Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Fri 22nd Aug, 2008

Tougher recycling

At the moment, recycling is by and large a voluntary affair. We private citizens mostly have recycling bins, and a reasonable proportion of the populace put the correct stuff in them. Companies and Government too are catching on, with recycling bins appearing in tea rooms and beside desks and photocopiers. I've even been bringing my own compost bin into work, and that's been getting a reasonable quantity of scraps in it.

However, it seems to me that there are two barriers to this being a much more wide-spread and profitable industry. The first is that in many places it's difficult to know exactly what can be recycled. In many instances, things which can be recycled aren't marked with the appropriate symbols, or the bins which take the recycling aren't marked to say what exactly they can take. As another example, if you move house in Melbourne (for example) what you can actually put in your recycling bin, as well as its size, can vary dramatically. In my view, people will tend to be conservative and not put things in the recycling bin which could be recycled in case they can't, instead of the more optimistic opposite approach.

But it seems to me that this is a minor concern compared with the fundamental problem, which is illustrated in my first sentence. The fact that it's completely voluntary, combined with the complete absence of any feedback regarding whether you're doing the right thing or not, means that the wasters out there have absolutely no incentive to change. They can keep on throwing their cans, cardboard, plastic boxes and bottles and paper into the garbage and it will keep on being merrily taken away and put into landfill, and they never have to lift a finger to change.

As a case in point, I noticed on the way into my work that there is a large skip outside the deliveries entrance. It's being used because there are building renovations going on and the scrap material is going into the bin. It was quite easy for me to see that there were may cardboard boxes and metal wall divisions, all of which could be easily recycled. While I know that a couple of the waste skip hire companies in Canberra do actually send all their rubbish through the recycling centre here, I'll bet three to one that the majority of skip hire companies in most other capital cities in Australia don't do this. Canberra has an aggressive No Waste by 2010 policy, but how the ACT Government intends to get that last 10% fixed in the sixteen months remaining is beyond me.

Imagine, for a moment, random house bin inspections. A note in your letterbox gives you a score of how good you are at recycling, and what things you may have missed. Houses with good scores might receive a discount on their rates, and houses at the bottom end might recieve fines (to compensate). A follow-up with the worst offenders in a week or two might find other ways that the household could reduce their waste, energy use and costs. A similar scheme for companies would be easy to implement, and for businesses that have a lot of variety in their waste types - restaurants and builders, for example - might be linked up with other programmes (such as worm farms for spoilt food waste or recycled building supplies resellers) to help them reduce their waste output or get it going to the best use available.

The one great flaw in this plan, however, is that Governments have tried to avoid any confrontation with the public - any situation where they have to tell people to change their ways for the good of society. There are obvious exceptions, but the key difference I see between this kind of recycling enforcement and a programme to get dangerous cars off the road or to curb violent behaviour is that the latter things break laws and are 'provably' dangerous to other people. On soft issues like good parenting, good recycling or good social responsibility, the Government has heard the NIMBY and Nanny State lobbyists and realised that it's much easier to get people to do something if opposition can be branded as somehow bad. It's much easier to get people to give up their civil liberties and freedoms if you can say that anyone who wants to walk around taking pictures of arbitrary places (for example) must be a terrorist.

Ahem. Got carried away there.

Anyway, the other side to this is for state, territory and federal Governments to make sure that they aren't providing unnecessary subsidies to industries that are deliberately wasting resources. If these companies can't see the writing on the wall when it comes to climate change, then should we really be propping them up? Lobbyists from the coal power industry love to say how other methods of power generation aren't profitable, while conveniently overlooking the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that they get from the Government to shore up their own 'we-can't-do-any-better' behaviour.

Capitalism gone right, on the other hand, looks like ACT Skip Bins. Other companies might whinge and moan that they can't possibly recycle everything as it costs too much. Then ACT Skip Bins not only goes and does it, but then makes money from the recycled materials as well.

But despite this, I still end up thinking that there are a lot of people and companies who not only just don't care but don't have to. And until they get hit in the hip pocket, they won't care either.

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