Decision of the Complaints Committee 08190-16 Jones v The Daily Express
Summary of complaint
1. Peter Jones complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Express breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Is recycling waste nothing more than a waste of time?”, published on 26 August 2016.
2. The article was a comment piece in which the columnist discussed whether he was wasting his time by recycling his household waste. He said that out of 11 million tonnes of waste collected by councils for recycling last year, 338,000 tonnes could not be recycled. He said that “no one should assume that [the rest] ends up being recycled”, and noted that some of it is exported to China, where a Bloomberg reporter had gone undercover in the recycling industry to discover “piles of plastic waste being burned in fields or dumped in streams”.
3. The columnist said that he was not against recycling in principle, but the “push to persuade us all to recycle simply is not achieving what it is supposed to achieve”. He said that only 44.9% of household waste was capable of being recycled, with “most of the rest” going to landfill. He said “in the absence of any research”, the Blair government had decided on a “hierarchy of waste”, which ruled that recycling was preferable to burning, which was in turn preferable to landfill. He noted that glass bottles do not need recycling, and said that as a child he would take them to be reused in exchange for money. He said that when the Blair government carried out some research, it found that paper and cardboard would be better used as fuel because the recycling process consumes a “huge amount” of energy. The columnist said that food waste should also be burnt or disposed of using “anaerobic digesters”, which turn waste into energy creating less pollution. He said that councils had blamed the level of rejected recycling on “contamination”, and asked was it “any wonder that recycling streams are contaminated when it is so hard for well-meaning householders to do the sorting that is required?” He noted that one householder in Wales had been fined £100 by the council for putting a single sheet of paper in the wrong recycling container.
4. The complainant said that the columnist had based his opinion on recycling on a number of inaccurate assertions. He said the central error was the claim that data, showing that 338,000 tonnes of waste collected last year could not be recycled, demonstrated that recycling was pointless. He said this data showed that 3% of the material placed in recycling bins was not recyclable material, and 97% was sent for recycling. He considered that this demonstrated that the recycling system was operating successfully.
5. The complainant also considered that the columnist had misleadingly suggested that material exported to China for recycling was not being recycled. He said that the UK exported relatively little recycling, and he questioned why Chinese businesses would pay to receive raw materials and then not recycle them. He said the undercover investigation referred to in the article explored the disposal of electronic waste, which the UK was not permitted to export to China.
6. The complainant disputed the columnist’s assertion that “most of the rest” of the waste was sent to landfill. He said in 2014/15, 55% of local authority residual waste was incinerated for energy recovery, while 45% was sent to landfill. He noted that a Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) report, published in December 2015, stated that “the total local authority waste going to landfill has continued its downward trend and for the first time in 2014/15, was lower than the amount of waste sent to incineration with energy recovery”.
7. The complainant said that the “hierarchy of waste” had not been “decided upon” by the Blair government, as claimed in the article, and it was not prompted by European legislation. The hierarchy was devised in 1979 and enshrined in European law in 2008. He also disputed the claim that research carried out by the Blair government found that it would be better to use paper and cardboard as fuel rather than to recycle it.
8. The complainant was concerned that the columnist’s expressed preference for reusing glass bottles and anaerobic digesters was misleading as he had failed to explain that these methods of disposal were supported by the government’s environment policy. He said that the hierarchy of waste states that reuse is preferable to recycling, and recycling targets do not deter reuse. In addition, the waste hierarchy guidance, issued by Defra, stated that anaerobic digestion was the preferred treatment for source-separated food waste; he said food waste disposed of using anaerobic digesters counted towards councils’ recycling figures.
9. The complainant considered that the columnist had given the misleading impression that waste was not being recycled because of householders’ confusion over the system. He said the vast majority of the material rejected for recycling was classed as “process rejects”, which resulted from mixed recycling being mechanically separated into different streams by councils. He said councils that source separate recycling tend to have low levels of rejects. He noted that the BBC had spoken to three councils, two of which had blamed high levels of rejected recycling on their sorting facilities, and one had argued that public education might be the solution.
10. The complainant said that the article had also given a misleading impression of local authorities’ power to fine members of the public for failing to recycle. He said councils’ powers to impose fines had been significantly reduced in 2015; the example given in the article had taken place ten years previously. Councils can now only issue a fine when the householder’s behaviour causes nuisance, and following a written warning and two notices of intent.
11. The complainant disputed the assertion that the UK’s waste policy had been “obsessed with recycling”. He said levels of incineration had increased rapidly, while recycling had plateaued, and the need for landfill was reducing.
12. The newspaper did not consider that the article had breached the Code. With regards to the columnist’s assertion that most material that is not recycled is sent to landfill, the newspaper referred to a Defra report, published in November 2014, which showed that in 2013/14 the majority of waste that was not recycled was sent to landfill.
13. The newspaper said that a study, published by Defra in 2006, found that incinerating paper and card would generate fewer carbon emissions than recycling. The study found that by 2040, incineration would lead to a reduction of 8,474 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, contrasting with a reduction of 7,995 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions if a system of recycling was adopted.
14. The newspaper said that it had accurately reported that the hierarchy of waste was adopted by the Blair government. It was incorporated into waste regulations in 2011, but it was also an integral part of the Blair government’s waste strategy in 2000. It referred to a Friends of the Earth briefing, entitled “Highlights of Waste Strategy 2000”, which referred to the hierarchy of waste.
15. The newspaper said that there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that people are confused by recycling.
