Yet More Bloody Recycling!

Still, no one is actually asking the correct question:

The Government has been slammed by MPs for failing to respond quickly enough to an EU directive which set tough targets on the amount of waste that can be sent to landfill.

If it misses its targets the UK, which sent 18m tonnes of waste to landfill in 2003-2004, will have to pay fines to the European Commission which could total £180m per year.

The correct one being, not how are we going to reach these targets, but why are we trying to reach these targets? Why did we ever sign up to such and EU stricture?

Biodegradable municipal waste, such as food, vegetation and paper disposed of in landfill does not decompose naturally because of the lack of oxygen and instead generates methane, a greenhouse gas about 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The methane produced by landfill accounts for roughly 3 per cent of the United Kingdom\’s total production of climate changing gases.

And under the 2004 Landfill Act all new landfills (whether we recycle future waste or not will have no effect on what is already in the ground, of course) collect this gas and convert it to CO2. Quite how much of it is collected is an issue: I\’ve seen 85% (from an installer of such systems) and 75% (a recent comment here from a supporter of recycling) but is is something which we\’ve already addressed in another way.

And we also do not have accurate figures in the emissions of the various recycling processes. Wormeries, for example, are said to emit NO2, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more powerful than CO2. So much of it in fact, that the NO2 and CH4 emissions of wormeries and landfill respectively have the same CO2-e effect. But we collect and convert (some of) the CH4 and do not (and cannot) collect the NO2. So wormeries are worse for climate change than landfill.

So why are we trying to have more wormeries and fewer landfills?

Has the entire debate been taken over by ill-informed morons?*


* It\’s being run by bureaucrats and politicians, so of course, the answer is yes.

4 thoughts on “Yet More Bloody Recycling!”

  1. Yes, we are. And economically illiterate ones. Has any calculation been made to show that the cost of recycling is less than the fine we would pay? Is it cheaper to pay the fine?

  2. It must also be stressed that CO2 and CH4 created from food, paper, and vegetation waste is just part of the normal Carbon Cycle. It does not contribute to “Global Warming”.

  3. So Much For Subtlety

    The Telegraph has a right to be pig ignorant of science. I mean most of their readership was over 30 when these things were discovered. For the record, anaerobic decomposition is just as natural as the crap you get when you have oxygen. Methane-producing bacteria are not only natural, they pre-date bloody pushy up start oxygen-producers by a good few billion years. You’d think the Tellie would be a little more sympathetic.

  4. Jim Winfield: Many local authorities have indeed performed the calculation of whether the penalties which central government is proposing to impose on them (£150/t) would be greater or otherwise than the cost of diverting biodegradable waste from landfill. Unfortunately for them, the penalties are set so high that it is indeed cheaper to try to recycle + recover (regardless of whether that is a good idea).

    Tim, you are right to point out some of the complexities surrounding estimates of environmental benefits associated with different forms of waste management. One reason that we have followed these policies however, is that the outcomes they have generally driven have acted as a useful proxy for damage, which politicians have been able to pursue as a second best option. (Greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector fell 32% in the EU-15 1990-2003.) Developing more sophisticated policies is something which can now be considered going forward.

    As for estimates of emission figures for different forms of recycling, I think you have previously mentioned the WRAP study which looked into this. Defra’s Waste Strategy I believe also included estimates (which were largely based on the ERM report: ‘Carbon balances and energy impacts of the management of UK wastes’). As you say above, the environmental performance associated with different material streams is hugely variable and dependent on the assumptions made. Given the Government’s commissioning of this work we may hope for improved policy making going forward.

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