Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Waste and/or Recycle

Having just completed renovations on our house, there are a few themes that we could talk about in terms of the attitudes of British workers. For this blog, I have decided to focus on recycling or avoidance of waste. We were removing walls so I did expect some materials to be discarded but since the walls that were being removed were brick, I was expecting that we might have a pile of bricks to recycle. The worker taking down the wall obviously thought so as well as he put the bricks that hadn't crumbled aside for himself. An interesting attitude in itself. If we are talking ownership, I would have thought all materials on the site belonged to the site owner but ...

However, it wasn't the waste created from the demolition that really concerned me. It was the amount of new materials particularly plaster board, plaster powder, offcuts from the kitchen panels, and bench top that the builders were simply going to discard. It helped us understand why the costs of the change were higher than we expected. Yes, we did attempt to retrieve some of the discarded materials but still the wastage was much higher than we would have expected.

When it came to the carpets, the same applied. There were large offcuts that the carpet layers were simply going to discard. In this case, we made it clear that we wanted the offcuts to make mats so we have rolls of carpet stored in the attic. I suspect that the offcuts would have enabled us to carpet a small room but there seemed little attempt to minimise the waste. It was clear that these off cuts regardless of their size would simply be dumped. In fact, we rescued one piece form the carpet that was discarded in the waste pile of old carpet.

Even though a lot of packaging is labelled for recycling, the UK has very limited recycling operations meaning that most of these packing materials end up in land fills or is incinerated. Only a limited range of plastics are recycled. This makes the whole recycling labelling process a con. If something is labelled as recyclable then there should be an option for recycling hopefully implemented by the manufacturer of the material. What is the point of using a material that is potentially recyclable if there is no option for recycling? It seems to me that a recycling label should mean it will be recycled and not that it could be if the facilities were available.

You would think in a country which is fairly densely populated that there would be some appreciation of the problems of creating waste but there are so many items that are sold on the basis that if anything goes wrong with them then they will simply be trashed and replaced by a new product. Computer printers and scanners fall into this category with a purchase price that is sometimes cheaper than the price of ink cartridges. In order to sustain our business profits, we design computers, mobile phones, many other electronic devices, and vehicles with the objective of regular replacement, yet there appears to be no attempt to ensure there is at least a clear recycling option. The disposable culture is engrained into UK culture.

I suspect that the disposable culture goes wider than simply the UK. At least in western nations, we have developed a culture where goods are designed for short lifetimes and manufacturers take no responsibility for disposing or recycling of the redundant product.

While this wastage goes on, our economic planning assumes scarcity or resources and especially man created money. If resource scarcity is really a problem then surely minimising waste and recycling should have a much higher priority. Yet like many ecological or environmental problems, it is argued that it is uneconomical or not profitable to do. Surely this suggests that our economic thinking is rather twisted since we are prepared to accept the cost of waste resources and the cost of disposal but not the costs of recycling or the reduced costs of reduction of waste.

Our economic thinking doesn't look at the total costs but focuses on the profitability of individual economic units rather than the total costs to society. What are other implications of a narrow economic focus?