The fraud of profit-based recycling has been exposed, as the whole project disintegrates under the weight of the economic crisis. The market price of recycled materials has collapsed, and as a result there are warehouses full of waste paper filling up around the country.
Last September, when recycling prices peaked, a tonne of mixed paper fetched between £65 and £75. But today that has fallen to just £15. Paper that has been separated and is not contaminated peaked at between £90 to £115 a tonne. Now it is worth about £40.
Recycling UK estimates that by March, there will be around 200,000 tons of waste paper in storage, costing local authorities as much as £2 million so far. The bill to council taxpayers is certain to rise.
If stored longer than three months, the paper starts to rot and attract vermin, rendering it worthless. Then it will go to landfill or incineration. As a result, householders will receive a double blow – not only will their careful recycling be a waste of time, but the cost of this market failure will be passed on to them in higher council tax. And it is not only the storage costs: councils are taxed £32 for every ton they send to landfill and from 2010 could face a further EU fine of £150 a ton.
As much as a third of Britain’s waste was being exported to China in recent years, where it was recycled to make packaging, in a multi-million dollar business. But as the demand for goods falls in the recession, the importers have stopped buying and as a result Britain and the US are disappearing under a mountain of rubbish.
And hundreds of thousands of small-scale recyclers in China have been driven out of the market. Readers of this blog will remember how they were forced out Beijing for the duration of the Olympics. Now most of them are permanently unemployed. Official Chinese media say that four-fifths of China's recycling units have closed and that millions will eventually be left unemployed.
Every link in the recycling chain is unravelling, and governments are powerless to call a halt. The main component of UK household waste is packaging. Yet New Labour refuses to bring in laws reducing the amount of packaging used by supermarkets.
They prefer to consider fining and charging householders instead, as if families could control how much packaging they end up with. In fact a survey in October 2007 showed that low-cost supermarket Lidl has the most packaging per product, and the lowest level of recyclable material in it. But many families rely on these cheaper shops in order to survive at present.
This vicious, profit-driven, circle has over the years destroyed whole eco-systems and thousands of acres of forest – and now the end products lie rotting in the ground.
Only a transformation in the way goods are produced, packaged, distributed and sold can solve this issue in the long term. And that means bringing the whole production process under democratic control, so that eco-friendly ways of providing the things people need can be developed.
The survey quoted above found that local shops and markets produce far less packaging, more of which could recycled, than the larger supermarkets. With no need to produce super-profits, community or worker-owned markets and shops will have no trouble coming up with a more sustainable and rational approach to the problem.