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Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
The meaningless ritual of recycling
Timothy Cooper, University of St Andrews
Timothy Cooper

Is recycling an essential tool in the armoury of a responsible citizen to reduce the pressure on our ailing planet? Or, as Timothy Cooper argues in this week's Green Room, is it a meaningless ritual that fails to get to grips with the real problems of copious consumption?

A newspaper being put into a recycling bin
Although the ideology of environmentalism has become more and more popular since the 1970s, its real influence has also been systematically neutered

Recycling has become a moral obligation for our times.

If we do not take the trouble to wash and sort all those reusable plastics, papers and tins, then we risk - at the very least - guilt.

In some places, those found infringing the sanctity of our multiplying multi-coloured bins run the risk of being fined or face the withdrawal of their waste removal service.

But why do we go to so much trouble? How useful is recycling? Can it really solve the "waste crisis"?

A thrifty past

History has an important role to play in understanding how recycling has come to be so important a part of the moral and cultural fabric of our lives.

We are not always conscious that recycling is not new. The idea of sorting, categorizing and reusing the wastes of a consumer society can seem a novelty, but most societies have some system of re-use.

In the UK, recycling, repair and re-use can be traced to pre-industrial activities. Think of the wandering tinker, or old clothes trader, going back to at least the 17th Century.

It might be thought that the recycling of domestic waste is new, but this is not so.

Victorian cities were littered with "dust yards" staffed by armies of underpaid and exploited women workers who were paid to sift through urban waste to recover items of value.

Later, during the two world wars, there was a veritable recycling craze in the guise of salvage drives. Citizens, motivated by patriotism, strived to collect useful waste such as grease and bones (for manufacturing explosives) or paper and tins.

In the wake of the wartime experience, some experts even tried to establish large scale recycling plants, which they hoped would solve the waste problem and turn a handsome profit at the same time.

The rise of consumerism

So where did all this recycling activity go? Why did it, apparently, die out? The short answer is that it became unfashionable.

The triumphant rise of consumerism, and the myth that we were what we wore - or ate, or drove, or owned - displaced thrift. Waste itself changed.

Back lane with rubbish bags
It places the blame for environmental problems not on those who make the profits, but on a faceless mass of 'consumers'

The invasion of the High Street by the supermarket saw the branded packet of this, or tin of that, replace more efficient forms of cooking or buying from butchers or bakers.

But this displacement was presented as a good thing, packaged goods were supposed to be hygienic, convenient, and progressive.

Yet, the mountains of waste continued to rise.

The amount of household waste generated increased from nine million tonnes in 1939 to 14 million tonnes in 1968. By 2005 the figure had doubled, reaching about 30 million tonnes.

At first, local authorities responded to the crisis by tipping. Out-of-sight out-of-mind was the watchword, and everyone was content to forget their waste.

However, the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s made forgetting increasingly difficult. Waste was everywhere, ruining the pristine condition of nature and reducing reserves of raw materials. Rather than delivering progress, the affluent society was rapidly running into the environmental buffers.

This was not at all what capitalism was supposed to deliver, and it put the ideology of consumerism under threat. If supermarket shelves were to continue ringing up profits, if old cars were to go on being replaced with new, people had to be persuaded to forget their waste again.

What better means to achieve this than to persuade them to recycle?

An excuse to consume

Scene from the BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous
Is retail therapy not absolutely fabulous after all?

Although the ideology of environmentalism has become more and more popular since the 1970s, its real influence has also been systematically neutered.

What does it matter if I burn energy like there is no tomorrow if I also recycle my old tins? Let's get that new DVD player, the old video can be stripped down and its parts reused.

The guilty need for the latest mobile phone with its new gadget can be assuaged by knowing that the old one may find a worthy home in a third world country.

Can it be any coincidence that, if you want to recycle your glass bottles, the recycling centre is to be found at the supermarket car park?

This relationship proclaims that "it's fine to consume because you are recycling, and while you are here why not buy some more?"

What the revival of recycling has really done, like the myth of "ethical consumerism", is to give the impression that the environmental crisis presented by global capitalism can be indefinitely delayed if only we all do our bit.

It places the blame for environmental problems not on those who make the profits, but on a faceless mass of "consumers".

It prevents us asking the important question of capitalism: how much longer can this go on, and if it is to end then how?

We can take control of our future, but not if we allow ourselves to be blinded by meaningless rituals.

Timothy Cooper is a research fellow in environmental history at the University of St Andrews, Scotland

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website

Is recycling essential for the environment? Or does it just make people feel less guilty? How can we deal with the world's waste? Send us your views using the link below.

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