Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Council must make clear that recycling is not a waste of time before we bin the whole idea

Recycling our rubbish is not a religion, says Fionola Meredith - and where's the evidence it's saving the planet?

I'm a reluctant recycler. Sometimes even a recycling refusenik. Like many people, I have a busy life. If I am to spend precious minutes separating my rubbish, rinsing baked bean cans, tearing up pizza boxes, removing the cellophane windows from envelopes, detaching lids from jars and bottles, and carefully depositing it all in the appropriate bins, I need to know that this activity is actually worthwhile.

I need to be certain that the faffing, the scraping and sorting, will ultimately benefit the environment. Because saving the world is the whole flipping point, isn't it? Why bother to do it otherwise?

In the past, I've even been known to put on a pair of wellies, climb on top of my black bin and jump up and down to compact the bags of rubbish, so I can fit more in. Try it - it's surprisingly fun, and you can consider it part of your fitness regime.

But if new plans by Belfast City Council go ahead, you'll need to do a heck of a lot more leaping and squashing to cram in the waste. The proposals, currently out for consultation, include an option to cut black bin collections to just once a month. Or else the council might make us use smaller bins, which they may consent to collect every two weeks, as they do at present.

Either way, we are being pressurised into recycling more, whether we like it or not. Why? Apparently it's because the council must meet a target of increasing Belfast's recycling rate to 50% by December 2020 or face fines.

All the more reason, then, for the authorities to present an all-embracing, watertight case for the benefits of recycling our rubbish. If they want us to comply, then they must do us the courtesy of demonstrating exactly where the stuff goes and how it helps the planet.

It isn't sufficient to expect us to recycle simply because it's the right thing to do.

Recycling is not a religion, although its adherents often behave as though it is, and they don't hide their contempt for heretics like me. On the airwaves, I've frequently come across snooty, patronising, mansplaining environmentalists - for some reason the male ones are often worse - who want to preach me into submission and shame me into renouncing my sinful ways.

There's almost always an implicit or explicit moral dimension to it, which unites a surprising range of people across the political spectrum. UUP councillor Jim Rodgers piously declared that "despite council efforts a lot of people are still being lazy when it comes to filling their bins". An editorial in the Guardian newspaper thundered that putting a bottle in the rubbish rather than the recycling should "acquire the same kind of social stigma as smoking in front of children."

Laziness, slackness, selfishness - is there no end to the depravity of us bin-offenders?

But I have never had a straight answer out of any of these zealots when it comes to why recycling is unequivocally worth doing.

And that's because, as far as I can tell, there isn't one.

The bewildering variety of rules around recycling, which differ from council to council, as well as unclear labelling on supermarket or takeaway packaging, means that people inevitably make mistakes.

The wrong stuff ends up in the recycling bins, where it can contaminate the rest of what's in there, meaning it can't easily be reused and may end up in landfill.

Last year, Simon Ellin, the chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, vented his frustration with "the crap and contamination" they had to deal with. He said that if people don't know whether an item is recyclable, "we'd rather you just chuck it in your domestic waste bin rather than putting it in the recycling and causing us a problem because it's a contaminate".

So even the chief buck cat is admitting there are serious difficulties with the system. Then last month the British government's spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, said that millions of tons of waste plastic sent abroad for recycling may actually be being dumped in landfill in Turkey and Malaysia.

All of which goes to show that recycling is far from a straightforward social virtue.

And as long as the mega corporations such as Starbucks, Nestle and Coca Cola keep pumping out oceans' worth of disposable plastics, it's hard to see how diligently recycling my own small heap of rubbish will make a blind bit of difference to the health of the planet.

Back to jumping on the bin, I guess.

Belfast Telegraph

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