Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Government Waste Strategy - Zero Waste?

Good to see the Coalition making the right noises about waste and recycling here. Caroline Spelman (environment secretary) wants to drive forward a zero-waste strategy. It'll be interesting whether the Daily Mail will shut up with their stories of bin taxes and wheelie-bin cameras now it's their political paymasters making the proposals.

Of course, it is very early days, and it's one thing talking about it and another thing actually making it happen. The main problem is there is no money to incentivise recycling, it looks like council tax will be frozen, and they've already rejected Labour's 'pay as you throw' strategy where households who can't be bothered to recycle or compost pay more for their rubbish collection. Spelman apparently prefers Windsor and Maidenhead's scheme which rewards people who recycle with vouchers for local shops. Of course, 'pay as you throw' and 'get paid not to throw' ultimately boil down to the same thing - a financial incentive - the only difference is whether it looks like a carrot or a stick.

What I continue to find frustrating is the lack of progress on packaging. The only stuff in my waste bin these days is unrecyclable plastic trays and film, but it's almost impossible to avoid picking up plastic packaging when you shop. There's all manner of packaging that could be re-used or eliminated altogether, but there clearly isn't the political or commercial will to do it. Labour could have given the industries a strong signal that packaging was in the cross-hairs but they chose not to do so, and the result is we're still pretty much where we were five or ten years ago in terms of excessive packaging.

But here's a sign of how confused the Coalition is about waste. Eric Pickles has ordered the Audit Commission to reverse its policy favouring fortnightly bin collections. Fortnightly bin collections should encourage people to be more disciplined about what they throw away. The correct way of managing waste would be to ensure that all compostable waste is separated from the main bin. If the main bin contained only non-recyclable material, there'd be no organic waste in the main bin and hence no need for regular collections of the non-organic waste. Of course there are problems with some ready-meal, meat and fish packaging, where the plastic or card packaging is contaminated with organic material, but I don't think they are problems that are beyond the wit of man to solve.

Why is there this obsession with 'freedom' issues around rubbish? It does not seem unreasonable that we have a civic duty to dispose of our waste in as careful a way as possible. If there are people too busy or too lazy to separate their waste, then they can pay someone to do it for them. I don't see why I should subsidize them, and I don't see why I should subsidize companies that can't be bothered to minimize packaging.

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