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Engineers want £20bn for rubbish idea

Volvo drivers, taxes and recycling

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In a utopian report, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) says the UK needs £20bn additional spending on recycling infrastructure over the next decade. The recommendation is made in a report today that proposes "unlocking value locked up in the UK's current waste" – which sounds great – but the report fails to tell us whether the value unlocked will exceed £20bn. Alas, no attempt at all is made to quantity the costs and benefits of the recommendations – which are grand indeed.

No new public money is likely for waste infrastructure once the current PFI-funded projects are complete, which worries the engineering trade group. It has expressed concerns that current technologies are immature and unreliable, which can only deter investors. But, in a splendid bit of utopian speculation, the State of the Nation report proposes that by 2050, "the circular economy is a reality and the waste industry has fully converted into a materials supply sector".

This is a lofty ambition: only 9 per cent of British waste comes from households to begin with. And, the ICE notes ominously, China may stop taking our recycling as it advances economically. The engineers also advocate new tiers of administration to co-ordinate waste management. These are, specifically:

  • a sub-national body taking the role of identifying sites for strategic facilities;
  • an aggregation of local authorities determining the quantities of waste required to trigger the creation of new facilities – and then planning their delivery; and
  • a national waste management council made up of representatives of national and local government creating a waste infrastructure plan by consensus.

The ICE added "sustainability" to its mission statement in 2003.

Recycling is rubbish

The engineers' report caused controversy on its launch day with the observation – rarely acknowledged by environmentalists – that the discovery of recycling by the Volvo-driving classes in recent years has actually er ... made recycling more costly and difficult. There were mature markets for recovering aluminium, paper and glass from waste long before eco-campaigners adopted it as a cause, and turned it into a moral issue (and personal obligation). To cut a long story short, since local councils' targets stress quantity over quality, very little recycled waste is worth very much, and some of it is dangerous. A paper recycling mill has had to stop taking British paper because it contains too many glass shards.

The story of how recycling mania was born 20 years ago is sweetly told in this landmark New York Times magazine feature from 1996, which describes how Americans erroneously came to believe the country had run out of landfill sites. As with many superstitions, it spread like a contagion through the college-educated middle classes.

Localism met gesture politics, and authorities rushed through mandatory recycling targets, even though these offered only "short-term benefits to a few groups – politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organisations, waste-handling corporations" and imposed a serious opportunity cost, "diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems". It was more important to be seen to be doing something.

"Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources," concluded the New York Times' John Tierney.

The EU is blamed for the current situation, after it ordered the UK to cut the amount of municipal waste it throws into landfill from 85 per cent in 1999 to 35 per cent by 2020. The Governments reponse was huge tax rises in the cost of using landfill sites. But recycling isn't the only alternative, of course. A report prepared for the London Assembly in 2009 called "Where there's Muck there's Brass" [pdf] estimated that if London's landfill was burned, it could heat 625,000 households and provide light for 2m more homes. Side benefits would include more compost, and even a net CO2 reduction.

So why aren't we burning our waste, safely, and helping the old and the poor get through a freezing winter?

The most compelling reason I can find comes via a US study which estimated that incinerating 10,000 tons of waste took up one full-time job. Disposing of the same amount into of landfill needed six full-time employees. But recycling 10,000 tons of waste created "work" for 36 people.

Which gravy train do you think you'd choose? ®

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