Why they love the ritual of recycling

Rob Lyons

The real purpose of recycling is not to ‘save the planet’ but to remind us how wasteful and destructive we are.


Even recycling itself doesn’t need to be such an almighty pain in the neck. While Pickles and others have highlighted the rewards side of the Windsor and Maidenhead success story, the other element is something called co-mingling. Basically, instead of following endless arcane rules on which kind of rubbish goes into each of the veritable epidemic of multi-coloured containers that local authorities currently provide, with co-mingling there are just three containers: wet waste, like food; dry recyclables, like paper, plastic, card, metals and so on; and everything else. The dry recyclables are then separated out by machine at a depot. The machines aren’t quite as good as doing it all by hand – yet – but they’re still pretty good.

By taking out much of the confusion and hassle associated with separating waste, householders are more likely to do it. This convenient solution, however, doesn’t play well with greens. This is partly because of an obsession with recycling every last iddy-biddy bit of waste. But the main reason why co-mingling irritates greens is because if you take away the complexity of recycling, the ritual of thinking about it and doing it – if it’s barely any more than shoving stuff in the bin, just like it used to be – then we don’t have that daily eco-message drummed into our heads: ‘We are greedy, wasteful people who throw too much stuff away.’

There would be no point in spending lesson after lesson at primary school teaching kids about how to recycle, and why to recycle, if it’s just sticking stuff in the same bin. For greens, the attraction of complex, confusing systems of recycling is that they remind us, as we carry them out, what wasteful and destructive creatures we are. It is more like penance than a practical activity.

When pressed, the more sensible recycling advocates will admit that separating out our waste – like another fashionable idea, banning plastic shopping bags – has little impact on the environment. They will also admit that recycling schemes will always require a certain amount of subsidy. (What’s a few hundred million quid between friends when the national debt is heading rapidly towards a trillion pounds?) Household recycling is a waste of money and time that only makes sense as a form of self-punishment for the eco-sin of consumption.

In other words, those who want us to recycle our rubbish are really trashing us.

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