Is Recycling Utter Rubbish?

The Financial Times is the UK's version of the Wall Street Journal, not a venue where we would expect to find radical positions on environmental issues and reducing carbon emissions. We are often impressed about how far ahead the UK is in environmental awareness, but Richard Tomkins, Consumer Industries Editor for the FT, has really surprised us in an article questioning the value of recycling. Like many in the UK, he suggests that climate change is the most serious environmental threat facing the human race, and that "When you think of all the energy consumed (and hence, carbon dioxide emitted) during the recycling process - householders driving their empty wine bottles to the bottle bank, lorries collecting the bottles and taking them to the recycling plant, the washing in hot water and the removal of labels, all before the reprocessing can even begin - it is plain that recycling has environmental costs as well as benefits." Then he gets radical with his 10 point program. Actually, first he suggests we should just buy less. "Recycling bits of packaging is as nothing compared with the vast savings in energy and resources that could be made if people bought fewer products. The biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions is the energy used to manufacture and deliver the goods that end up in our homes - furniture, kitchen equipment, televisions, toys, computers, clothes and food. You do not need to recycle if you do not buy anything in the first place." That is not particularly good for the economy, so he then goes on to the 10 Points:

1Never, ever, fly on an aircraft again. Air travel is enormously damaging in terms of climate change and any government that genuinely cared about the environment would be pricing people out of the skies with unbelievably high levels of taxation on air travel. As it is, aviation fuel is completely untaxed internationally and governments almost everywhere have encouraged the proliferation of cheap flights, making air travel more popular and more environmentally damaging than ever.

2 Call on the government to ban incandescent light bulbs, which turn 90 per cent of the energy they consume into wasted heat. Instead, everyone would use the newer compact fluorescent lamps. Admittedly these are green in more ways than one, enveloping their unfortunate users in a ghastly green glare but the energy savings would be colossal - enough to shut down a power station or two.

3Switch to a diet of ready meals and McDonald's. It takes much less energy to make a mass produced meal than to assemble all the ingredients at home and cook them yourself. It also produces less waste. If you can take yourself to a centralised meal distribution depot such as McDonald's, so much the better, as long as you leave the 4x4 in the garage and take the bus.

4 Speaking of gas-guzzlers, obviously you should trade in your 4x4 for a Toyota Prius. But even trading it in for an ordinary family saloon would save as much energy in a year as your household would save if it spent the next 400 years recycling glass bottles. Then again, if you care about climate change, what on earth are you doing driving at all?

5 Sell the second home. Just think how much environmental damage is done by the duplication of household goods. Even worse, just think of all the journeys that the second home generates. It is bad enough if you drive there and back each weekend but if you are using cheap flights - really, are you trying to destroy the planet single-handed?

6 Lower your standards of personal hygiene. Apart from the energy that goes into making the goods we buy, the next biggest source of energy consumption in the home is hot water. So, shower once a week at most and wash your clothes less often. If anyone complains about a funny smell, blame global emissions.

7 Forget, for a moment, the edict about cutting consumption and buy a whole new set of domestic appliances. Modern washing machines, dishwashers and dryers are much more energy efficient than the old ones, and the environment will benefit in the long run, assuming you resist the temptation to fly-tip the old machines.

8 If you must buy any other manufactured product, make sure it comes from a country that uses renewable energy sources, such as Sweden, not fossil fuels, such as China. It must also be made out of renewable materials, such as wood, not non-renewables, such as plastic. In short: the only place you can shop is Ikea.

9 Consider joining the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a so-called deep ecology organisation that believes we should phase out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed. Then reject the idea. What, after all, is the point of saving the planet if there is no one left to enjoy it?

10 Recycle if you like but do not kid yourself that it will make a lot of difference. The ugly truth is that saving the planet really will mean sacrifices, however much we may like to pretend otherwise. The old rule applies: no pain, no gain - for the environment, as for everything else. ::Financial Times (subscription required) via our old favourite, ::Environmental Valuation and Cost-Benefit News