Geoffrey Lean on recycling again

Beneath the corrugated iron roof of an open-ended old pig shed – amid swooping swallows – workers were painstakingly hand-separating paper, plastics, glass, aluminium, food scraps, vegetable matter and other material that can be used again, leaving only the remnants to go into the island\’s rudimentary waste disposal system. Every week, 140 lorryloads of waste arrive. Only 10 leave carrying real rubbish.

OK, lots of labour in a poor country, not much capital. Hand picking might indeed be the way to go.

A big blue machine, provided by the local government to process the waste stands idle in a corner, proving the point. The electricity needed to power it costs too much: human energy is cheaper, and employs more people.


The only problem with this idea is that the model doesn\’t transfer to a country with abundant capital and expensive labour (the labour in part being expensive because of the abundant capital of course).

Like the UK.

Where labour is paid very little the cost of that labour might well be covered by the value of the aluminium etc which is retrieved. However, it also works the other way around: the value of what is retrieved has to cover the payments to the labour. And that doesn\’t necessarily work in a country paying £6.00 an hour.

Sometimes it does of course. We\’ve a thriving scrap metal industry which pays quite a lot more than that. But sorting through household rubbish simply doesn\’t produce that sort of income. Thus the doing of it makes us poorer, by the amount of whatever else it is we could have been doing with that time.

And moving the work from the paid, market, sector to the unpaid household sector (for example, by insisting that people must sort their rubbish at home) doesn\’t get around that basic problem. The value of what is retrieved from sorting domestic waste is less than the value of the labour which must be used.

1 thought on “Geoffrey Lean on recycling again”

  1. You see- there really are lots of green jobs available! Guardianistas will be queuing up for them. Everyone will have more work than they can imagine. Of course there won’t be any pay- but nobody promised that did they.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *