Consumer adultery - the new British vice

In the UK we throw away more consumer products, and faster, than anywhere else in Europe. The result

Just as Britain tops the European league for marriage breakdowns, so it also now tops the league for falling in love with consumer products and then throwing them away when newer models come out.

This social trend, which product designers have termed "adulterous consumption", has given us the biggest methane-producing rubbish tip in Europe - and the biggest headache in deciding what to do with our waste.

Last month, Britain narrowly escaped a huge and embarrassing fine from the European Union by finally implementing the Brussels-inspired Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. The directive seeks to prevent us from tossing any more of these products with highly toxic, non-degradable components into holes in the ground. From now on, manufacturers of everything from electric toothbrushes and hairdryers to kettles, lighting equipment and washing machines will be forced to take back their products for recycling.

While other European states - notably Germany and the Scandinavian countries - have seen the writing on the wall and have been recycling for more than two decades, Britain's binge borrowers have remained obstinately wedded to their credit cards and have gone on consuming and discarding with abandon.

We were the very last country in Europe to adopt the new law, and the problems with compliance seem insurmountable unless we return to a more conventional loyalty to consumer products.

British women discard their hairdryers after three years, usually in favour of another one that simply looks different. The average ownership of a mobile phone lasts 18 months. And manufacturers of DIY tools have calculated that most power drills are lost or abandoned after a single weekend.

"We don't throw things away because they are broken - it's usually because we have fallen out of love with them," says Jonathan Chapman, a senior lecturer in design at the University of Brighton, who is trying to promote what he calls "emotionally durable" design as a way of reducing the generation of toxic waste.

Researchers in the United States have calculated that only 1 per cent of all the materials flowing through their domestic economy goes into products which are still being used six months later. Chapman believes that, without a big shift in our attitude to the things we live with, the UK will soon catch up. "At the beginning of a relationship with a product, we consume it rampantly," he says. "Then consumption becomes routine, and then we stop thinking about it altogether and start noticing newer models. Often the relationship ends because the product is not doing something we want it to do, or it has started doing something we didn't think it would do, but not because it doesn't work. Unless we return to more sustainable relationships with these possessions we are going to have a really huge problem."

How to square this reckless attitude with the demands of the WEEE directive is a crisis of such proportions that no one has dared look at it.

All manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of electrical equipment have until 15 March to register for WEEE compliance. They are required to provide precise information on the weight of the products on the market. They will then have to demonstrate that they are taking back and recycling an agreed quantity.

In practice, they will pay local authorities to provide "designated collection facilities" (DCFs), which will perform the laborious function of recovering, sorting and returning their products.

The British Retail Consortium has agreed to provide £10m to upgrade local-authority tips to DCFs, but this works out at roughly £6,000 per site - hardly enough to cover the purchase of the separate containers required, let alone wages for the vast armies of additional staff who will be needed to sort copper wire from cadmium and computer screens from lead components.

The only way the directive is likely to work is by somehow engendering a sense of collective social responsibility for waste management, yet there has been no public education campaign, and most consumers are unaware of the existence of the WEEE requirement.

Last month, a county council waste manager in West Sussex admitted that it is not clear where the facilities are to deal with the anticipated WEEE mountains. "We're not telling the public about this because we don't want them asking questions when we don't know the answers," she said.

This, coupled with our fragmented waste- disposal industry, and our usual hostility to any anonymous edict handed down from Brussels, is a recipe for chaos.

Others are exasperated at the lack of preparation. "Britain has known this electrical equipment directive was coming for a good ten to 15 years, but instead of getting properly prepared for it, the general response has been for people to stick their heads in the sand," says Cerys Ponting, whose work at Cardiff business school on the effects of the WEEE rules is to be published shortly.

Although she has found that most British consumers are oblivious to the implications of our throwaway culture, she does think attitudes will change. "It is like the early days of seat-belt laws, when people still didn't really see the point of them," she says. "Until now there has been little pressure from the government to recycle.

"People somehow regard electronics as a clean industry and they don't understand how much of a problem it actually is. That is slowly changing and there is more and more public understanding of the need to be responsible. We are going to run out of landfill sites and many raw materials fairly soon. Local authorities recognise that, but they are still at the stage of experimenting with different methods of tackling the recycling issue."

Meanwhile the situation is becoming critical. We are producing one million tonnes of electrical wreckage annually, a volume that is rising by 5 per cent year on year - much faster than the generation of other types of waste.

The average British household contains 25 electrical products, of which at least five are thrown away every year. Two million personal computers are discarded annually. This voracious consumption is being fuelled by plummeting prices. According to the Office for National Statistics, the price of a personal computer has fallen by 93 per cent, in real terms, in the past decade. Prices of televisions, DVD players and vacuum cleaners have fallen by 45 per cent over the same timescale.

Because of an old, and somewhat irrational, resistance in this country to incinerating rubbish, the vast majority of our electronic junk is simply tipped into the disused quarries that conveniently pepper most of Britain's shire counties. Items that may have been used for just a few hours during their working lives are being left to sit underground for thousands of years, giving off copious amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that is 23 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

The proliferating volume of "large WEEE", as it is known in the industry, presents even more of a problem. Most people find it physically impossible to conceal washing machines and cookers in their dustbins, and there has been a slow move towards recycling the raw materials from such items - or at least not dumping them in holes in the ground.

Government waste advisers fear, however, that the new directive may simply lead to increasing quantities of such discarded goods being exported illegally to countries such as India or Nigeria, where desperate workforces will do just about anything for money, including stripping out heavy metals and other toxic materials from appliances by hand. A 2005 report from the European Commission described an enforcement operation, carried out in 17 European seaports, during which 140 waste shipments were found. Although almost half of these cargoes turned out to be totally illegal, there is no evidence of any major prosecutions. A 15-year-old UN convention, designed to prevent the export of hazardous waste from developed to developing nations, has been similarly ineffective.

Other academics have contrasted the growth of adulterous consumption with our paradoxical attachment to ancient jeans, old teddy bears and worn-out wooden spoons.

Tim Cooper, head of the Centre for Sustainable Consumption at Sheffield Hallam University, says harnessing this desire for connection to our possessions is the key to preventing disaster. He says that the WEEE directive and other legislation restricting the use of hazardous substances in manufactured items should eventually lead to a generation of more durable and repairable items that are not encased in the sealed units which prevent a long life anyway.

"People do like the idea of developing long-term relationships with their possessions; it is just that they have been prevented from doing so by industry, which is geared around stimulating a continuous sense of need for change in order to sell more and more," he says.

"It is true, though, that there has been no evidence so far of any trend to make things which last longer or which are even more recyclable, and it does look as if things will get considerably worse before they get better."

Five ways to dispose ethically

http://www.sofaproject.org.uk
The Bristol-based recycling charity Sofa sells on donated furniture and electrical appliances. Anyone can buy from the charity, but if you are on a low income you get a 25 per cent discount

http://www.createuk.com
Collects and recycles fridges, freezers, cookers and washing machines. Items suitable for reuse are separated and passed on to refurbishment operations

http://www.seek-it.co.uk
Computer and software disposal. Good for the security-conscious: Seek-it wipes hard drives. The items it collects are resold or reused as donations to projects in the UK and Africa through www.it-exchange.org

http://www.wasteonline.org.uk
A website that provides information on recommended companies throughout the UK that recycle and reuse electrical goods - from computers to lighting - as well as others specialising in industrial plastics and food

http://www.actionaidrecycling.org.uk
Collects ink and toner cartridges, mobile phones and PDAs. All are recycled in order to help fund ActionAid's charitable projects in the third world

Research by Lucy Knight

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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