We have all heard a thousand reasons why we should recycle our cans. For some it is the traditional do your bit mentality that says we should avoid throwing valuable metal (and plastics, glass, paper and so forth) into great pits in the ground, which invariably turn England’s green and pleasant fields of clover and dormice into fetid swamps of brown-grey waste, steaming with toxicity and daring any bird or hedgerow animal to nest nearby, lest they give birth to still of deformed offspring.
Then there is was, for a time, the war mentality. Britain threw everything it had at the colossal war effort of the 1940s, including her boys, her Empire and, as it happens, her empty cans. Posters appeared, urging citizens – or rather, subjects – to sort their rubbish so as to make the best possible use of what little we had. Along with measuring carefully the amount of butter one spread on one’s bread, Brits were also expected to dutifully sort their household waste out to avoid unnecessary waste.
And then there’s the economic side of it. Companies with names like ‘Joe’s Junk’, ‘Cheltenham Refuse Services’ or ‘Tom’s Junk Collectors’ often do surprisingly well, not because of the rates they charge, but because they are able to sell on some enough of the ‘junk’ they collect to scrap dealers. Tin cans, in that sense, are (almost literally) made of money.
In more recent times, we all know that the reason we recycle – the only reason, as far as I was concerned before researching the subject of this article – is that we are facing an environmental meltdown. We must act with urgency, we are told, if we are to avert a climatic crisis which could see thousands afflicted with famine, mass-immigration from coastal areas and even our fair capital submerged as sea levels rise.
But, although this newfound urgency is only the latest of a string of reasons for sorting green from brown glass, is it really worth paying attention to? After all, what can one person do? Or one neighbourhood? Or one little country like Britain?
The answer, after considerable research, couldn’t be clearer. It is so clear, in fact, precisely because it is unclear – hundreds of studies offer scores of different predictions, descriptions and warnings about what will happen if global temperatures rise by one, two, three, four, five or six degrees. The latter case, by all accounts, will be a complete wipeout. And most researchers agree that we will exceed two degrees; for that matter, we are already on course to hit one in the near future. The question, then, is what number will we hit, what will that mean, and what can we do about it?
And the answer is surprisingly clear: we’re likely to end up somewhere in the middle, and it’s going to be bad. Really bad. The good news? Every hundredth of a degree counts – and studies rarely agree on exactly where in the middle we’re going to end up. This means that a relatively small CO2 reduction in Britain could prevent huge and devastating catastrophes. Nobody is sure how small the difference between ‘really bad’ and ‘game over for humanity’ is going to be… so when you hear someone say ‘every can makes a difference’, they could just be right.