Recycling: Pickles, sticks and carrots

By Jill Segger
June 11, 2010

When it comes to modifying behaviour, there are arguments to be made for both sticks and carrots. But the more damaging the behaviour, the less disposed we usually are to offering rewards as a solution. Driving past a school at 70 mph at 3.30 in the afternoon is not an action which many of us would think of tackling with an incentive to reinforce the more responsible use of a car. We recognise that the offender requires instruction and a penalty which is likely to prove a deterrent.

Eric Pickles, the new Communities Secretary, decries the previous government's plans for weighing refuse and charging householders who do not recycle by linking council tax payments to the amount of waste produced. In fuelling indignation with expressions such as “bin bullies” and “snooping through people's rubbish”, he shows a mindset similar to that of the libertarians who consider speed limits an affront to liberty.

'Pay as you throw' schemes would have depended upon an electronic chip to weigh the content of refuse bins and that same piece of monitoring technology has suddenly become the householder's friend as Mr Pickles proposes a rewards system of points, redeemable for up to £135 in local shops, for those whose recycling bins are the heaviest. The link with the local council and with a tax instrument which would have reflected the relationship between local finance and personal action is broken. To replace it with a consumerist goody-bag may be popular, but for that very reason, requires closer examination. Presented as going with the grain of human nature, the proposal is in reality, flawed in both the practical and the moral sense.

If stuffing your recycling bin is going to gain you a reward, why not gather as many free papers and heavily packaged goods as possible? There will be no reason for manufacturers and retailers to reduce bulky and unnecessary packaging if their customers see this offering them economic advantage. Nor will there be any gain in the immediate material sense for the individual who
exercises restraint and discernment in their habits of consumption and disposal. But even more damaging is placing moral awareness of actions which are profoundly damaging to our environment second to a tawdry pursuit of 'free stuff' - a transaction that does nothing to increase understanding of the need for recycling or of the consequences of heedless selfishness.

The new scheme has been piloted in Windsor and Maidenhead, where it is claimed to have increased recycling by 35 per cent over six months. But as drastic reductions in public spending begin to bite, how many of those households will continue to recycle when the financial incentive is removed?

People who claim that recycling is “too complicated” or “too much bother”, but suddenly find that it is neither when they are offered a pay-off, need better instruction in shared responsibility towards our common environment. The speeding driver who endangers life is usually offered a an amelioration of the penalty on condition of attending a safer driving course. The lazy or recalcitrant householder who has no regard for the outcomes of their choices is in the same moral space and should expect similar treatment.

If we are to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill and therefore of the degradation of open space and an increase in greenhouse gases, a reduction in consumption and stricter regulation on packaging is essential. Education, with the available sanction of a financial penalty for those who persist in behaving irresponsibly, better reflects the urgent need for action on environmental damage. And, unpalatable though many may find it, actually does more to dignify the moral responsibility of the citizen.

Eric Pickles claims that his scheme “ treats people like adults”. It doesn't: it treats them like spoiled children who have to be bribed.

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