Dr Henry Irving: How history can teach us lessons in recycling rates

RECENT statistics on household recycling reveal the size of the challenge facing councils.

What more can be done to change public attitudes towards recycling across Yorkshire?

Recycling rates in England are effectively unchanged since 2012. The average for Yorkshire is 43 per cent and there’s now little hope that the UK will meet its target to recycle half of all household waste by 2020.

Leeds City Council has already admitted that its household recycling rate for the year has fallen, and other local authorities in Yorkshire are expected to follow suit.

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The Government has admitted that more needs to be done and is encouraging councils to reconsider the way that they collect household waste. Although it will be difficult for cities to buck the wider trend, Leeds is reviewing its recycling strategy – a senior official has admitted that it is starting “with almost a blank sheet of paper”.

With Leeds households producing half a tonne of non-recycled waste a year, the review might even lead to the kerbside collection of food waste and glass.

Campaigners have pointed out that this is only the latest change to the city’s recycling strategy. The council has also been accused of putting too much faith in its ability to divert waste from landfill.

When the Cross Green incinerator was opened last year, 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.

As a historian, I’m aware that we’ve faced similar challenges before. In the Second World War, recycling became an important part of life on the Home Front. Churchill’s government promoted recycling as a way to divert raw materials into the war industry and save shipping space for the import of food and weapons. Its policies were put into practice by local authorities and relied upon the active participation of ordinary citizens.

Leeds was one of the very first areas to respond to the request. The city purchased a fleet of new trailers to attach to its existing vehicles and sent out publicity encouraging people to sort their rubbish. But the council decided to focus its efforts on the construction of a state-of-the-art incinerator in Kirkstall. It argued that this would allow valuable materials to be extracted and recycled more efficiently than any change to kerbside collections. Its strategy seemed to work. That is until it found that other areas had made even greater improvements.

I think that we can learn a valuable lesson from what happened next. After realising their strategy wasn’t as successful as they had thought, the wartime leaders of Leeds invited the public to suggest their own improvements. Hundreds of people attended public meetings and volunteered ideas. This led to the introduction of alternating fortnightly refuse and recycling collections, and the introduction of communal bins for paper, tins and food waste. It also led to an ambitious educational campaign to encourage even greater participation. By 1945, the amount of household waste recycled in Leeds had risen from 7,000 to 11,000 tonnes a year.

The situation today is very different from that experienced during the war. We produce far more waste than previous generations and no longer treat recycling as a military campaign, but the situation is no less serious than it was 75 years ago.

There are wartime precedents to much of the strategy currently under review. Leeds City Council’s waste team has developed educational resources designed to appeal to children, they are trying to encourage recycling in tower blocks by introducing competition between buildings, and have the power to issue fines for misusing green bins. Similar techniques to these were used during the war.

History suggests that an even bolder recycling strategy could work as long as the public support it and are involved in its design. With time running out to meet the UK’s recycling targets, it has to be hoped that history can be repeated in 2018.

Dr Henry Irving is a senior lecturer in public history at Leeds Beckett University and is writing a book on the social history of recycling in the Second World War.