proportion of household waste recycled instead of sent to landfills, up from around 15% to 40%. This is impressive in isolation, though it should be remembered that the UK was formerly one of the countries in the EU that recycled least. The success is perhaps based on a clear central policy which has no direct cost to consumers. In essence, promoting consumer recycling through local legislation appears to be a genuinely win-win proposal, where consumer costs are minimal and the costs of transport and processing waste can be offset by its resale to scrap dealers, paper companies and the like. It is possible that the recession is responsible and has reduced the amount of consumer waste produced, though recycling itself has been shown to lower consumption with all data being geographically varied.

As recycling has become more routine, basic assumptions about waste have been subtly challenged—“reduce, reuse, recycle” is normal. As with all sustainable approaches, sustainable waste disposal involves taking responsibility for our behaviour, and in the case of waste and recycling, reconnecting with and re-evaluating our “stuff”. While recycling could add to a dangerous idea that limitless consumption can be responsibly managed, relying on consumers to sort waste for recycling, to select items for charity shops, and to hand on items to others (via online fora such as www.freecycle.org) allows them to engage with material things even as they become waste. As you clear out an old home, the irony that you learn about things as you lose them becomes sadly relevant.

David and Alex Jackman

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