The solid waste issue is a classic victim of the States’ endemic inability to take decisive action

December 20th, 2010 by Peter Roffey

I usually tend to feel that Deputy David De L’Isle protests rather too much over the Public Services Department’s handling of the island’s waste problem. It seems like a quiet news month when the former Environment Minister hasn’t called for the whole board of PSD to resign over the issue at least once. However there’s no denying that his recent scepticism over the much heralded achievement of 50% domestic waste recycling is justified.

It’s not that I want to be Jonah or a “glass half empty” sort of columnist. There is no doubt that the great Guernsey public is recycling more and more and that is very much to be welcomed. But at the same time it’s important not to be so caught up by positive departmental spin that we delude ourselves over the scale of the task ahead.

We do need to question the sudden quantum leap from States Works lorries proudly boasting “36% household recycling – well done Guernsey” to Deputy Scott Ogier coming on our wirelesses to announce that we’d reached the golden uplands of a 50% recycling rate. The suspicion is that it has more to do with changing the method of calculation than with the real increase in recycling.

I’m not in the waste business and I have no idea whether “green waste” composting should, or should not, be included in the overall recycling rate. What I do know is that to suddenly change from one system of measurement to another was always bound to mislead somewhat unless handled very carefully.

The old way of measuring recycling may have been flawed but it was surely under that regime that the target of 50% recycling was set. So to claim the target has been met, when the methodology has significantly changed, is somewhat disingenuous. What the PSD really needs to do to be fully transparent is recalculate the current achievement against the old criteria.

We should also remember that when Deputies Scott Ogier and Bernard Flouquet were trying hard to convince the States to buy a waste management system from “Suez” they stressed it would only be big enough if the island recycled 50% of its waste.  That was under the old, established, system of measurement. So any euphoric feelings that the latest figures point to a low tech solution, based on minimisation and recycling alone, without the need for a significant residual waste plant, are misplaced.

I wonder what the motivation is for this shameless piece of spin.  Being kind, perhaps Public Services are hoping to portray recycling as a “normal” activity – thus shaming the reluctant minority into joining in.   If so then I hope it works but it’s a high risk strategy.  It is just as likely to breed complacency of a sort which fools people into thinking that Guernsey’s residual waste problem is steadily dwindling away into nothing. Anybody being lulled into such a cosy dream-world needs to take a walk past Mont Cuet to be shocked back into reality.

Mont Cuet landfill on 24 November 2010 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

The waste issue is a classic victim of the States’ endemic inability to take decisive action.  They should have found an alternative to landfill while we still had plenty of tipping space left. Instead they’re hoping to do so at the 11th hour when our dump is already reaching ground level. The news that the new draft waste strategy isn’t now to be released until next September is even more worrying.  It’s hard to avoid the impression that Deputy Ogier has got a tiger by the tail and is putting off the final decision day.

There’s still no guarantee that any decisive action will be taken at the end of this process.  Where that will leave us heaven only know. Possibly forced into the expensive, unenvironmental, option of temporary waste exportation to Jersey.

Let’s hope that next year the States can surprise us all and find a sustainable, solution to this long running saga.  To do so they’ll need to take real actions and not rely on spin.  After all PSD could re-designate old fashioned landfill as “long term macro composting” on the basis that in 100 years the tip could be dug out again.  Suddenly the recycling rates could go from a dodgy 50% to a patently absurd 100%.

In the unreal world of the spin doctor Guernsey’s waste problem would be solved overnight. Only trouble is that the rubbish would still be piling up with nowhere to go. Sorry to be so negative but some times a dollop of cynicism is needed.

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