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14 March, 2004

Recycling drive 'does more harm than good'

This is an interesting article, in The Times, not normally a news source I'd recommend, partly because one needs to subscribe to access archived articles (and it isn't free), so I'll need to reproduce the main points here while it's still available.  The piece was published almost a year ago, so will probably vanish soon.

Remember, this is the Times, so all outright assertions of 'fact' need to be moderated to mere allegations e.g. "Incineration produces very low levels of emissions..." should be read as "Incineration allegedly produces very low levels of emissions in certain circumstances...".  Anyway; the article, from the paper's Environment Editor, Anthony Browne:

Recycling is a load of rubbish, Britain’s leading environmental scientists said yesterday.

A good emotive tabloid start: a cheap pun followed by a questionable assertion: 'leading' is subjective and unquantifiable.

Overturning decades of conventional wisdom, the scientists, including one of the Government’s advisers, said that official policies to increase recycling were counter-productive, and did more harm than good.

They also criticised environmental groups, saying their recycling campaigns were so misguided they were damaging the environment, and that much of the recycling of plastics, bottles and paper had only marginal benefits. They said more rubbish should be burnt in incinerators - words which reflected comments made last month by top Swedish environmentalists.

Okay, but strip out the sensationalist wording, and consider whether the scientist literally said this, or whether this is Browne's own selective paraphrasing of their exact words.

In a press conference at the Royal Institution in London yesterday, Roland Clift, professor of Environmental Technology at the University of Surrey, and a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution,...

Good build up: Prof. Clift, who has relevant qualifications, was speaking at the premises of a historic organisation (two invocations of 'royal' helps, too), in the national capital. Whatever he goes on to say simply must be absolutely and unquestionably definitive.

... said: “The idea that recycling is a solution to everything is not valid. Recycling glass has marginal benefit, and if you have to transport it large distances, there is no point. Recycling paper is marginal.”

True, and uncontroversial. Only the aforementioned build up makes it appear so.
Note that he says that 'recycling is not a solution to everything', rather than 'recycling is a solution to nothing', which isn't quite the way Browne presents it in the opening sentence of the article.

Britain has one of the lowest recycling rates in Europe, accounting for just 12 per cent of household waste by weight. The Government has a target to increase that to 25 per cent by 2005. But Professor Clift said: “There is a fundamental nonsense in the regulations. The target is based on weight, and gives no incentive to recycle lighter materials, which are often the best.”

So change the emphasis - which I suspect was Prof. Clift's perfectly reasonable point, rather than Browne's initial claim that "recycling is a load of rubbish".

Recycling aluminium, for example, uses just 5 per cent of the energy of producing it in the first place, but because it is so light local authorities tend to concentrate on heavier materials. Recycling paper does nothing to save trees, because all paper in Britain comes from tree plantations. “Recycling paper to save trees is like not eating bread to save wheat,” said Professor Clift.


More plastic should be burnt in incinerators to produce energy.

See what I mean about oversimplified proposals being presented as absolute fact?
I'm afraid the positioning of my annotation distorts the positioning of the original sentence in the article: I'd better clarify that it's Browne's preamble to the following sentence, not a continuation of Prof. Clift's words.

“Burning plastics as an oil substitute saves oil,” said Professor William Powrie, head of the Environmental Engineering department at Southampton University.

I'll take his word for that - it's not a subject I know much about. However, I'm certainly not aware of any facility in the UK that would currently be able to perform this function on an industrial scale.

Incineration [allegedly] produces very low levels of emissions and reduces the volume of waste to be landfilled by 90 per cent.

Sounds impressive, but is perfectly obvious. Ash takes up drastically less space than unburned fuel. And?
Okay, this is a cheap criticism: ‘landfill’ is not a verb. A professional journalist working as an 'Environment' editor should know that.

Professor Powrie said that landfill was not as bad as often thought. “Methane gas can be drawn off and burnt to produce electricity. Britain’s landfills produce enough electricity to power a city the size of Leeds.”

A misleading non sequitur. Methane can be collected and used as fuel, and there might be enough to generate the megawattage described. However, the UK currently has neither the infrastructure nor the power stations to do this.

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The most effective solution is often to reduce the generation of waste in the first place.”

This is the key point, with which I entirely agree: reuse is better than recycling, and better than both is to minimise/avoid usage in the first place.

Clare Wilton, a waste campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: “....”

Oh; who cares what FoE say?

The Labour MP Joan Ruddock introduced a Bill in Parliament last week to almost double the target for recycling.

The location of this sentence in the overall story blatantly introduces a negative spin: having repeatedly proposed the argument that recycling is the wrong strategy, to suddenly introduce a contradictory statement makes it seem the Labour party is ignoring overwhelming scientific advice and acting irrationally.
Note also that though all the experts in this article are mentioned as having high academic qualifications in relevant departments of named universities, nothing is said about Ms. Ruddock's knowledge of the subject, nor that of her advisors.
I'm not defending the Labour party, nor the philosophy and implementation of increased recycling targets, but the unspoken implications in this line of Browne's piece are unfairly manipulative.
Oh, and why mention the MP's party allegiance at all, if not to make a snide point?

“It’s going further in the wrong direction,” said Professor Clift. However, he said that householders should not give up the practice of separating different types of waste. If local authorities developed appropriate policies, such separation would be essential.
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