Recycling, statistics and public confidence

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John Barry explains the importance of getting recycling rates right and surveys some relevant information sources on the topic. And instead of incinerating or exporting material to other countries, it can be better used to develop our own recycling sector.

In February 2008, the Chairman of Strabane District Council criticised ratepayers, claiming their reluctance to recycle has lead to spiralling rate bills. Councillor Gerard Foley also revealed the council has had to slow down a number of projects to stop rate bills soaring due to the mounting costs of rubbish disposal.

This underlines the economic importance of increasing domestic and commercial recycling rates to ensure that saving and recycling resources also saves money and lowers domestic and commercial rates. It also underlines the importance of planning and therefore the need for accurate statistics and figures for both planning purposes as well as being equally important to enable transparency and accountability to the wider public.

Reliability

Can we trust the figures? This is a perennial problem and a huge issue not just in terms of planning but more importantly of public trust in the information that is made public about recycling. At the end of the day, given most people are not experts in either recycling or statistical methodologies, it comes down to the trust people have in the source of the information.

One official government source is the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), one of the government agencies established to improve recycling and create and support the market in recyclates, and it therefore is an excellent source of information and data. For example, WRAP’s Online Recycling Information System (ORIS) offers a starting point to find out about your local council’s recycling policies and its annual recycling reviews allow for the comparison of different councils across the UK. For example, did you know that in 2007 North Down Borough Council recycled more plastics (by tonne) than any other council in Northern Ireland? North Down collected 2,922 tonnes of the total 10,521 collected across the whole of Northern Ireland. Yet what proportion of this was sent to China or to some other country?

China is the world’s largest importer of waste and recyclate material. And how much of this was recycled as opposed to being land-filled in some other part of the world? Knowing this and the figures to back them up is crucial to ensure the creation and sustaining of a ‘recycling culture’ since there is nothing more certain to ensure low levels of domestic or commercial recycling than knowing that while you dutifully segregate and put your recyclates in the appropriate bin, it all gets shipped abroad to be land-filled or, at best, to provide recycled material for a foreign recycling industry. With EU Landfill and Waste Directives increasing the cost of dumping rubbish in landfill, what proportion of the potentially usable recyclate waste stream is being exported to support ‘green jobs’ outside of Northern Ireland?

Another example is that the Northern Ireland Central Procurement Directorate has issued sustainable construction guidance to be followed in all construction projects receiving 50 per cent or more public funding. For such projects, there is the requirement of the inclusion of 10 per cent recycled content by value across all projects. This is both a good example of the use of statistics to measure, plan and monitor projects, as well as one way in which the public procurement budget in Northern Ireland (especially in relation to large infrastructural projects such as water treatment and distribution) can create new markets for recycled materials. In this way the ‘greening’ of public procurement in Northern Ireland can pump prime the ‘greening’ of the construction sector.

“households and businesses need to feel confident that whatever they recycle continues to be recycled further down the waste stream”

The Northern Ireland Audit Office conducts audits of local authority and departmental statistics to ensure their accuracy as well as to check whether the data confirms the achievement or not of the policy objectives. In the case of recycling and waste management this has not been done since its 2005 report on Northern Ireland’s Waste Management Strategy.

However, non-government sources of information and data on recycling (and other policy areas) such as from environmental groups like Friends of the Earth or academic studies published in peer-reviewed journals should also be used to ‘triangulate’ the official statistics. Using other sources of data and information will either confirm the official statistics or challenge them, and offer grounds for demonstrating some methodological flaw in data gathering and collation or more serious breaches of knowingly supplying inaccurate figures.

Confidence

Best practice from other parts of the world indicate that households and businesses need to feel confident that whatever they recycle continues to be recycled further down the waste stream and does not end up in landfill.

Equally, however, is the issue that people are more likely to recycle if they know that this is helping to support local jobs and that the recycled material is not simply being exported. Here the economics of recycling certain materials is crucial. While it may make conventional economic sense to ship plastic bottles to China for recycling, if one uses a full life-cycle analysis or crunch the figures in relation to the total carbon, water and ecological footprint of doing this it may mean that it does not make sense in terms of wasted energy and carbon emissions. For example, a 2008 WRAP report stated that it makes sense from a carbon reduction point of view of ship recyclates to China, India or Indonesia, but this is only when compared with land-filling in the UK.

An obvious answer here, of course, is to create a local manufacturing base to process locally produced waste and create local jobs, something that a Green New Deal and the wider greening of the Northern Ireland – outlined in previous articles – could deliver. As it stands perhaps the biggest threat to recycling in Northern Ireland is not from shipping it abroad but from the proposal for incinerators, which more than anything else could seriously damage our infant recycling industry and culture. From the latest waste management proposals it is clear Northern Ireland is set to deal with the thorny issue of why bother recycling if we can simply burn our rubbish and get ‘energy from waste’?

If local industries were to demand and use more recycled materials (or regulation and procurement rules required this) and citizens put pressure on government to prioritise recycling our waste rather than burning it, a major part of this problem would be solved. As the old Yorkshire saying puts it: “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.”

Dr John Barry is Director of the Centre for Sustainability and Environmental Research and Associate Director of the Institute for a Sustainable World, both at Queen’s University Belfast.

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