Cllr Gareth Lyon is a councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.
Rushmoor Borough Council takes environmental issues extremely seriously. It is currently embarked on a tree planting programme which will see thousands of new trees planted throughout the borough, but particularly in the new Southwood Country Park which has just opened to the west of Farnborough. It is looking at ways to reduce carbon emissions, make it easier to walk and cycle and of course to make it easier to recycle.
Recycling has historically been a challenge in Rushmoor. We have a high proportion of residents who live in flats and who therefore share bins between dozens or hundreds of people. This means that a recycling bin can very easily become “contaminated” and end up being rejected by the recycling depot.
Rushmoor is also part of a Hampshire-wide recycling contract which means that materials are only collected for recycling when there is a genuine market for the materials – so that the local authorities can be sure that what is collected actually gets re-used. The alternative, employed by many authorities, is to collect a huge range of materials and effectively take it on trust.
What happens to the rest in Rushmoor is not landfill or ocean dumping but incineration to produce power – thereby at least getting some further value out of these materials.
What this means is that Rushmoor has a relatively low recycling rate – but one which is much more robust and defensible as “real recycling.”
Not that this nuanced picture has stopped local opposition parties using this as a stick with which to beat Rushmoor and to claim that the council doesn’t take its environmental responsibilities seriously.
It therefore came as no surprise to us at all when numerous newspapers earlier this year were filled with reports of recycling collected from British homes being dumped in oceans and generally disposed of in some of the most ecologically damaging ways imaginable.
This vindication came with no sense of satisfaction for Rushmoor – and of course the council will continue to explore other materials which may be genuinely recyclable when the contract with the current provider comes up.
There are however broader lessons here which could benefit all councils across the country.
Firstly, we are right to be bringing political pressure to bear to increase our recycling rates and improve our overall environmental stewardship. But we must also be realistic and not obsess about the figures alone. It makes for a more difficult job for the opposition but they and we ought to be looking at our systems, seeing how we can improve them and asking the difficult questions about long-term sustainability. This means avoiding setting unrealistic targets then celebrating when they are miraculously met. In local government even more so than elsewhere, if something looks too good to be true it often isn’t true at all.
Secondly, the role of the market is key. Not just the demand side, making sure we listen to what the market is telling us when deciding what to collect. But also the supply side. Nearly every council around the country has one recycling depot they deal with when the waste is collected. As in Hampshire, many of these depots are shared by local authorities and run by the same companies across the country. This means that the operators are in extremely comfortable positions and have little incentive to innovate, to seek out new markets or even to develop them. If instead there was genuine competition throughout the recycling collection and processing sector we would surely see a greater range of products becoming economically viable for recycling over time – leading to truly sustainable growth in recycling.
This ought to remind us of the fact in politics, the concept of free and competitive markets is one that we can and should consistently reuse and recycle.