Fatbergs, Recycling, and Non-Joined up Thinking

I expect that most of us think “recycling” is a good thing, and so we do our ‘bit’.  By “we” I mean the “most of us” who recycle – at all. Our local authorities provide us with multiple bins, into which we sort our discards, which are collected at variable intervals.  Those of us who live in small towns, or the country, generally have somewhere inoffensive to keep these bins but millions live in streets of terraced, or flatted, housing with no private outside space.  In consequence the bins clutter the pavement, or are kept inside between collection days.  Opportunist, but feral, wildlife like urban foxes and gulls make quite a job of feeding from these bins.  A lot of this recycling process is based on the technology, and economics, of roadside refuse collection – we are stuck with various designs of “wheelie bin”, and vehicle, because that’s best for the industry, not the consumer.  In rural Italy they have bigger communal bins, kept on public land, and they are emptied by bin trucks the size of a big Transit van; great for getting round little roads (or own streets clogged with parked cars).

“We” make full use of the charity shop industry, to recycle unwated but useful items.  “We” join community schemes (like Freecycle”) to up, down or sideways cycle stuff.  Repair cafes are starting to appear all over the country, to help us extend the life of things which otherwise would be discarded.  This is great because it also brings people together and friendships are formed.  But not everything is, or can be, repaired or passed on, and stuff has to be “dumped”.    Now, our own local council may not happen to deal with one or other item of refuse: the whole matter of what can, or cannot, be recycled by each authority is a confusing maze, but one thing they all seem to agree on is that containers must be clean.

We diligently wash out our yogurt pots, our food trays, our baked bean tins, empty olive oil bottles, margarine boxes, soup tins etc., etc.  In so doing we use one of the scarecest resources on the planet: water.  Not only that, but it’s clean water that’s had to be extracted and processed (at whatever cost).  Much of this water is also heated, because you can’t clean a lot of the ‘gunk’ with cold water.  We use gas or electricity to heat the water – more scarce resources.  As soon as a lot of this stuff gets into our drains it cools and solidifies again, welded into fatbergs along with wet wipes and other in-sanitary items..

The stuff that has to go direct to the council “Recycling Centre”, because the bin men won’t take it, generates masses of road journeys by individual vehicles, more pollution, more road wear, more fuel.  Many of the measures are designed “top down” and address very individual, specific, environmental issues like reducing the amount of land fill.  The consequences are, it seems to me, not entirely thought through and, overall, not environmentally friendly.

We need more joined-up thinking on environmental policy: industry, food producers, consumers, and governments all have something to offer but not if they only tackle the one bit they are interested in (or can make money out of).  In many cases I fear the problem they solve individually just creates a different problem for someone else.