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

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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain