Thursday, 17 December 2009

Recycling and the UK. Then and Now

A long time ago, when fish and chips were really wrapped in newspaper, my mother could take back that empty bottle that once contained dandelion and burdoch, get the deposit back on the bottle and use it pay towards a poke of chips or on a new bottle of the thick, fizzy, dark brown liquid. In those days we walked as a family to the nearest chip shop, which was over a mile away.
Now I don’t take my daughter to a chippy. Too many calories in the deep-fried food, cod has joined the panda on the WWF endangered species list, the food is served in polystyrene boxes, sugar surges and eight-year olds are not a good mix; I would doubtless be told where to go if one were to ask for money for an empty bottle.
Why am I rambling like this? Look back on what we used to do in small businesses and a lot of the packaging was recycled material. But now shops are under no real obligations: if you’re lucky there will be recycling bins available at the end of the car park. Is it any wonder that Britain has terrible record of recycling when compared with are continental neighbours? I would suggest that the reason is that UK governments has not put the burden of responsibility across society evenly: leaving it just up to the individual instead of those that supply the packaging in the first place: the businesses that sell the stuff to begin with.

On the continent it is different and I was reminded of this on a recent trip to visit relatives in Germany. My sister-in-law works for one of Germany’s largest supermarket chains and she filled me in. Shops have to provide recycling facilities for all the packaging materials they sell. This means that some chain stores even refuse to carry certain lines if they decide that it doesn’t make economic sense to deal with the returned packaging. Instead, they leave it to their competitors. The in-store systems have a degree of automation but there is also labour required. I’m sure the businesses don’t like it but that is the law: they have no choice. And yes, there is a deposit system on bottles: both glass and plastic are covered (such a machine is shown in the photographs).
It has been like this for years. The same automated bottle-handling systems were in Norway when I was living there ten years ago. What do we have in the United Kingdom? Some poor individual at the till offering to sell you a “bag for life” but with the usual plastic ones still available for those who ask..

It is just not good enough. Although the government’s Defra website shows that we are recycling more in the UK, about two and a half times more than we were ten years ago, about eighty percent is still going into landfill, (it varies with materials: about fifty percent of paper is reused or recycled). In 2007, Austria was recycling sixty percent of it’s used materials with our northern-European neighbours not far behind.
If Britain wants to lose the dirty man of Europe image, one which we have held for years for various reasons (remember acid rain for example), we need to be doing far more. The individual household is starting to get on board the recycling train: time for business, especially the supermarkets to be made to get on board too. That is not going to happen by voluntary measures: legislation is the only way.