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Recycling: Too much information

Mark Anslow

11th June, 2008

‘You’re confused by recycling, bless you,’ say the politicians. Nonsense, says Mark Anslow

Since the Department for Trade and Industry was turned into ‘BERR’ in June 2007, many have been waiting to find out what the new name means. We’ve seen plenty of focus on ‘Business’ and ‘Enterprise’, but not as yet much in the way of ‘Regulatory Reform’.

That all changed shortly before Christmas, when BERR released a report entitled ‘Too Much Information Can Harm’. It is the Government’s job to save us from the excessive amount of product warning and information labels that we face when trollying up the aisles, said the department’s chief, John Hutton:

‘This information is expensive to provide, costing business over £1.5 billion a year, and simply confuses consumers. It is unacceptable that consumers are taking decisions in the dark, unaware of the potential dangers or consequences. We are acting to give the power back to consumers to make informed choices by rationalising information and making sure it is presented as simply as possible.’

Good heavens! Have we been making rash, foolhardy decisions for all these years? Let us, in that case, have more information! No, hang on: we’ve got too much already; Hutton thinks we’re ‘confused’. So now our information is to be ‘rationalised’ and ‘simplified’.

Research began back in January 2007. BERR asked the Better Regulation Executive to ask Vanilla Market Research to ask the public what it made of information available on everything from insurance forms to toaster manuals. Vanilla devised seven ‘scenarios’ in which consumers come into contact with confusing information. One of these was when faced by the recycling logos on product packaging.

A member of one focus group made this appeal: ‘“If there is a different grade of plastic and you can [recycle] two bottles and you can’t use the other one, why? Why isn’t the third one made of plastic you can re-use so every plastic bottle goes in the plastic bloody bin? Simple.” Pensioner, Low-Income.’

Pensioner Low-Income, we hear you. Unfortunately, your clear and simple plea became distorted in the engines of BERR, oiled with notions such as ‘enabling businesses to bring their communication expertise to bear in complying’, lubricated by desires to ‘be open to suggestions from [those] being regulated’.

BERR pointed out that the new requirements were being nicely met by a collaboration on recycling logos between the Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

Concerned that supermarkets were taking flak on packaging simply because local authority waste schemes couldn’t get their act together, the BRC stepped in to propose a less ‘confusing’ recycling logo with three categories: ‘Widely Recycled’, for waste handled by over 60 per cent of local authorities; ‘Check Locally’, for waste handled by between 20 per cent and 60 per cent of local authorities, and ‘Not Currently Recycled’, for waste collected by less than 20 per cent of local authorities. Simple.

But wouldn’t this last category be a recycling logo that designates a material ‘non-recyclable’ when up to 20 per cent (that’s 77) of local authorities may well actually recycle it?

‘Sorry, we’re not discussing it,’ WRAP told me. ‘We’re consulting.’

So I rang the BRC. ‘There have been some very unfounded and misguided accusations made at retailers over packaging, which plays an essential role,’ they told me. ‘But the biggest barrier to people recycling is a lack of correct information. Our research shows that there will be a net gain in recycling even if some items that could be recycled are thrown away. We’ve got to make it easy for people.’

‘Even if making it easy means throwing recyclable items in the bin?’ I probed.

‘I’ve already answered that question and I’m not going to repeat myself,’ was the reply.

‘But it’s still voluntary, right?’ I asked.

‘Yes, but that’s why we’re consulting.’

Once again, big retailers look set to be offered a cost-saving, voluntary, greenwashing way out. Instead of having to provide detailed information and declare which plastics or composites they are using in their products, producers can simply whack on a ‘not currently recycled’ logo and forget about it. After all, it’s probably the local authorities’ fault anyway – less than 20 per cent of them are recycling it.

Instead of encouraging consumers to find out whether and where they can recycle their waste, we will be faced with the consciencesalving, guilt-effacing ‘not currently recycled’ sign, a dumbed-down logo that will hamstring informed consumers and progressive councils alike. And what of those trail-blazing local authorities?

‘Local inconsistencies cannot be allowed to thwart a standardised label that will help millions of customers and mean more of what can be recycled is collected,’ says BRC director general, Kevin Hawkins.

On the contrary, providing information and encouraging ‘local inconsistencies’ – like St Edmundsbury for its recycling work, and Merton Borough and Woking Town Council for planning and energy policies respectively – is the only way things ever move forward.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008


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