For those that like a mystery, take a look at the Scottish recycling figures.
As environment agency SEPA confirmed earlier this week, the proportion of Scottish household rubbish that was recycled rose barely a percentage point to 41.2% last year.
This was both a point or two below what the authorities were predicting a year ago, and all but confirms what many have long suspected: the chances of Scotland meeting its self-imposed target for households to be recycling one in every two tonnes of rubbish by this year are about as high as David Cameron joining the 'Yes' campaign.
Dig at those figures some more and you reveal another interesting nugget. Once you take into account the fact that the total amount of Scottish household rubbish fell from 2.6m to 2.5m last year, we actually recycled about 15,000 fewer tonnes than the year before. So while we might have done much to catch up with the European average over the past 10 years, for which credit is certainly due all round, the new figures suggest that Scotland has taken its foot off the gas.
The curious thing is that there is a good reason why this shouldn't happen, aka the landfill tax. Invented by the Major Government in the 1990s, it levies a rising amount of tax per tonne of rubbish that local authorities or businesses dump in the vast pits that surround our urban areas. By tax year 2012 it had reached £64 per tonne, £8 higher than the year before.
In a rational world, you would expect councils and businesses would recycle enough extra to ensure that they didn't have to pay these charges. But when you look at the stats, you find that most Scottish councils are choosing to pay higher charges to George Osborne than to recycle large enough amounts of rubbish to offset this. (nobody produces proper figures for business rubbish, but as a rule they recycle considerably less at present).
By my maths, councils' stagnant waste management in 2012 cost them an extra £5.6 million year on year, taking the full charge in landfill taxes to £89.6m. And when I say 'them', of course I mean 'us', whether it be library books, school jotters or potholes. These charges have gone up most years, roughly doubling from 2005's £45m for example.
There are several qualifications to this surge in charges. The first is inflation, which when factored in takes the 2005 figure to £54m. The second is government spending. Government agency Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) has a budget of over £20m a year to spend on facilitating the general aim of reducing waste, much of which goes to councils.
For example Scottish councils have received around £20m since 2010 to help them prepare for recycling food waste, in the form of vans, bins, communications materials and the like.
Add on these types of interventions and the gap between what councils are paying now in charges and what they were paying a few years ago gets a lot smaller. To at least some extent, the money is going round in circles.
Nevertheless it is still surprising that the councils are allowing these charges to keep rising, especially when you take into account frozen council taxes and reduced budgets. It's also worse than it looks because they are not just paying landfill taxes but also missing out on income from recycling. A study by ZWS has it that roughly every £1 of landfill charges could be converted into a £1 of recycling sell-on value. So while you've got to allow that there will be some unavoidable landfill even in a perfect recycling world, the opportunity cost to the councils is basically double the charges.
It might be that the cost of improving recycling is higher than this lost opportunity. Certainly the £20m household food waste programme gives a sense of what it can cost to raise the bar. But no one in the industry seems to think this is the root of the issue.
This leaves a couple of other possibilities. First, maybe the landfill tax rises are not sensibly linked to what is achievable. To say the least it has been a nice earner for HMRC across the UK, rising from £333m in 1998 to £1.1bn last year.
A second possibility is that the tax is not high enough to force change. When the Scottish Government takes it over from 2015 and has the power to decide whether to keep pushing it past the £80 per tonne level, it would be an interesting experiment if it was pushed way up to see what happened (though don't hold your breath).
Thirdly, maybe the councils just aren't focused enough on budgets and money-making possibilities to respond to this kind of stimulus. That seems to be a common view in the industry.
One source makes the point that councils could probably make a big difference by making the same amount of money available for educating the public as what they are likely to have to pay in increased landfill tax if they keep improving so slowly. On full-time salaries of £25,000, you could finance 40 educators to knock on doors for each £1m spent. Not only would this likely save you at least as much in landfill charges, you might well make it back when you sold on the materials.
Or if this doesn't appeal, plan B could be to levy landfill taxes through people's electricity bills. If saving money can't get councils into gear, the prospect of residents wielding pitch forks outside city hall just might be the way forward.
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