A Wilful Waste

Sitting outside my house I currently have two sacks full of clothing awaiting a charity shop collection; two black boxes containing assorted bottles, cans, jars and paper; a large wheelie bin full of cardboard and plastic containers; a wheelie bin for the difficult to compost garden waste; and a couple of general rubbish bins. All of these containers will be emptied by the large vehicles that drive through our village each week. Although I abide by the rules and ensure that the items we wish to dispose of are cleaned and sorted as required, I have mixed feelings about recycling.

Where possible and easy I will try to reuse what I can. We have compost bins and a wormery at the bottom of the garden which deal with our kitchen, garden and poultry waste; we shred much of our paper and use it as a nesting material for the chickens; the plastic bags that we bring our groceries home in become bin liners; leftover food is reused in another meal. However, we still need to dispose of large quantities of items, mainly packaging from the food and drink that we consume, so we do use all those boxes and bins that we keep outside.

My main quibble with recycling is the cost to the environment against the benefits gained. The collection lorries need to be manufactured and fuelled; the bins and boxes need to be made and distributed; once collected, the rubbish needs to be sorted and processed, all of which uses power and other resources. There is also the issue of where the processing takes place. I question whether the environmental cost of transporting the waste is justified. I like the idea of recycling but am not convinced that it is worthwhile – that it makes sense. Of course, if we do not reuse or recycle then rubbish still needs to be dealt with. This is generally done more locally, with landfill sites or processing plants in most parts of the country. Nobody wants to live near these places due to the smell and traffic; minimising the need for them is one of the stronger arguments for recycling. The emotive messages that we are bombarded with about saving the planet are too easy to discredit.

I find environmental campaigners irritating. I am happy to try to be a good citizen; I understand that we are just one part of an interrelated, natural world and that we all benefit if we care for what is around us. Cutting down on pollution, lowering consumption and keeping ourselves healthy all makes sense. Unfortunately, so many of the methods we are encouraged to adopt do not.

The government in the UK spends a great deal of the money collected in taxes subsidising what it calls renewable energy sources. We are fed the message that solar panels or wind turbines generate power from sources that are freely available. The cost of these is not made clear. All devices must be manufactured, transported, put somewhere and, eventually, disposed of. What is the cost to the environment of that? We are rarely told how much electricity is actually generated by these devices in their lifespan compared to the resources required in their manufacture and disposal.

There is also the issue of who is really making money from the power generation such as the wealthy landowners who rent out the fields where the wind turbines are located. When a government subsidy is available companies will spring up to supply the product. How many of the solar panel manufacturers and fitters will cease trading when the government wishes to promote the next big idea and the subsidies are removed? There are plenty of people making money from these schemes, but it is my view that they rarely offer the full benefits cited in the long term.

It seems to have become increasingly hard to do the right thing by society. Charities now employ political lobbyists, receive funding from government to support a particular policy and spend money on advertising or other propaganda in an attempt to influence the way we behave. These activities do not offer the direct benefits to the people, places or things that I wish to support. The issue of trying to influence peoples behaviour has become quite sinister in recent years. I have a high regard for scientists but it can be so difficult now to believe scientific studies. We are given many messages on how to stay healthy. We are bombarded with advice, but there has also been a movement towards legislation – removing peoples choices and thereby forcing them to change their habits. The powerful anti smoking lobby has succeeded in changing public perception of smokers; the subsequent legislation is seen as a beneficial victory, yet it is rarely mentioned that inhalation of diesel fumes causes more cancers than second hand cigarette smoke. Where messages are incomplete and reaction inconsistent it can be hard to be sure who is really benefiting.

Funding for research seems to have skewed results in an alarming way. Good science is not about crusading with preconceived ideas. It’s about asking why, and seeking the truth, however inconvenient it might be and however tortuous the path to get there. Public health policy needs to be based on firm scientific foundation and clear benefit, not populist propaganda. There also seems to be a movement towards discrediting scientists who question orthodoxies that owe more to government policy and business interests than to advancing knowledge. Nowhere is this more apparent than in climate science which has become such a convoluted and emotive issue that it is hard to discuss at all.

Aiming to live a life that minimises the damage we cause to the environment should be simple. We can consume less, travel less, use fewer resources. I hope that there is some benefit in all the recycling. Something needs to justify allowing all those lorries to spew their diesel fumes into our air.

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