Why recycling won’t save the world

Overloaded shopping trolleyAll councils have recycling targets. That’s commendable but not the real answer.

There’s a war raging in my area because of a porposal for a waste incinerator in a greenfield site. Oh sorry, it’s not an incinerator, it’s a waste-to-energy plant.

Anyway, semantics aside, I went along to a public meeting hoping to get a balanced argument. I was sadly mistaken. The company involved had refused to attend and what we got was 300 angry residents in a public hall with another 200 irate ones outside because the hall wasn’t big enough.

Now, they’d done their homework. They’d researched the possible nearby brownfield sites it could go on. They’d looked into the heavy metals and ash that would be left as a result of the process. They’d discovered what vapours could possibly be emited from the chimney. They knew how many lorries would trundle up the country road, how much noise they’d make and the volume of diesel fumes they’d pump out. They’d consulted with residents near similar sites around the country. They had even looked at birth defect statistics around similar sites. I was impressed for a minute or two.

Then it was decided that the meeting would move to the swing park so that everyone could join in.

The first thing the majority did when they stepped out the door was light up a cigarette. A large number of them got into four-wheel drives as I walked to the park I noticed that the cigarette butts ended up in the gutter.

So I got to thinking:

  • they don’t want pollution in their air but they don’t mind pumping toxins straight into their lungs
  • they don’t want diesel fumes but they drive gas-guzzling 4x4s when the furthest off-road they go is up the pavement on the school run
  • they don’t want an energy recycling plant but they’re happy to continue creating the same levels of waste

Why do we buy so much stuff? Packaging has a lot to answer for but do we really need the thing inside the packaging anyway?

Supermarkets make it easy to over-buy. Hands up who buys bags of salad? How often do you forget it’s there and sling it straight in the bin, unopened? These scary stats come from Zero Waste Scotland:

  • over £1 billion of food is wasted in Scotland each year – that’s £430 per household
  • half of the good food thrown away is untouched – 1 in 7 items still in its packaging
  • if we stopped wasting all this food, we could prevent the equivalent of 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year in Scotland – the same as taking 1 in 4 cars off the road

My work just moved us onto monthly pay and when I think about it I reckon going from a weekly pay packet to a monthly bank transfer has probably resulted in a lot of food waste with people piling their trolley high with a lot of food that will never be eaten. You see them all the time in the supermarket, tentatively steered by someone who can’t see over the multiple boxes of cereal.

We’ve lost touch with where our food comes from and what’s in season. We don’t know where things are made. We’re happy to buy things then throw them away probably before we’ve even paid off our credit card.

OK, so some of us recycle some stuff but how much does the recycling process cost the planet anyway?

What we need to do -before we buy – is to think about the product’s life cycle, not only while it’s in our possession but what will happen to it once we’re finished with it and where it came from in the first place. If you don’t know, find out – you’d be surprised about the provenance of your iPad or your bargain high heels.

If we didn’t buy so much stuff we wouldn’t need waste-to-energy plants.

Think before you buy.


The trouble with journalism

Hat with press cardThere’s a lot wrong with journalism today. Aside from managing editors from a bean-counting rather than an ambulance-chasing background there are many things wrong.

Just yesterday we had a call from a journalism degree student desperate to do some work experience in our press office. Any old hack would notice at least two things wrong with that sentence.

Journalism degree

In my opinion journalism started to die when journalism degrees were introduced. You can’t teach someone how to write, you can’t teach someone how to recognise a good story when they stumble upon it and you can’t teach someone how to find the drive to get that foot in the door. You can teach them as much theory as you like but most of the job is innate.

In my days as a journo I remember the training manager showing me a letter from a 17-year-old boy who’d just finished school and wanted to so some summer work before starting his journalism degree. His shiny new CV was impressive – a top A for his Higher English and he’d started a community newspaper, writing the stories himself, running it off at the printers and delivering them himself. He came, he worked his socks off and we offered to take him on as a junior reporter there and then. But no, he was determined to get the qualification and off he went to uni.

Four years later he wrote a very different letter, asking if he could come and work for us. The passion had gone and what’s more he didn’t want a junior reporter’s job, he wanted to come in higher up – after all he had a degree and most of our staff didn’t. When I started, I cut my teeth on prize winners and cheque presentations before moving up to the heady heights of road accidents and gala days. News features and front pages took a wee while longer but I knew I was learning a trade from the older hacks. Note, trade, not profession.

If you really want a degree, go and study something that will make you a specialist, such as environment, health or education correspondent. Acquire other skills that make you different from other candidates – really fast shorthand, proper typing skills, a working knowledge of Arabic, whatever.

Press office

Back to that un-subbed sentence. Why would a potential journalist want work experience in a press office? PROs are just failed journalists aren’t they? This should be the view of any young journalist but sadly these days press releases seem to be the main ingredient in the news mix.

The sad fact is that today’s journalists don’t get out enough. Pavement pounding and getting to know a community should come first in a journalist’s tasks but that takes time, sometimes for no return. The result – performance measured in column inches, journalists who spend their day on the phone, online or rewording press releases.

I’d like to see newspapers and TV news revealing their source – I think we’d all be surprised at how much content starts in a press office or worse with a PR company.

Journalists are becoming further removed from the communities they serve, more and more out of touch with what those communities want to read.

Which takes me on to my third point . . .

Local papers

When you write for a national title, you tend to look down your nose at regional papers. When you write for a regional title you tend to look down your nose at locals. What no one seems to realise is that the locals are the important ones. Journalists shouldn’t look at locals as the lowest rung on the career ladder but this is what happens.

Local papers tend to have young staff, keen to move on to a regional or a national. A high turnover of staff means a staff that doesn’t take the time to get to know its community and what it wants to read. So, instead of community information of real value we end up with papers full of stabbings, court appearances and digs at the council.

When I worked on a regional Sunday title we used to laugh at the line-up photos in our local daily title but do you know what, those pics are what sold the paper because it was what the community wanted to see.

If I were thinking of moving to a new area I’d like to think that if I bought the local paper I’d get a good idea of what the area was like but somehow I doubt many would reflect a true picture of their community.

My old editor was proud if anyone ever said his paper was full of trivia. In Roman times news was passed on by word-of-mouth at street corners, hence the ‘via’ in trivia. Which takes my to my fourth and last (for the moment) point . . .

Falling circulation figures

This is what those bean-counting managing editors really hate but what they fail to understand is why they are falling.

Most young people today don’t buy newspapers or watch the news. They get their news online, and not from behind a newspaper pay wall but from Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news aggregators such as Newsvine and their own RSS feeds.

One such bean counter managing editor recently revealed, to my astonishment, that he thinks Twitter is just gossip. He may think that but I suspect his staff are monitoring it all the time for leads. At least I hope they are.

When I look at the array of social media tools that today’s journalists have I think back to the clunky green screen computer I worked with and the mobile phone the size of a house brick that wouldn’t work five miles outside a major town. But at least I got out and about and spoke to people in the street which generated news and features.

Media moguls just need to look at some of the really good community sites (Camden People, Stafford Direct, A Little Bit of Stone etc.) out there to see what the public want, but I’d suggest if there’s already a community site in your area, it may be too late because your community is already doing it for itself.

Journalists no longer control the message – the people do.