TOPIC GUIDE: Recycling

"Household recycling is a waste of time"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2007

AUTHOR: James Gledhill

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What we do with our household rubbish has become a big political issue, all the way from its role in our becoming a ‘zero-waste society’ [Ref: GoZero] to the furore over plans for fortnightly rubbish collections [Ref: BBC News]. While the government’s publication of a Waste Strategy for England [Ref: BBC News] may not exactly set the pulse racing, plans for £30 a year rubbish charges and cash rewards for recycling are part of a wider debate about the place of the environment among our social priorities. The themes are familiar: landfill is out, discouraged by a landfill tax, and recycling is in. Of course recycling has been encouraged for years, and it might seem like a self-evidently good thing. Who could argue with turning old products into new ones rather than burying them in the ground? But with waste meant for recycling ending up in landfill [Ref: Telegraph], and being sent to China [Ref: Guardian], the reality may not live up to expectations. Recycling may make us feel good about ‘doing our bit’, but is it economically efficient? Swedish waste experts questioned conventional wisdom by arguing that separating rubbish is a waste of time and money and that incineration of household waste is better for the economy and the environment. Environmentalists say that this, along with the other worries [Ref: Recycle Now], is an anti-green myth [Ref: Friends of the Earth]. However, it has been argued that our concern with recycling is out of all proportion with its benefits and that our priorities have become skewed. Some councils have made recycling compulsory [Ref: Guardian], and even where it’s voluntary you could still get a fine for putting paper in a bag of bottles and cans [Ref: Guardian]. Then there are glitzy government-backed campaigns (dead link) with ‘celebrity ambassadors’, and projects in schools. Is recycling an essential part of raising environmental awareness, or would our time be better spent on other social questions?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A load of rubbish?
Every year around 30 million tonnes of waste is collected from households in the UK. Once this would just have been seen as something for councils to sort out, but today we’re more likely to think about waste in terms of our personal impact. This figure means that each person in the country is generating 500 kg of rubbish, or seven times their body weight. In terms of total waste output, the UK produces enough rubbish to fill the Albert Hall every hour. Although household rubbish is less than 10 per cent of all waste produced, it is argued that recycling more of this waste would make a big difference. Britain’s recycling rate is increasing, and has nearly doubled in the past three years. But at 27 per cent, it is still low compared withover 60 per cent in some other European countries. Landfill is still the main means of managing most of the UK’s waste.

Wasted economic opportunities or a waste of money?
Some economists point out that after collection, transport and sorting, the cost of kerbside recycling programmes generally exceeds the revenues generated by recycled products, and is also greater than the disposal costs [Ref: Weekly Standard]. They say recyling is inefficient and see market prices rather than government initiatives as the best way of setting priorities. For campaigners this is one more recycling myth. They argue that economic calculations don’t take full account of benefits like reduced greenhouse gas emissions. A strong free market case (dead link) has been made for recycling and for the use of financial incentives. Rather than being a service paid for by council tax, rubbish collection would become subject to a ‘pay as you throw’ charge.

Waste not, want not?
Some sceptics think that with our preoccupation with recycling it’s almost as though we’re trying to fill a place once occupied by religion and community life [Ref: spiked]. The desire for convenient packaged goods is described as the ‘besetting sin’ [Ref: Guardian] of modern life. There is concern about people’s recycling ‘lapsing’  over Christmas [Ref: Telegraph], and those who speak out against compulsion risk being seen as social pariahs [Ref: Barnet & Potters Bar Times]. School children are taught that recycling is cool, with Recycler the rapping robot [Ref: Recycle Now] teaching the 3Rs of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. Should we question whether recycling should be a central way through which we think about our local communities and the wider world? Or when people wash nappies rather than using disposables, for example, is it not rather a sign of responsibility and a welcome return to the ‘waste not, want not’ thrift of previous generations?

Is it a question of economic efficiency or environmental ethics?
Until now, kerbside recycling has involved separating waste into up to five different bins, but new sorting technology makes ‘single stream’ collection possible [Ref: Wasteage].Is this a good use of technology, or does the process of separating rubbish play an important role in changing attitudes towards consumption and encouraging us to do more further up the waste hierarchy (dead link) to eliminate, reduce and re-use before we need to recycle? Some say environmentalists would be hypocritical to ignore the environmental and economic case for incineration with energy recovery [Ref: Integra]. But incinerators are opposed because they are seen as visual eyesores with dangerous emissions. And Friends of the Earth argue that incinerators ‘all too often fail to provide community benefits in terms of education and local involvement in solving the problem of what we do with our rubbish’ [Ref: Friends of the Earth].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Is recycling waste just a rubbish idea?

Yorkshire Post 1 September 2006

Is going green still worthwhile?

BBC News 19 May 2005

The environment debate: Waste away

Julian Morris vs Julie Hill spiked-science debate 13 January 2003


Recycle this!

James Thayer The Daily Standard 26 January 2006

Why recycling can be utter garbage

Adam Smith Institute 1 May 2005

A waste of time

Rob Lyons spiked 2 April 2004

Recycling: Your time can be better spent!

Jay Lehr The Heartland Institute 1 April 2003

Why recycling is garbage

Dan Seligman 17 November 1997


The price of virtue

The Economist 7 June 2007

Time for a recycling revolution

Nicky Conway The Birmingham Post 27 November 2006

Is recycling a waste of time?

Lucy Siegle Observer 15 January 2006


The truth about recycling

The Economist 7 June 2007

Anti-recycling myths commentary on ‘Recycling is garbage’

Richard A Denison and John F Ruston Environmental Defense 18 July 1996

Recycling is garbage

John Tierney The New York Times 30 June 1996


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Get real about nappies (and dustbins)

Jennie Bristow spiked 23 July 2007

Waste strategy for England 2007

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (defra) 24 May 2007

A rubbish recycling record

Guardian Unlimited 24 May 2007

Q&A: Recycling in the UK

Guardian Unlimited 24 May 2007

Key points: Waste Strategy

BBC News 24 May 2007

Is it really worth recycling glass?

Lucy Siegle Observer 14 January 2007

Out and about with the recycling police

Hannah Pool Guardian 5 July 2006

Should I ... bother recycling?

Leo Hickman Guardian 20 September 2005

Time to trim our waste lines

Melissa Jackson BBC News 27 September 2004

Waste incineration

House of Commons Library research paper 9 May 2002

Wacky waste facts!


Waste facts

Environmental Services Association


Environment Agency facts and figures

Recycling and waste

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (defra)


Guardian Unlimited environment

Waste: Incineration

Friends of the Earth


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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