Does re-cycling do more harm than good?
The life of a scholar at the Getty Research Institute is not quite the luxurious existence that it is sometimes made out to be. It is true, though, that the rubbish in our apartment block is taken care of. We put it in big communal bins – then it’s taken away. But the other morning I did catch sight of what I call a “dustbin lorry” (?”garbage truck”) coming up our street and stopped for a moment to wonder at its sophistication.
The green, black and blue bins were lined up neatly by the curbside. But there was no jolly crew of bin men heaving (or guiding) the rubbish into the lorry. This contraption appeared to be operated by one man only – who manipulated a clever couple of prongs which emerged from the lorry’s side and gripped each bin and poured its contents into the bowels of the lorry.
The only trouble was that the contents of each bin, no matter what colour, all seemed to go into the same bowel. It is, of course, possible that I missed some clever internal sorting device, which separated the different sorts of rubbish as it poured out. But there was no sign of it from where I was looking.
To put it another way, so far as I could tell, the good burghers of Brentwood (or more likely their servants) had spent many an hour sorting their trash into what was biodegradable/re-cyclable and what was not . . . only to have it all mixed back up again when it got taken away.
This is not going to turn in to a Daily-Mail-style tirade about the follies of fortnightly bin collections. But I should say that I am a bit ambivalent about the recycling industry.
On the one hand, I am entirely in favour of decreasing the amount of rubbish that has to be disposed of. The reason for this is simple enough. Landfill sites are fast running out. And, if we want to avoid the current mess in Naples – where the bin men are on strike because they claim there is literally nowhere to put the rubbish – then we have to change our habits, and very quickly. Whether than means composting, recycling, zero-packaging or what, we have to mend our ways if we don't want to be bumping into used disposable nappies as we walk along the street.
On the other, I have yet to be convinced (even without the Brentwood incident) that re-cycling quite delivers what it promises. The sight of the liberal middle-class shopper carefully picking up the re-cycled paper kitchen towels from the supermarket shelf, while still driving a four by four and/or flying off for half a dozen weekend breaks (or instead of just buying an old-fashioned cloth, for heaven’s sake) makes the heart sink.
Still, you might say, small gesture though it is, it is surely better to buy re-cycled paper towels than the other sort. I’m not so sure. The problem is that the amount of high-minded effort that goes into recycling at home (all that careful sorting of the plastic bottles from the glass ones, the removal of the plastic cover from the newspaper supplement you never read, and so on) tends to make you feel that you have already done your bit for the planet. “I recycle so I’m OK.”
While from the government point of view, it is so much cheaper to have an advertising campaign to explain what we can put in our green bins, than to invest in an energy efficient, green-ish public transport system that people will choose to use.
The truth is that saving the planet will cost money. Domestic recycling is just the ‘feel-good’ side of it -- which doesn't begin to get to the heart of the problem.