The thing is that maybe the green movement has been focussing on the wrong thing. For decades, they have tried to persuade us to recycle more for the good of the planet. They have endeavoured to appeal to our better natures, the part of us that realises that it may cost us half a second each morning to unplug our phone chargers, or recycle our newspapers, but heck, it’s worth it, because we don’t actually need to leave stuff plugged in the whole time. And anyway, what can we do with that half a second each day? Compose one syllable of a haiku?
They’ve relied on the fact that we will accept if we take our bottles to the recycling bins, we’ll almost certainly save a whale or nurture a panda, we’ll feed the poor, or at least leave an inhabitable planet for our children. And if we don’t have children, then we’ll surely do our bit for the least-annoying children of our friends.
But, as anyone could have told them, appealing to the huggy side of our nature is a risky business. Landfill sites are spilling over with recyclable junk that we could have taken to the charity shop or the recycling bins, had we just cared half as much about that poor whale or sad panda as we do about our own inconvenience.
The sorry truth is that many of us are not intrinsically Womble-ish. We don’t make good use of the things that we find, and nor do we care very much if other people do. What we are, however, is intrinsically Steptoe-ish. If someone is prepared to offer us hard cash money, or even supermarket loyalty points, in exchange for our unwanted crap, that trip to the recycling bank suddenly looks like a bargain, not a chore.
Raw materials are increasing in price all the time, as you already know if you check your grocery bills. And the materials used in electronic goods are in greater demand every year, as more of us want more and fancier gadgets.
Yet one in three adults whacks an unwanted phone, satnav, MP3 player, games console or digital camera into the bin each year. Yet these turn out to be worth a whopping average of £43.54 each at a recycling centre. As a country, we’re tanking 17 million devices worth £762 million each year. That is some serious money.
So instead of focusing on our inner-hair-shirt wearer, perhaps environmentalists would do better if they concentrated their efforts on our inner pauper. The very existence of eBay proves that we like to make money out of stuff we no longer want. And since that is, coincidentally, the greenest thing to do, surely everyone can win here.