by Peter Jones8 minute read
For a couple of years now it has been clear that the Daily Mail, despite being printed on largely recycled newsprint, is no fan of recycling. As regular Isonomia readers will know, on occasion I’ve been able to force it to withdraw some of its more egregious claims.
Since I last wrote on this topic I’ve pursued further complaints through the now defunct Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and its successor the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – which in practice is the same people, operating the same code of practice, but with a worse website. IPSO also seems more energetic than its predecessor in finding reasons not to uphold complaints. There’s still no appeal process, and no way to complain if you think a decision is wrong. I’ll summarise a couple of recent war stories for your edification at the end of this article.
Landfill of hope and glory
However, unprompted by any action on my part, the Mail has tackled the big question left hanging by its advocacy of weekly refuse collections, opposition to measures that might mean more bins (food waste collections, source separated recycling) and implication that recycling is a waste of effort: what would they have us do with our waste?
Delingpole is no mug, and the article, while polemical, for the most part trades on omissions and distortions rather than downright errors. His view is also closely aligned with UKIP’s waste policy, although their European election material (all we have to go on at the moment) was scant on details and Delingpole offers more of a rationale.
The proposal is a simple one: scrap the Waste Framework Directive’s targets and the Landfill Tax (LFT) that has pushed up UK recycling rates, make existing landfill space available cheaply to all and rely on the aggregate industry to keep creating new voids to fill. This, he claims, is “the system that worked perfectly well for us before our politicians and the EU stuck their oars in”.
The piece is framed in the context of rising waste crime, and in particular a huge fly-tipping incident in Essex. This he attributes to the cost and inconvenience of disposing of waste legitimately. It’s an issue that should trouble all of us in the waste sector, because it is clearly true that making waste disposal expensive is part of what opens up the opportunity for waste crime.
However, waste isn’t the only area where laws and taxes create incentives for crime: smugglers thrive on avoiding the duties on alcohol and cigarettes, while the prohibition on recreational drugs has given rise to vast criminal enterprises. The Mail’s attitude in these cases, though, is not to repeal the laws or taxes: they castigate the criminals and call for stronger enforcement, presumably because they think that the benefits of these laws outweigh the costs. Isn’t the same true of LFT?
The hole truth?
Not according to the Delingpole. He says that getting waste out of landfill was never an environmental issue. The real reason for the Waste Framework Directive was not environmental but economic: the Netherlands and Denmark, who “for geographical reasons had less landfill space than Britain” lobbied for landfill restrictions to remove the UK’s “competitive advantage of cheaper rubbish disposal.” Who knew these two countries – both less densely populated than England, both having introduced their own high LFTs and (along with the rest of Europe) closed down many landfill sites over the last decade – were so influential!
He considers and rejects just two environmental arguments. First, he states that “once our carefully sifted rubbish has been collected — and duly noted as ‘recycled’ under the EU’s definitions — it ends up either being buried like ordinary landfill or shipped to places like China.” This is a glorious jumble of errors: the claim that any significant amount of the material collected for recycling is landfilled is (as the Mail previously accepted) just plain wrong; he completely ignores the UK’s reprocessor industry, and erroneously implies that exporting recycling is the environmental equivalent of simply burying it. It’s the one paragraph on which I think IPSO might just be persuaded to act.
Secondly, he dismisses the idea that we need to worry about the potent greenhouse gas methane being released from landfill because (a) we now have landfill gas capture systems and (b) “there has been no recorded global warming since 1998”. Taking on Delingpole’s views on global warming would be beyond the scope of this article, but let’s just note the irony that the reason we have widespread landfill gas capture is EC legislation.
Delingpole doesn’t find room to consider the CO2 emissions saved when we recycle because of the avoided need for primary materials, but given his views on climate change he’d be unlikely to be impressed. Nor does he consider the resource security benefits that come from recycling, reducing our need for imported virgin material – perhaps because he mistakenly believes that all recycling is either exported or landfilled. The risks around leachate and the likely opposition from residents living near all the new landfill sites that would be required also escape his attention.
In all, it’s a Daily Mail classic, packed with obfuscation and elision, with just enough basis in fact to make it plausible. While those working in the resources sector will immediately recognise the flaws in the argument, Delingpole offers an appealingly simple solution that will speak strongly to the atavistic, anti-EU instincts that are propelling UKIP’s rise: expect to hear it widely repeated, and be prepared to argue against it.
However, I can’t necessarily recommend taking the argument forward through IPSO. My two most recent complaints took so long to resolve that, while submitted to the PCC, one was eventually dealt with by its successor.
The first addressed another foray by the Mail into the argument that the separate collection requirements under the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations would mean every household receiving extra bins. The article was occasioned by Defra’s release of its draft guidance on the regulations under a Freedom of Information Act request. True to form, the Mail stitched together a bunch of inaccuracies and half-truths, which I unpicked in a letter. Having previously won an argument on the key point (separate collection does not entail separation by householders) it seemed this might be an easy victory. Not so.
After much correspondence, all I was able to secure was an amendment to one of the subheaders: “An earlier version of this article wrongly said that Brussels had set a target of 50% of waste to be recycled per home. In fact, as the sub-heading now makes clear, the target is for 50% of the total amount of waste to be recycled.” IPSO said it was satisfied that the Mail’s statement that “many homes will need more bins” was presented as conjecture rather than fact.
I also challenged the Mail’s use of the term “compulsory recycling scheme”, which the paper now admits means compulsory for local authorities, not for residents. This usage, IPSO said, was “ambiguous” but not “misleading”. I fail to see how someone who took the wrong meaning from an ambiguous term could help but be misled…
The second concerned a scare story under the bizarre headline “How your slop bucket could poison your family”. Here the Mail picked a new target, and claiming science was on its side set about measuring levels of bacteria on a kitchen work-surface near a food waste caddy.
My letter of complaint succeeded in pushing the Mail to correct a misquotation of the WRAP Separate Food Waste Collection Trials – they said that “a quarter of those taking part reported terrible smells and infestations of maggots”. In fact, the trial reported that 24 per cent of people cited concerns about hygiene, odour and vermin as their reason for not participating in the trials. Only 6 per cent of those who had participated actually experienced such problems.
However, my main point was that the test the Mail had used was far from scientific and no reliable conclusion could be based on it. This was a bust: IPSO concluded that “the term ‘scientific’ was not being used as a technical term to describe the rigour or reliability of the experiment” and that because the article explained how the test was done, it was not misleading since readers could decide whether the conclusions drawn were valid. I confess that I lack IPSO’s trust in Mail readers’ grasp of the logic of control group studies.
As the pre-election battle of ideas hots up, I expect we’ll see UKIP and the Mail take up the cudgels against recycling again, and we shouldn’t expect them either to fight fair or be held to account by someone else. It’s up to the recycling sector to make the environmental and economic case for our industry. It may not impress ardent contrarians like Delingpole, but it’s critical that we provide the ammunition needed to prevent the centre ground of the debate moving in their direction.