Recycling isn’t getting any easier

The last night of a recent holiday in Germany found me walking the streets late at night, trying to find a bottle bank. I had to do this because I didn’t understand the local recycling arrangements. It wasn’t entirely a problem of language, but one of local custom. Knowing that the Germans are renowned for their recycling efforts, and that even a small quantity of material in the wrong stream can contaminate a batch, I hoped not to mess up. At the supermarket they didn’t accept bottles, but had a collection slot for ‘cartons’. But what is a carton? We use the term to describe a variety of things, including those Tetra Pak boxes in which we buy orange juice; being a multilayered mixture of plastic, paper and aluminium they’re notoriously difficult to recycle. I still have no idea what the good people of Zarrentin am Schaalsee consider to be a carton.

As they say at the online guide ‘How to Germany: recycling guide’ (seriously…) “the whole subject of recycling can be a daunting issue for any newcomer to the country.” In fact it seems that the Germans may be almost as confused by regional variations as visiting Britons.

I’m good about sorting my waste at home in Yorkshire, because I understand the arrangements: what goes in each bin and when they’re emptied. In Greater Manchester, where I work and keep a small flat, I find it all much more of a mystery: those local variations again. Bearing in mind that the boundary between one local authority and another is in some cases drawn down the middle of a street, with each area having a profusion of different coloured bins that serve the same purposes.

Excepts from Manchester recycling instructions

The simplest plans are the best ones…

This is just the variation between the districts of one moderately-sized city, in one waste category; far greater differences can found if you compare one county with another… and yet in every case the recycling strategy was (at least, we have to assume…) consciously designed.

Can cooked food waste go in compost? It depends where you live. Does the collection of plastics also include plastic films? Always a tricky subject. Again, it depends… and the places that accept plastic films usually do so because they’re not really recycling at all, but sending the whole lot straight into a waste-to-energy plant.

I don’t have to wrestle with such quandaries in Greater Manchester, because I live in a flat, and we just get a single, large dumpster for all waste. Yes: all waste. Because, as you will no doubt agree if you have studied the British class system, people who live in a block of flats won’t be intelligent enough to sort their waste. Indeed, they are bound to keep coal in the bathtub, and when they run out of coal they probably tear up the floorboards and burn those…

At work, our recycling scheme features still another colour scheme, and another set of rules.

nine recycling categories

Residents in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, have to contend with nine waste categories [photo: Daily Mail]

It’s no less baffling for me when we visit my parents’ place in London. In fact, it’s worse. They don’t seem to actually have a bin in the house at all, except for a tiny one in one bathroom. Their recycling regimen is so strict that almost nothing is ever permitted to mix; instead, rubbish gets pigeonholed as soon as it is generated: I hand it to my dad who files it away in an array of designated plastic boxes and bags that are kept in the garage. (They don’t have a car, fortunately.) This approach to waste is vital if the 255,000+ people who live in the 47.35 km2 of the Royal Borough of Greenwich are to avoid being buried under a mountain of rubbish, but it assumes that people will learn and obey the rules. Furthermore, it assumes that the local authority has found a market for the neatly sorted waste it collects… and in any case it confuses the hell out of occasional visitors.

How do you get rid of disposable nappies (diapers)? It seems you’re supposed to register with the council for a special bin, if your household is a source of disposable nappies. Presumably nobody in London ever has visitors with young children anymore. If not, I’m not surprised; one certainly doesn’t feel particularly welcome. When you bear in mind that registering would involve having a fourth wheelie-bin in front of your house, plus kerbside boxes for paper and cardboard, the 21st century street is getting more than a little crowded. Streets with smaller front gardens have become little more than parking areas for bins, in the name of caring for our environment.

A terraced street, and its recycling

It’s preferable to a street covered in litter, but does this create the ideal urban environment? [photo: Daily Mail]

Some local authorities seem to be operating on the basis that if they make waste collection inconvenient enough, people will cease to generate waste and this will save them a fortune. I’m concerned that opposite is true: when you make it hard to get rid of things though the proper channels, people dispose of them improperly. Always assuming they understand what ‘properly’ means in the first place.

Not that being confused by recycling instructions is always the fault of the local councils: industry is more than capable of spawning silly recycling schemes of its own. Take a look at this splendid piece of bad design:

Logo indicating the presence or absence of mercury in a screen display

“Mercury inside”… not as desirable as “Intel Inside®”, it turns out.

“Don’t Hg!” What? If you never studied chemistry and you don’t know your ancient Greek, you may struggle to recall that mercury was once known as hydrargyrum. So: Hg. And if the logo shows ‘Hg’ crossed out, that means you can dispose of the item, because it doesn’t contain the toxic metal. So crossing out means do, and not crossing out means don’t.

With me so far?

DigitalEurope set up this new labelling scheme last year, with funding from WRAP. While it appears that some of the major display and TV manufacturers wanted a way to crow about their adoption of LED-based backlighting (i.e. no more mercury vapour lamps…) the scheme remains entirely voluntary. To quote the DigitalEurope website:

“DigitalEurope does not perform controls and has no control over the use the Television and Computer Monitor producers make of the right to apply the Logos. DigitalEurope will not be liable for any misuse of the logo.”


It’s an approach to e-waste with no teeth, doing nothing to address the confusion already pertaining in the minds of citizens who want to recycle. Codification without common sense is not unknown in the bureaucracy of the EU, but right now the Union itself seems shakier than ever. Our Greek friends slide towards an exit that nobody knew existed, hitherto. In the process they unravel the Emperor’s new clothes, demonstrating that the Euro currency may have been little more than a glorified currency peg… and chaos ensues.

But if, after a couple of decades, we couldn’t even establish a sensible and comprehensible waste handling regimen that was understood and followed in the same way across multiple countries, what chance did we ever have of solving the ‘big questions’?


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