Waste adopts that community spirit

Urban Recycling
April 6, 2001

Urban Recycling makes a refreshing change from the usual waste-management books with their worthy but often dull descriptions of the waste hierarchy and bottle banks.

As would be expected in a book written by sociologists, this text, an analysis of United States community recycling programmes, has a different approach, with the emphasis on community rather than recycling. It examines four types of recycling schemes in the Chicago area during 1989-99. These schemes range from a community-based drop-off centre to a large-scale, mixed-waste "blue bag" programme with a Materials Reprocessing Facility (MRF). It also examines the role of industrial recycling zones and parks where recovered materials are reprocessed on site. In these eco-industrial parks, environmental standards and regulations are viewed as business opportunities rather than as obstacles (industrial ecology). The fourth area of interest is the recycling linkage programme where the needs of private industries are balanced with those of the community. For example, using an MRF as a job retraining facility for young people on welfare.

The descriptions of the recycling programmes provide analyses of the politics and practicalities of setting up and operating the programmes. In true academic fashion, these clearly described studies are set in a mire of debate, the relevance of which is at times lost. The authors use a theoretical framework - the treadmill of production - as a political-economic model to explain how and why production practices are socially and ecologically unsustainable. This debate may be of interest to academics but it is not accessible to the casual reader. And it is a pity the authors have not used this opportunity to move away from the purely academic study to explain and challenge the various theories. However, the book does have an important role in introducing the concept of using recycling schemes for community development as well as for saving the environment.

The authors consider the two historic shifts that waste has gone through; first from something that can save the environment and provide job opportunities for the poor, to that of treating waste as a commodity that can generate income. Second, a shift from regarding recycling as a community-based activity to one controlled by large firms. However, this approach is too simplistic; the collection of recyclable materials may be a community-based activity but this has always been only one aspect of recycling. The term recycling is really the conversion of waste to a reusable material, essentially an industrial process. Thus the large-scale reuse of most materials is bound to involve big industry, such as the glass and steel industry. Later, this is recognised as an obstacle for recycling programmes in that "neither the origin nor destination of recyclable materials is under the control of recycling agencies". Although many aspects of Urban Recycling are relevant to the United Kingdom, there are differences. In Europe, recycling is not generally initiated as a money-making exercise, but is usually carried out to meet European legislation, which has evolved as an environment and resources-saving exercise, rather than being concerned with community development. Yet in the UK, there are community-based recycling schemes that would meet the US models described.

One of the potential solutions offered is that of shadow pricing, the economic valuing of the external benefits of, in this case, recycling projects. In Europe, the economic valuation of the "external" environmental costs and benefits of waste-management practices is well developed as a theoretical method, although in practice it is overshadowed by the drive to meet recycling targets. Also, the valuation of social benefits is less well developed. In the UK, shadow pricing is partially achieved through the availability of recycling credits, where the financial savings due to recycling are transferred from the disposal authority to the groups who collect waste for recycling. Thus recycling schemes are able to realise some of the benefits they achieve through the diversion of recyclable materials from landfill or incineration. Although this appears to have taken place in Chicago for a few years, it does not appear to be widespread.

Although this book is primarily an academic study, it will interest a wider audience and all is not lost if the more academic chapters are skimmed through quickly.

Jane Powell is programme director and senior researcher, Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, University of East Anglia.

Urban Recycling

Editor - Adam Weinberg, David Pellow and Allan Schnaiberg
ISBN - 0 691 05014 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £22.95
Pages - 232

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