Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Great Green Debate

I was flicking through an old Sunday Times today when I spotted an article titled 'Let your dustbin buy the coffees' in the business section. It turns out, this American guy Ron Gonen has invented a way to get even apathetic people to recycle. Binning responsibly yields points you can spend in various shops, kind of like a nectar card. Apparently RecycleBank has really taken off in America, and now their trial schemes in Windsor and Maidenhead have increased the residents there recycling by 35%. The points to rubbish ratio is worked out by special RecycleBank bins weigh the amount of refuse using an electronic tag system.

Other point-winning strategies include signing up to Ebay's Green Team, which gives you points in return for selling your old furniture et al via the site, with extra points dished out for electronic goods.

Whilst I think this is a great idea, getting recycling to be a part of everyone's lifestyles, doesn't it feel a little bit like bribery? A smug little pat on the head for doing your bit earns you a nice cardie and a capuccino; what about the rest of us who do it anyway, and heaven knows where charity shops will get there tat to peddle from now. I suppose it's a good idea to regiment recycling a bit more but aren't people aware of re-selling via Ebay, classifieds and car boots anyway, we're not that stupid.

Klaus Topfer, Germany's environment minister in 1991 declared, after popularised debates concerning manufacturers' waste and the growing concern of landfill and excessive packaging proposed that waste was a useful resource, which manufacturers' had to be responsible for sorting it themselves, re-using as much as possible and collecting it themselves, thus alleviating us pedants from the job of recycling it and I suppose making them more aware of the amount of rubbish they were creating. I think this bit of the article I found pretty much sums it up:

"The take-back idea has much popular appeal. Everyone is against waste. It seems so...well, wasteful. And pinning responsibility on manufacturers lets consumers off the hook. It makes consumers victims of packaging forced on them by capricious manufacturers--a view adopted by many U.S. environmentalists. "Packaging manufacturers unthinkingly foist millions of dollars of expenses onto us all every day," Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council recently told The New York Times.Defining packaging as pollution generated by manufacturers makes the take-back idea seem compatible with the economically (and emotionally) satisfying "polluter-pays" principle. It appeals to the current rage for "market-oriented" environmental policies. If packaging is indeed pollution--if it is an externality, to borrow from economics lingo--Topfer's ordinance is a way of fixing a market failure. It forces manufacturers to take full account of the costs they are imposing on others. Writing in the June 1993 Atlantic, Hershkowitz explicitly applies this model to the take-back concept. The aim, he says, is "making the price of |waste~ collection and utilization internal to each product," thereby giving manufacturers "an incentive to reduce the amount of garbage they build into their products."

Finding all this out has made me more confused than reassured, but I suppose at least the powers that be are taking an interest, please leave comments on what you make of this, our collective mess.;col1

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