I popped out in a rainy lunch hour today for a pleasant lunch with Alexis Rowell.
Alexis is a LibDem councillor over in Camden, where he chairs the Council’s Sustainability Task Force. So as two environmentally-friendly folk, we met at the Duke of Cambridge, Islington’s award-winning organic pub. (Two lots of swede-topped fish pie, a lot nicer than it sounds).
Roll back fifteen years, and Alexis & I were neighbours in Highbury; we reminisced about the bad old days when Islington had a Labour council, our rubbish was collected every three weeks, and the borough recycling service consisted of about 6 bottle banks!
It’s changed enormously since then: Islington residents now have weekly recycling collections for glass, paper, cans, cardboard and plastic bottles, plus the brown bucket service for food waste. Even our garden waste gets taken away for composting (although it’s actually greener to compost it in the garden if you can).
And that’s part of the challenge. Recycling has moved from a minority pursuit to a mainstream universal service – operated on an industrial scale, to meet ever increasing government targets. That’s great for diverting waste from landfill; but the scale of the operations and the distances involved, don’t always feel very green. It’s certainly a far cry from people and communities taking responsibility for their own waste, close to home.
Alexis is a critic of the co-mingled recycling scheme that’s now the norm across London boroughs (of all political complexions), including both Camden and Islington. That’s the system where you put all your paper, cans etc in together, and they get sorted at the other end. I’ve seen how it’s made recycling easier for Islington residents and how the amount of material diverted from landfill or incineration has soared as a result. But I also think we need to start thinking now about the 3rd generation of recycling schemes.
My thinking? It will be much more focused on carbon neutrality. Combined with rising fuel prices, the ‘material miles’ will be a much bigger factor in our recycling choices. There will be more personalised packages of recycling services, reflecting people’s different lifestyles. More recycling will be integrated into shopping – as with the way your old washing machine now gets taken away when you buy a new one. More charities will offer niche recycling schemes – like recycling mobile phones for Refuge. And there will be more sophisticated individual incentives for recycling: carrots for citizens rather than sticks for councils.
Changing the way central government treats councils is key to this. Labour talk about localism and innovation and personalised services – but their central control-freak targets have the opposite effect.
The other thing that needs to change is petty party politicking about recycling. To change recycling services needs long term planning investment. If opposition parties (of whatever variety) pick holes in the service for the sake of it, it undermines the effort we all need to make to continue to improve recycling.