It is National Recycling Week. There is a website, revealing all sorts of national and local initiatives. The government body Wrap, (standing for the Waste and Resources Action Programme) has come up with a slogan: “Let’s Waste Less”. Celebrities have made pledges for the week: Antony Worrall Thompson is going to recycle glass; Kim Wilde is planting vegetables; Gabby Logan will not use plastic bags when visiting supermarkets.
My pledge is almost as simple. I have various working electrical items – lamps, lights, a printer, a couple of telephones – which I would like to recycle. This, it turns out, is considerably more complicated than it may appear. One option involves quite a lot of fannying about online; another requires that my goods are smashed up and dismantled for parts, a process which seems somewhat at odds with the Wrap mantra.
The UK is particularly bad at this kind of recycling. A survey, commissioned by the computer manufacturer Dell and published last month, named us as the worst consumers in Europe when it comes to recycling technological waste. Eighty per cent of Germans dispose of their old gadgets in an environmentally responsible way; we manage 50 per cent.
Yet, to a non-expert, these are precisely the goods that present the most urgent environmental challenge. Manufactured with an eye to profit, they are usually impossible, or uneconomic, to repair. Their use is accelerating every day. Material which is both valuable and toxic is used in their manufacture. It must be more irresponsible to throw away a computer or TV set than, to take a new campaign as an example, a cigarette butt.
Yet, in a 24-page, full-colour, award-winning free brochure produced for Recycle Week by my local council, there is not a single mention of electrical goods. Michael Rosen is there to explain that books should not thrown away. There are articles about second-hand clothes, vegetable-growing and making jewellery from rubbish, but nowhere can I find an answer to my problem.
There is a reason for this; it is politically sensitive. Charity shops cannot sell electrical equipment without a safety certificate. The council recycling centre smashes them up. Local councils rightly direct people like me to the useful website recycle.org, but using that system takes time, a Yahoo address.
If waste management is going to be effective, then it needs to be made practical and easy for everyone. Concerned, greener-than-thou folk may use the internet to dispose of unwanted items, but most people are too frazzled by daily life to have the time.
The council’s problem, unsurprisingly, turns out to be financial. Testing electrical goods for safety would cost public money. Hundreds of thousands of pounds can be spent on leaflets, posters and campaigns but, when if it’s taking action rather than bossing people around, the environment suddenly becomes a lower priority.
It is politically easier to dump the responsibility on the consumer. The reaction to the Dell survey was unhesitating. Consumers needed to be made more aware of the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive. They required “educating and encouraging”. Another Wrap campaign will doubtless soon be on its way.
There is something about the environment which seems to attract bogus hot-air initiatives. The problem is not that the British are too lazy to recycle. It is that we are governed by those who prefer spinning guilt and blaming the public to making policy.