Does recycling have a real impact on emissions from landfill?

Councils are constantly (and rightly) on a continued crusade to reduce the amount of waste they collect from homes and take to landfill. There are several factors in this

  • the increasing landfill taxes make reduction or diversion to recycling economically essential
  • landfill space is running out (although some dispute this) and alternative facilties such as waste-to-energy and incineration take a long time to implement
  • landfill sites are a significant contributor to global warming due to production of methane, a more potent ‘greenhouse gas’ than carbon dioxide

Councils clearly have to persuade people to reduce their waste outputs and the most effective method in recent times has been restriction of residual waste collection.  This has been done by switching to alternate weekly collections, reducing bin sizes and enforcing stricter policies on overloading bins and collection of side waste.  All of these things reduce the volume of waste collected, and of course the first thing people do with a full bin is squash everything in tighter!

Measurement of recycling performance is nothing to do with volume, but is based on data collected at disposal site weighbridges.  This leaves Councils with a problem -it is necessary to deeply cut volume capacity to have any effect at all on weights.  These deep cuts have a strong and potentially negative effect on the Council’s relationship with the public. So far, so obvious.  But the question I have is whether weight or volume is in any way relevant?  To answer that question I have to go back to the very reasons why we wish to reduce residual waste.  The landfill tax is simply a man-made tool to pressure local government and so is not a justification of itself.  The question of available space in landfill is subject to some discussion.  And that leaves climate change and global warming as the strongest reason for our obsession with reducing residual waste.

The UK has certainly had some success in this.  Kerbside collection of recyclables has increased from almost nothing to over 50% in some areas.  But what types of waste have we diverted?  In my own backyard my recycling bins contain glass, tin cans and paper.  In the summer we send a small amount of green waste to compost, although most is composted in the garden.

My question is how much methane this has saved – I am no expert on this but I believe glass hardly breaks down at all and cans will oxidise over a very long period to rust without releasing any carbon (as methane or any other gas).   That leaves the paper, which does have a high organic content and will decompose to methane, amongst other gases, in a relatively short timescale.

This leaves a rather paradoxical situation for the waste collection authority.  If I were to stop recycling glass and put it all in my black bin then the effect on methane emissions at the landfill site would be nil1. Perversley, under any variable charging scheme I would be heavily penalised and the Council landed with a large landfill tax bill.

It is hard to conceive of a collection scheme that can measure waste both quantitavely and qualitatively, but any justification to the public of variable charging and specifically ‘pay by weight’ which hinges on the climate change effect of landfills should address the long term changes not just to the volume and mass of landfill, but also the composition of it.

1 This argument does ignore the energy benefits of reusing glass instead of processing sand to create ‘virgin’ glass, which is in part offset by the carbon and energy costs of the additional collection process.

How many Councils will apply to run a ‘Pay as you throw’ trial?

It was widely reported on 1st January in the national press that in a recent survey not one Council was planning to apply for a pilot scheme.  To quote the Daily Mail “But a survey of 100 local authorities found that not a single one even wanted to take part in an initial trial run.”.

However, having looked into this a little further it is apparent that the figures are not quite as clear cut as that.  The survey asked 160 councils about their intentions.  Only 100 replied, all of them saying that they would not take part in the trials

Put another way, 63% of the Councils surveyed have said they will not take part.  We don’t know about the other 37%.  It is reasonable to assume that any Councils which are interested in running a trial (and presumably are preparing a bid now) would be very wary of the likely response from local and national media.  As a result they are likely to carefully control the way they present this to their residents and therefore hold their counsel until their application is finalised.  Likewise, those taking the undoubtedly more popular ‘no’ stance are more likely to advertise the fact early and at every opportunity.

DEFRA are seeking to run only 5 pilots (not hundreds as implied by some newspaper articles).  The results of this survey would appear to be far more encouraging for DEFRA than the national press would like to think.

More Daily Mail rabble-rousing over pay as you throw

Article here

It’s been fairly quiet on the ‘Council Bin Tax Killed Princess Diana’ hysteria front, and I suspect New Year’s Day was a slow news day. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the Daily Mail chose to run yet another re-hash of its opposition to variable waste charges under the guise of ‘news’.The key facts they choose to overlook are

  • waste is not building up in the streets, because Councils provide a perfectly adequate collection service to every household in the UK
  • people who recycle (and even relatively small amounts) will pay less to their local Council
  • people who prefer to fly-tip are not an oppressed majority – they are litter louts and should be treated as criminals
  • current problems with ‘stockpiling of recyclables’ are temporary due to the sudden collapse in demand
  • we cannot keep shovelling huge amounts of waste into the ground

Doing nothing and blaming Local Government for all the world’s ills is, no doubt, very popular but it won’t solve the problem that the UK has been collectively avoiding for decades.  The rest of Europe has developed a culture of waste minimisation along with civic pride and responsibility for its street scene.  That’s one European import I’d welcome.

Footnote – the Dail Mail comment police still haven’t released the item I wrote on their article a week ago. Looking at the comments on there it appears that 100% of the public agree entirely with the article. Are the Daily Mail following a policy of suppressing dissenting comments?