April 12th, 2013
by Peter Jones
The Daily Mail ran an extraordinary story on its front page on 6th April, claiming that 12m tons (sic.) of material collected as household recycling is in fact being landfilled overseas. The article also reports that official statistics showing a recycling rate of 43% of household waste are overstated because “in reality, processors reject most recyclable material, which then often ends up in landfill sites.”
With unwitting irony, the article recycles elements of pieces from 2008 and 2011, when the Mail told its readers that “Thousands of tons of recycling carefully sorted by families in Britain is being dumped illegally in the Third World.” It also gave the Mail the opportunity to re-use one of its favourite pictures, showing a household in Newcastle-under-Lyme with nine separate waste containers.
Defra has offered a straight bat denial of the Mail’s claims, but I think it is worth unpicking this mish-mash of half-truths in rather more detail. You might say that a tabloid newspaper publishing a misleading story is more “dog bites man” than “man bites dog”; however, what I find interesting is the Mail’s agenda and motivation, and the impact this kind of piece has. There isn’t space to debunk all of the Mail’s misleading claims, so let’s focus on the central ones.
Are “12 million tons of your carefully sorted waste… being dumped in foreign landfill sites?” It isn’t easy to work out the source of the Mail’s figure, as the story isn’t prompted by the release of new statistics. Rather, it seems to have been triggered by Defra’s launch of a consultation on new transfrontier waste shipment rules, from which the article quotes – but which contains no statistics at all.
There has been some useful work attempting to unravel the “12m ton mystery”. The number certainly doesn’t come from the Defra Local Authority Collected Waste Management Statistics for England 2011/12, although this is the source of the 43% recycling rate derided by the Mail. It reports that the total household recycling collected was only 10.7m tonnes. Perhaps the Mail added in the 0.7m tonnes recorded in the 2011/12 Welsh statistics, but that still leaves them a little short, and it is rather unlikely that the further 1.2m tonnes from Scotland would have been included.
The 12m might include some of England’s recycled commercial and industrial waste. If so, there is no explanation of how the Mail derived this from the 2009 survey, which show that 52% of the 47.9m tonnes of this waste were recycled – some 25m tonnes.
The likeliest source is a seven year old number from the Environment Agency website’s page on notified waste shipments. An estimate is given of transboundary waste movements based on notifiable waste shipments information and data from HMRC. The Agency says that “England exported around 12.5 million tons and imported about 1.3 million tonnes of waste in 2006, giving a net export of around 11.2 million tons.” Of the exports, 99% were “green-list” waste (which the Mail confusingly refers to as “green waste”, a term more often applied to garden waste) that will be subject to a recovery process (typically recycling or energy from waste) and does not require permission for export. Scrap metal, much of it from commercial and industrial sources, made up 63% of the total, and being relatively high value and easy to separate is pretty unlikely to end up in a Chinese landfill.
If only 11.4m tonnes of household recycling are collected in England and Wales, we can be confident that there are not 12m tonnes of “your carefully sorted waste” being dumped. And if “most” of the material being exported was rejected, surely no savvy Chinese businessman would be paying to receive it.
So there is no published statistic that backs the Mail’s extraordinary claim, and the numbers that are available only highlight its inaccuracy. The same is true of the claim that “processors reject most recyclable material, which then often ends up in landfill sites”.
Some (though far from “most”) of the material collected commingled by local authorities and separated in UK MRFs will end up being disposed of because it is contamination, not the targeted material. Councils report reject rates ranging from 2-20%, but the relatively poor quality of some of the resulting separated material is one reason why material is reprocessed in the Far East rather than in the UK (it being cheaper to do further manual sorting where labour costs are low). Heavily contaminated waste may be unlawful for export – hence Defra proposing stricter border checks in its consultation. And some shipments are sufficiently contaminated that they are turned away even by raw-material hungry China. The extent to which this occurs seems to vary depending on Chinese political and economic circumstances, but there are indications of a new push to get rid of low quality imports. this can be updated and strengthened.
