Where There's Muck, There's Brass

By Ware, Michael | Public Finance, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Where There's Muck, There's Brass


Ware, Michael, Public Finance


My teenage daughter now has a Saturday job at a major coffee chain. She won't let me reveal it but if s the one that is named after a character from Moby Dick and that doesn't pay as much tax as perhaps one would expect.

I go in occasionally and every time I am astonished by how they freely give away cinnamon. The reason for my incredulity is because up until the last 200 years, this used to be an enormously valuable commodity and now we live in an age where big US corporations give it away for free.

To put this largesse into perspective, in Roman times, a pound of cinnamon used to cost about a year's wages for a labourer which, if the work recently done on my house is anything to go by, was about £100k plus a lot of sugary tea.

I was thinking of this sea change in attitudes to spices when I read that the UK still recycles only 39% of its municipal waste and either buries or sets fire to the rest. A good proportion of the stuff we don't recycle still has intrinsic value. This week, for example, the price of scrap paper was £62 per tonne, plastic bottles are going at £350 and aluminium cans are edging towards £850.

So we have the perverse situation of cash-strapped councils laying off frontline workers while destroying things they know have value. If the public sector were running a chain of shops selling overpriced hot milk, they wouldn't give away valuable cinnamon, they would pay somebody to take it away and bury it.

So why does this happen?

I think the language councils use to talk about waste betrays their view of the issue. They describe it as a public health issue, with 'stuff needing to be collected and disposed of. I think this paradigm persists because, at a fundamental level, councils are not in the business of dealing with materials. It isn't in anybody's job description to see the potential in stuff, to see how material A can be transformed into product ? and sold in shop C. This was fine when waste was another public health problem to be solved but it isn't anymore. It's a valuable source of raw materials that councils mainly truck away and bury in big holes.

I recently had a good insight into the alternative when I visited a waste wood collector. Councils pay them to take away waste wood in the form of old IKEA wardrobes, etc and they turn it into bedding for gerbils and hamsters. Apparently, because of the recession, sales of products for little pets are going through the roof.

There is a sort of logic here. This is you going home and saying to your kids, we cannot go on holiday this year, but never mind, you can have a rabbit. And call him Peter. …

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