I know what’s in your bin and I hate you

Abdullah II  king of Jordan and myself have some things in common: not because we are of a similar age, nor our interest in Star Trek, no it is that we both like to see how the other half live.  Abdullah nips out in ordinary clothes, a fake beard and only the minimal security of a couple of bodyguards to experience life as a citizen. Apparently he does this frequently and like him, usually when I have run out of money, I go out and get down with the workers. Last month I was picking potatoes, well, more accurately I was picking rocks out of conveyer belt of potatoes but over the summer I was picking through the rubbish bins of the people of Presteigne.

Presteigne: hometown of World Supersport Champion Chaz Davis, my adopted hometown and home to Zero Waste.


‘Presteigne and Norton, which have been in the Zero Waste Wales scheme since April 2010, recycled 74% of municipal rubbish from April to June.’ The praise doesn’t stop: Katy Anderson of the Cwm Harry Land Trust said: “Presteigne and Norton have reached the Welsh Government Zero Waste target for 2025 14 years ahead of schedule”. She also said people had also been made aware of the value of waste, and the communities had been given back the value of their recycling which was £10,800 last year.

So unlike other communities we live in the smug knowledge that we are saving the planet, combating climate change and still be able to drive our 4x4s. Of course it is a caricature to think we drive Landrovers everywhere but how effective is our recycling in a small Welsh town on a global or even national level?

Zero Waste boosts that it invests in people with its roadside collection and sorting. In reality this is a low paid unskilled task of sorting waste in all weathers. Compared with other methods of recycling it is labour intensive, the thousand or so houses that are part of the scheme require three full-time and two part-time members of staff to collect, sort and recycle the waste. In actuality the project is under staffed as I found my normal working week included compulsory over-time of anything up to 2 hours a day without any additional benefit, no lunch break and no fixed statutory breaks. On top of this there was no statutory rest area away from the work place and no washing facilities. And if that wasn’t bad enough it can be quite unpleasant if packaging is not washed: maggots, partly eaten take-away and rancid milk bottles can put you off your lunch and people.

If the start-up costs of vehicles, processing machinery and rent are excluded the wage packet alone, at a conservative level, is well over £50k and that excludes employers contributions and administration charges. With the average household producing a ton of waste a year and a 1000 households this amounts to 1k which in turn amounts to a collection rate of £50 a ton or household. By contrast Friends of the Earth estimate £18 as an average collection cost per household per year.  Rural collection will always be more expensive than urban collection but the Zero-Waste scheme is unsustainable it survives with additional funding because it is a pilot experimental project.

Waste is a waste of resources but even with Zero-Waste’s 74% recycling which is 750 tons of waste the revenue generated is only £10,000.  35% of this is food waste which costs more than it generates in either bio gas or compost yet it is an essential component of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping the value of the other recyclables. The next big chunk of waste is paper and card making up 20% but the return is low at  only £20 a ton, clear glass does better but green glass has almost zero value. The problem in the UK is we export products in clear glass and import a billion wine bottles in green into a country that doesn’t make many green bottles. On a positive note those bottles are not going into landfill and are made into sand.

It is plastics that are the most interesting, on the one hand drinks bottles can get an excellent return of up to £380 a ton with milk bottles also doing well, the problem is that the rest of the plastics have very little value. What happens to it is a bit of a mystery as it is traded by middlemen but a huge quantity ends up in the returning containers that China shipped its goods to us to be eventually hand sorted by very low paid workers.

The problems of recycling should not put people off the benefits given that even at today’s rates the UK saves 10 million tons of CO2 output in the process but this is a small % of our total 500 million ton output. Landfill only works if there are holes to fill and few would want to live near one. Waste plastic makes a very good fuel but incineration is even more unpopular than burying waste. Even in a near perfect zero waste system there is still 25% of waste that is not recyclable such as nappies and contaminated paper and that still needs disposing.

The Netherlands has the best record on recycling achieving 60%. Deposits on drinks bottles and electrical items help with this but I can vouch from personal experience of working for Arnham Council on an exchange it is more about attitude. In the Netherlands people have a sense of civic duty. It costs less to recycle there because waste is properly cleaned, sorted and disposed of and it the same reason that they don’t spend a £trillion on disposing of litter as it does in the UK. My experience of Presteigne’s bins demonstrates that we are not quite as collectively diligent.

Incineration may be a taboo subject but we still need to dispose of 25% of our waste and it should be remembered that all that packaging served a valuable purpose and that energy from waste can be eco-friendly. It would certainly reduce CO2 emissions and waste paper as well as a  billion tons of waste wood are carbon neutral.

“We use a slow recycling approach which invests in people rather than the hi-tech shiny trucks of conventional waste management.” Zero-Waste

There are important actions with immediate benefits that are easily done such as separating organic waste and there is a healthy market for more valuable plastics and metal. Ultimately I would rather see investment in machines to sort out our refuse rather than people and for greens to realise the limitations of recycling. It plays a small role in preserving our planet, there are plenty of issues out there and recycling is becoming a distraction.


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