Proposals for a MRF Code of Practice are intended to address this, but there are reasons to think that more work is needed to make them effective. It is hard to imagine the Mail campaigning for tighter regulation of a UK industry, even to address a problem they have highlighted. Less likely still is that the Mail might want the recycling quality issues to be addressed at source. The material that is fed through MRFs isn’t “carefully sorted waste” that has been placed in separate bins and containers, but the much more Mail-friendly commingled material, collected in just one or two recycling containers; the systems that more than half of UK authorities employ.
The fact that we are shipping poorly sorted recycling overseas should be a source of disquiet. But the steps needed to address this, better (self?) regulated MRFs and more separate collection of materials, run directly counter to the Mail’s agenda.
The article seems to carry an undercurrent of disapproval against the export of materials that UK households recycle. It quotes disparagingly another extract from the Environment Agency website: “In the UK and the EU, increasing amounts of waste collected for recycling are sent overseas for reprocessing. Much of the waste collected from households and through your local civic amenity sites/household recycling centres will ultimately be exported.” By contrast, appears to approve of a statement from Doretta Cocks, of the Campaign for Weekly Waste Collection: “Most people believe their rubbish is recycled in this country. Now it turns out there are container ships coming here from China filled with televisions and computers … and going home stacked with containers filled with our recycled rubbish. That is shameful.”
I doubt that “most people” have given a second thought to where their recycling ends up. And just how shameful is it that some goes overseas? If many of the goods we buy are manufactured in the Far East, returning the material there for remanufacturing can be viewed as “closing the loop”. Would it be less shameful if the ships went back empty?
Cocks, not being an industry expert, perhaps hasn’t considered the important distinction between recycling that has simply been sorted and baled, and that which has been reprocessed back into a useable raw material. I would be happy to see more recyclate reprocessed in the UK so that we could obtain more of its value – but without a surge in UK manufacturing, much of this would still be exported. Again, the barrier here is poor quality recycling, whose remedies through separation and regulation are anathema to the Mail. The implication seems to be understood by Cocks, who expresses fears that “we are now going to come under greater pressure to produce purer materials for recycling.”
So what is the Mail seeking to achieve that leads it to print such woefully inaccurate journalism? No doubt, the primary goal is to sell newspapers, and judging by the comments on the article, the Mail is slightly more moderate in its views than are its readers. A rather shouty Aletheia from Gloucester had submitted the top rated comment when I checked: “ALL ONE BIG LIE AND SOME COUNCILS WERE EVEN LOOKING AT FINING PEOPLE FOR NOT SEPARATING RECYCLABLES. IT SHOWS WHAT EVIL LIARS THEY ARE!”
Both appear delighted to re-confirm their perception that national and local government are not just inept, but actively conspiring to inconvenience householders and waste tax money, whatever the facts. All the more troubling is the way that these assumptions leech out into wider attitudes.
Attempting to read a consistent position into the Mail’s hotch-potch of an article is tricky, but it forms part of a consistent trend of reporting negative stories about recycling; balanced only by a share tip about a successful recycling company, and a story about a Bristol recycling crew who rescued some kittens. Borrowing words from one of these articles, it seems the Mail’s aim is “fuelling public cynicism about the value of recycling”, which it sees as a futile imposition. Aside from the headline, there is little commentary on the assemblage of non-facts and decontextualized quotes, with the meaning emerging from their order and juxtaposition. But the ideal it envisages appears to be one where, in an orderly and litter-free fashion, the English do away with recycling, throw everything in one bin, and think no further about it.
The consequences of such an approach are not examined in the article, but it will be interesting to see if the Mail’s next campaign, after its push to reduce plastic bag litter, is for the construction of new incinerators and landfill sites the length and breadth of the country. And perhaps it might strike the first blow by stopping recycling its inaccurate old stories.
I wrote a complaint to the PCC about the Mail’s article discussed here. Find out what happened here.