August 20th, 2013

The Mail’s de Mauley mistake

5 minute read

by Peter Jones

 

What is it about the Daily Mail and stories about recycling? Back in April, I took apart a story they ran on the front page of the newspaper, versions of which claimed that 12m tonnes of household recycling ends up in Chinese landfill sites each year – when a little basic fact checking would have told them that only 10.7m tonnes of household recycling was actually collected in 2011/12. I followed this up by launching a complaint through the Press Complaints Commission – although more than four months on this remains to be resolved.

I had hoped that, after the extensive correspondence around my complaint, the Mail might apply a slightly more circumspect eye for the factual when its next opportunity to speak out on this topic came around. That time duly came on Saturday 17th August 2013, when the Mail’s website published a piece under the striking headline: “Now EVERY weekly bin collection is to be axed and families made to separate rubbish into five containers”.

At least this time the claims were based on a government minister’s speech – although one made by Lord de Mauley back in June, so not exactly breaking news. But the entire article rests on a simple, fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of “separate collection.”

 

Calamitous blunder

The key quotation from de Mauley is that now local authorities are obliged “separately to collect the four dry recyclate materials where this is necessary to facilitate recycling and recovery and where this is practicable”. Of course, this is a pretty uncontroversial rehearsal of the requirements of the revised Waste Framework Directive.

However, the Mail clearly hasn’t been keeping up with the debate on this topic. Its hacks read the comment to mean that the four types of material must be collected separately from one another, so that, to quote the article, householders will be required to “sort metal, paper, plastic and glass into separate waste bins”.

In this interpretation the Mail is rather wide of the mark, as anyone who has been keeping up with recent developments will know. The meaning of “separate collection”, written into UK law through the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, has been litigated twice, amended by the Waste (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 and remains somewhat unclear pending the issuing of guidance by Defra.

The issue has been whether “separate collection” means ‘separate from one another’ or can mean ‘collected together but separate from other, non-recyclable waste’, with Defra seeking to maintain the latter interpretation. The complexity of the issues has been widely discussed in the trade press under titles such as “Judicial Review – Commingled Collections OK”, and the current lack of clarity is well explained here. In this context it is rather amusing that a Defra minister should now be reported as having announced the end of the commingled collections his department has so staunchly sought to defend.

 

Stupendous error

As Lord de Mauley explained in his speech, Defra’s view following the judgement is that it remains for “local authorities to make local judgements about where separate collection is necessary and practicable”. They will need to take account of Defra’s guidance and consider “how best to reduce cross contamination by materials such as glass, and whether different collection arrangements might be appropriate in different parts of the same local authority.” These will not be straightforward judgements to make.

However, if local authorities conclude that materials should be collected separately from one another, I doubt that any will require each stream to be presented in separate bins. Kerbside sort works perfectly well using a couple of boxes and a stillage vehicle. And there’s nothing to stop an authority from combining a kerbside sort collection with a weekly residual waste service, as Bath and North East Somerset does.

 

Kerbside Sort in Newport

Boxing clever: The Mail might learn much from a trip to Newport, where materials are collected separately without the need for four different bins. Photo by Eunomia.

 

The Mail’s error is a basic misunderstanding of what “separate collection” means in law, combined with a complete lack of understanding of waste logistics. As a result, it has published a highly misleading article, and appears to have unnecessarily caused distress to Doretta Cocks, who is reported as feeling disappointed and let down as a result of the Mail putting its utterly mistaken interpretation of Lord De Mauley’s speech to her.

 

Incoherent diatribe

The Mail advocates simple, single bin “commingled” recycling systems. At the same time, it is angry that there is low quality recycling which contains contaminants and that is sent overseas for further separation before it can be reprocessed. Yet the main source of contaminated recycling is commingled recycling collections, which are terrifically difficult to separate out effectively.

If the Mail’s editorial team is interested in presenting a coherent viewpoint, they might do one of the following:

  • Call for more investment in high quality MRFs that will separate out recycling to a higher standard. However, it will need to accept there are physical limits to how good separation can be.
  • Accept that, if recycling is to be collected in a single bin, the result will be low grade recycling that will typically be exported
  • Accept that it is hardly any more difficult for householders to place recycling in a couple of boxes than in a bin, and campaign for more local authorities to adopt the kerbside sort method of recycling.

 

I have of course written to the Press Complaints Commission to make these points. I’ve asked that the Mail corrects this mistake and withdraws the online version of the article, which will clearly mislead any of its readers who assume that the paper conducts basic fact checking before printing its articles. I would encourage Isonomia readers to make free with the text of this article to prepare their own complaints. A bigger backlash might lead the newspaper to think twice about continuing its apparent campaign of misinformation about recycling in the UK, which risks undermining the whole sector’s attempts to deliver better waste services.

 

Peter Jones

 

Peter Jones
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Tim Hobbs
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Tim Hobbs

No surprises that the Daily Mail takes a complex technical and legal point and converts it to another middle-England rant about wheelie bins.

If, however, they have caused distress to Doretta Cocks I am prepared to forgive them.

Bard Jorgensen
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Dear Peter, I have read your article and other comments with great interest, the one complaining about the Mail’s rather conservative and obviously erroneous allegations about recycling methods and systems in the UK. Here in Tromsø, Northern Norway, we introduced kerbside collection and separate recycling system at the household-level several years ago. For the time being and according to our official statistics, we obtain 52% of material recycling with good quality and about 45% for energy recovery in an incineration plant. As we have introduced in 2006/07 a centralized optical sorting system, the households have only one bin by their… Read more »

John Ferguson
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John Ferguson

Good article Peter. More rubbish journalism from the DM if you’ll excuse the pun. Can you point me to the evidence that co-mingled collection means the materials are of such a low grade that they are typically exported?

Duncan
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Duncan

Unfortunately the Daily Fail is totally un-interested in reporting facts of any kind and twists any report, comment, data, quote etc to sensationalize the issue as much as possible and generate WHAAAAAARGARRRBL anger from their highly educated target audience. While I admire your effort Peter, I really don’t think you will have any impact on their ‘journalism’ as all they care about is selling papers!