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What the Second World War can teach us about recycling in 2018


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This week, we are launching our 'Beckett Trends' blog series. Every day we will be bringing you expert insight from our academics into the trends and issues we expect to see hitting the headlines in 2018.

What the Second World War can teach us about recycling in 2018

In the first of our 'Beckett Trends' posts, Dr Henry Irving reflects on the declining recycling rates in Leeds, which are set to be tackled in the new year, and the lessons we can learn from the Second World War. Dr Irving is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-sponsored project, 'A Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46' and is writing a book on the social history of recycling in the Second World War.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of rubbish. The things that we don’t want rarely figure in predictions for the future. In Leeds, though, the question of what to do with rubbish will be of real importance in 2018.

Leeds City Council will publish a major review of its recycling strategy in the New Year. This could mean radical changes to the way we deal with rubbish. According to the Yorkshire Evening Post, a senior official has admitted that they are starting ‘with almost a blank sheet of paper’. The review may even lead to the universal kerbside collection of food waste and glass in the city.

These policies ae being considered because of a fall in recycling in the city. Average recycling rates in 2017 were just 38 per cent. This is well below the national average of 44 per cent and means that the city will miss its target to recycle half of all household waste by 2020.

The statistics hide some very large numbers. Around 306,000 tonnes of rubbish are produced in Leeds each year. This means that the average home produces 885 kg (half of which is collected from the kerbside and half from household waste sites and other recycling facilities). The 62 per cent of this waste that is not recycled weighs almost 550kg. That’s half a tonne from each home.

This is not just a Leeds problem. The growth in the amount of rubbish sent for recycling in England has slowed since 2012 and actually fell in 2015. But – as the UK’s second largest local authority – what happens in Leeds has an impact on these wider trends.

Campaigners claim that Leeds City Council has placed too much faith in its ability to divert waste from landfill. When the Cross Green incinerator (officially a ‘Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility’) was opened in 2016, it was promised that 10 per cent of the waste it processed could be extracted and recycled. The facility saves the council around £7m per year in landfill charges, but has so far failed to reach its recycling target. It extracted just 2.1 per cent from the waste stream in its first year of operation.

As a historian, I’m aware that we’ve faced similar challenges before.

In the Second World War, recycling was an important part of life on the ‘home front’. The national government promoted recycling as a way to divert raw materials into industry and save valuable shipping space. Its policies were put into practice by local authorities and relied upon the active participation of ordinary citizens.

Leeds was one of the first areas to respond to the government’s request. The council’s leaders decided to place their faith in the construction of a state-of-the-art incinerator in Kirkstall. They argued that this would allow valuable materials to be extracted and recycled with greater efficiency than a change to kerbside collection. Reporting ‘uniformly excellent results’, their strategy seemed to have worked. Until it became clear that other areas had made even greater improvements.

I think that we can learn a valuable lesson from what happened next.

After realising that their strategy was not as successful as they had thought, the wartime leaders of Leeds invited the public to suggest their own improvements. This led to the introduction of fortnightly refuse collections and the use of communal bins for paper, tins, and food waste. The council also launched a major educational campaign to encourage greater participation. By 1945, the amount of these materials recycled in Leeds in risen from 7,000 to 11,000 tonnes.

The situation today is very different from the Second World War (not least because we produce far more waste now than then). But, following Leeds City Council’s review, I predict that rubbish will be an important trend for 2018. The city’s history suggests that a bold recycling strategy could work, as long as it is explained and the public are involved in its design. Only time will tell if this is the case.

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