Saturday, April 06, 2013

Media: the great recycling con

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It is difficult to detect the "topical hook" which has the Daily Mail splashing the great recycling conover today's front page. Nevertheless, this appears to be a powerful story, to add to the earlier report, last February, which claimed that, "millions of tons of rubbish carefully sorted by families for recycling has been buried in landfill".

Unfortunately, we are not dealing with serious journalism here as the paper – in the form of writer Steve Doughty – now asserts that every year "twelve million tons of your carefully sorted waste is being dumped in foreign landfill sites". We are looking at a classic Mail invention.

According to the latest Defra figures - annual household waste is running at 22.9 million tons, of which 43 percent is "recycled, composted or reused". That amounts to 10.7 million tons. 

Even then, by no means is the larger part of that quantity is exported. Not a little, as the Mail has already claimed, is actually landfilled in the UK. And that leaves something of a gap. However, if we look to quantities of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste, we are looking at 47.9 million tons (2009 figures), of which 52 percent, or 25 million tons, was recycled or reused. 

One might imagine the Mail adds in some of the C&I waste to get its twelve million tons figure, which would make the claim a simple exaggeration. But even that does not really compute. 

A search for more detail leads us to the Environment Agency website, which tells us that the only really accurate statistics on waste export relate to "notifiable waste", largely hazardous waste – of which about 617,000 tons was exported (2010). 

As to general waste, we are referred to Her Majesties Revenue and Customs (HMRC) trade database for the UK, from which the EA estimated that England exported around 12.5 million tons and imported about 1.3 million tons of waste in 2006, giving a net export of around 11.2 million tons. 

The majority of these movements, we are told, are accounted for by "green list waste" (99 per cent for exports and 91 per cent for imports). And here, we find that metallic and paper/board wastes account for the greatest proportion (63 per cent and 31 per cent respectively). 

When we go to the source, the trade database, we actually find that the "waste" category includes scrap metals, and much else besides. That makes it impossible to determine actual quantities recycled municipal waste exported. Yet that is the subject of the Mail story, with the story centering around the claim of twelve million tons. 

Given that the nearest thing we have is a 2006 figure, and that 91 percent is metallic waste and scrap paper (much of that from industry), the actual amount of recycled domestic waste that ends up on its way to "China, India and Indonesia" – where the Mail says it goes - must be relatively small. Deduct the amount of "notified waste" and it is possibly no more than a few hundred thousand tons, if that.  Of that, necessarily, a smaller proportion ends up in landfill. 

The story, therefore, doesn't stand up. For sure, there is a story, but the Mail doesn't get near it. And sadly, the very information which would make the story does not seem to exist. Inventing a spurious statistic is not the answer, and as that is at the heart of what the Mail has to offer, it makes the paper's story worthless - the story itself is a con. 

The reality is that, when it comes to the huge amount of effort and expense that goes into recycling domestic waste, there are no data on much of the ten million tons or so collected for recycling actually ends up being reused, and how much goes for final disposal. Furthermore, as Raedwaldrecalls, there is not even any requirement to keep records. 

There, perversely, lies the real story. As Booker recounts, there is a huge and increasing amount spent on waste collection and disposal – largely at the behest of the EU's Waste Framework Directive - but no one really knows what happens to it. That is nothing short of a scandal - and is a story that should be told.