Taking it to the curb: Britons warm to recycling

Lizzie Gant was never big on recycling. Everything went in the trash: paper, plastic wrapping, batteries, even expired electrical goods.

Then the local council gave her neighborhood a heavy hint: a big orange sack, a few do's and don'ts, and a collection date. It caught on. "On Fridays now, the street is just covered in these orange bags," she says. "You can put anything in there. You don't even have to sort things out."

It's the same story up and down the country. A silent revolution seems to be rippling through British garbage at last. Recycling rates are climbing sharply, rising to almost 25 percent of household waste from barely 7 percent a decade ago. The amount of trash dumped in landfill has finally started to fall: at 22 million tons, last year's figure was a million tons lower than for the preceding year.

Despite the enthusiasm, Britain still has one of the poorest recycling rates in Europe and remains far more dependent on landfill than other similar-sized European countries like the Netherlands and Austria, which recycle more than 50 percent of household waste. Recycled materials, moreover, often are shipped to countries like China because there aren't enough uses for them at home.

Experts and even government ministers now admit that with landfill sites rapidly filling and space at a premium, a breakthrough needs to happen: Britons need to generate less waste in the first place.

"We are still in first gear," said Ben Bradshaw, Britain's environment minister. "The amount of waste we produce continues to rise and much of this still goes to landfill. Compared with many other European countries we still produce more, but recycle less, household waste per head."

A department official adds, on customary condition of anonymity: "We need to put more emphasis on buying and making products which create less waste in the first place. After all, if there's no waste produced, there is no need to dispose of it."

The key concern is that Britain will struggle to meet EU-imposed targets of 50 percent of household trash to be recycled by 2020. Failure would imply large fines.

As a result, taxes, incentives, and innovations have mushroomed. A landfill tax has been hiked exponentially; councils have responded by encouraging residents to recycle, doling out plastic boxes and establishing curbside collection. Some councils text-message residents with night-before reminders; others reward regular recyclers with entries in prize drawings and lotteries, or shopping, holiday, and leisure vouchers.

The green issue has even broken into mainstream politics. In a country with only nascent environmental reflexes, all three major parties are jostling for the green vote in next week's important local elections. The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, has been exhorting his support to "vote blue, go green." Labour's manifesto includes the rather obscure promise of "extending curbside recycling collection of at least two types of recyclable materials to all households in England by 2010."

But finding uses for recycled material is a challenge. The government has set up the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) to develop markets for "recyclate" materials. Plastics are used in all-weather sports pitches, outdoor furniture, and street posts. Glass has been used for aggregatesin concrete, sports turf, and even golf bunkers.

But WRAP anticipates a surplus of more than 550,000 tons of green and amber glass alone by 2008. Adam Read, head of waste management at Hyder Consulting, told a recent conference: "Without overseas markets, both in the EU and wider afield in the rapidly developing economies of Latin America, China, and India, we may sink under the weight of our unprocessed recyclables."

Thus the government has eagerly embraced incineration - or "energy from waste," as it likes to call the process of extracting energy from trash burning. It plans to increase the amount burned in incinerators from around 10 percent today to more than 20 percent in 2015.

This is controversial, particularly among those who live in the shadows of the giant combustion chambers. Incinerators spew out greenhouse gases and other pollutants, some of which are considered harmful to humans. Residents in the central England city of Nottingham are railing against plans to expand the Eastcroft incinerator, which has one of the worst records for pollution breaches.

"We shouldn't be incinerating our waste - we should be treating it as a resource and recycling it," says Jon Beresford, who lives near the site. "The problem is that the UK has dragged its heels for decades, so there is little infrastructure for recycling. Now the new EU rules stop us from sending stuff to landfill, the government is panicking and embracing incinerators as a quick fix."

Michael Warhurst, of the Friends of the Earth environmental group, says that incineration generates far less energy that recycling can save. "And it still produces carbon dioxide.... We should be focusing instead on phasing out residual waste."

That means cutting down on the packaging and materials used by producers and consumers. The government points to estimates that as much as 93 percent of production materials are never used in the final product. "Our approach has to change so we consider the 'life-cycle' of a product - not what to do with the waste once the process is complete, but what can be done at the outset to reduce the waste," says the government official.

Last year, the government signed up 13 major retailers to commit to reduce packaging over the next five years. But retailers also say they have to give customers what they want. Some consumers are turning to package-free shopping, such as fruit and vegetable delivery boxes that get reused each week. Others still like their polythene.

"Grapes, strawberries, they all look better in the plastic containers," says Ms. Gant, adding that her newfound enthusiasm does not stretch to the weekly shop for her family of five. "Some of the loose stuff looks like it has been handled a bit too much."

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