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Where does your recycling go? The sight can be ‘soul destroying’

With groggy eyes and messed up, bed-head hair I stumble down the stairs of my studio flat in central London, wrestling three large and unwieldy boxes as I go. It’s 7.15 in the morning and it;s cold and wet outside — the last thing I want is to be out of my warm, cozy bed — but today is different: it’s recycling day. I’d spent the week diligently separating paper packaging from plastic, food waste from glass. Now I was ready to reap my reward and watch as my recycle-ready rubbish departs for better, more eco-friendly things.

As I open the door the rubbish truck is chugging nosily towards me. Perfect timing — a good omen, I think. Proudly, I place my boxes down on the pavement and retreat inside to my window, ready to observe their imminent departure. What happens next leaves me with profound sense of despair and confusion: as I peer below, I observe the bin men empty all three boxes into the same compartment before drearily chugging away, without so much as blinking an eye. What? How? Why? A week’s careful separating ruined, my glorious moment of ecological edification dashed in a jumble of landfill.

This sad episode gets me thinking: what actually happens to your waste when you “recycle” it? So, I did some digging. Across the UK nearly 25% of waste is now recycled and recycling is now in many areas a compulsory, rather than voluntary, part of life. That’s a lot of waste — so where does it all go? Well, it seems, first it heads to a sorting plant, where it is thoroughly separated into various recyclable categories (why did I bother?). From there, each type of material heads to a different location to be made into different products — bottles, tins and plastics become new packaging; glass helps manufacture bricks or astro-turf. Most of these products will eventually stay in the UK, but a significant portion is sent abroad, either initially or as an end product (that’s not very environmentally friendly now, is it?).

So maybe I was wrong to feel so let down by the bin men who mixed up my recycling — my rubbish would pass through a sorting plant in any case. But I still feel bad, and that’s not just because I got up at 7am. This disregard for residents’ efforts seems to fit into a wider pattern of bad practice on behalf of recycling authorities. In Britain, nearly 2.6 million households now have microchips implanted into their bins in an effort to spy on their rubbish disposal habits. When residents who are already making great efforts to make their lives more environmentally conscious see this kind of snooping — combined with the soul-destroying sight of bin men mixing up all your carefully separated rubbish — it’s enough to … well … fuel this rant!

Yes, great strides have been made in imprinting recycling on the public’s consciousness — I genuinely believe the vast majority of people want to and do recycle on a regular basis. The danger is, however, that through callous disregard for the efforts made by residents, councils will turn off people who otherwise wholeheartedly support a greener life. Asking us to painstakingly separate our rubbish and then simply mixing it all back up again is not a good way to promote responsibility for the environment. Surely even they can see that. So come on, is it really that hard to give me my moment of green victory in the mornings?

Editor’s note: This was a guest rant by Chris Ingham Brooke of Environmental Graffiti, one of the world’s most trafficked environmental websites.

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