16. With regards to the 2006 Defra study, referred to by the newspaper, the complainant said that it had not concluded that incineration yielded better results than recycling, or that this was because “the recycling process consumes a huge amount of energy”. He said the study was about incineration emissions, not recycling. He said that the study found that incineration performed less well when there was a high level of paper and card recycling, and had relied on outdated assumptions that tended to favour incineration. The complainant referred to a 2010 study, which said “in general, the data shows that recycling is preferable for energy demand and water consumption, but [incineration and recycling] are comparable for climate change…Where the energy recovered through incineration replaces the use of fossil fuels, the environmental benefits are augmented, especially with regard to climate change potential…as the UK moves to a lower-carbon energy mix, collection quality improves and recycling technology develops, then recycling will become increasingly favoured over energy recovery for all impact categories”.
17. The complainant said that the article should be withdrawn and he suggested the following wording for a clarification:
The information on which the story was based was published in December 2015, rather than being released through a Freedom of Information request. We previously published articles based on this data, which contained many of the same errors that we repeated in the most recent stories, and which were corrected following a complaint. We would like to clarify that the 338,000 tonnes of rejected material includes waste collected from businesses and civic amenity sites, and represents only 3% of the recycling collected by councils. Much of the rejected material is non-recyclable waste mistakenly placed in the recycling bin, not recycling, and most is sent for energy recovery at incinerators, rather than to landfill. While we attributed the increase in rejects to "confusion" amongst the public, it is in fact unclear whether changes in recycling sorting technology or changes to how statistics are recorded may instead explain the change. While we described the recycling systems as "expensive", recycling is in fact cheaper for councils than waste disposal.
We implied that recycling that is exported to China may not be recycled. In fact, Chinese companies pay to receive household recycling from the UK, and have every financial incentive to make beneficial use of it. While China has a history of poor recycling of electronic waste, the UK has banned exports of this material to China. The Waste Hierarchy, which was made law in the UK under the coalition government rather than New Labour as we stated, prioritises reuse over recycling, and its adoption is not the cause of businesses choosing no longer to operate bottle deposit schemes. Under the UK guidance on the waste hierarchy, anaerobic digestion is classed as recycling, and is preferred over other ways of treating food waste, rather than being discouraged as we stated. Contrary to our article, research indicates that recycling of paper and card is environmentally preferable to incineration. We would also like to clarify that the collection systems that result in the greatest level of rejects are single bin recycling systems that rely on mechanically sorting recycling after it is collected, while those that involve householders separating recycling into two or more recycling bins result in significantly lower levels of rejects.
Relevant Code provisions
18. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i. The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii. A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii. A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv. The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Complaints Committee
19. It was not disputed that the newspaper had accurately reported that out of 11 million tonnes of waste that had been separated for recycling, 338,000 tonnes of it could not be recycled. While the complainant considered that these figures demonstrated that the recycling system was working efficiently, the newspaper was still entitled to publish the columnist’s opinion that he believed that the figures indicated that the current system of recycling was “not achieving what it is supposed to achieve”. This was clearly his opinion and not a statement of fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
20. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the UK is not permitted to export electronic waste to China, and therefore the article’s reference to the findings of the Bloomberg investigation was misleading. However, it was accepted that the UK exports some of its recycling to China, and that the Bloomberg investigation found that electronic waste sorted for recycling had been “burned in fields or dumped in streams”. The columnist was entitled to express his opinion that, given the findings of the Bloomberg investigation, some of the material that the UK exports to China may not be recycled. His position was clearly conjecture; the reference to the Bloomberg investigation was therefore not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
21. The Committee acknowledged that the most recent Defra statistics indicated that 55% of non-recycled material had been incinerated, while 45% had been sent to landfill. However, in circumstances in which almost half the remaining waste had been sent to landfill, and in the context of this comment piece, the columnist’s assertion that “most of the rest” was sent to landfill was not significantly misleading, and the reference did not require correction under the Code. The Committee also noted that 2014/15 was the first year that incineration had exceeded landfill. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
22. Although a hierarchy of waste had been devised in the 1970s, the Blair government had referred to it in its strategy on waste. It was not therefore significantly misleading for the columnist to assert that the Blair government “decided” on a hierarchy of waste; and, in the context of this comment piece, it was not significantly misleading to state that this was prompted by EU legislation. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
23. The Committee noted the complainant’s point that the columnist had failed to explain that reusing glass bottles and disposing of food waste in anaerobic digesters already forms part of the government’s environmental policy. However, the references to these alternative methods of disposal were not significantly misleading. The columnist had not claimed that the hierarchy of waste had rejected reuse as an option for waste disposal, and he merely asserted his position that food waste should be burned to generate electricity or disposed of in anaerobic digesters. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
24. With regards to the assertion that it would be better to burn paper and cardboard for fuel than to recycle it, the columnist had relied on a report published by Defra in 2006, which concluded that in the long-term, incineration resulted in fewer carbon emissions than recycling. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant considered that the study’s projections were flawed, the columnist had been entitled to rely on the study, and to express his opinion that it demonstrated that incinerating paper and card was “better” than recycling. While the 2010 study referred to by the complainant had concluded that “in general, the data shows that recycling is preferable for energy demand and water consumption”, it had also stated that the two methods were “comparable for climate change”. The Committee did not consider that the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point; the article had not given a significantly misleading impression of the efficiency of paper incineration which required correction under the Code. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
25. It was not in dispute that “councils blamed the 338,000 tonnes of waste going to landfill on contamination”. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the rejected recycling was mainly due to councils collecting mixed waste and then sorting it mechanically, the columnist was entitled to express his opinion that the public are confused about what can and cannot be recycled. Indeed, the complainant had acknowledged that one council had stated that educating the public would reduce the amount of rejected material. The newspaper had distinguished comment from fact; there was no breach of the Code on this point.
26. It was accepted that local authorities have the power to fine householders for failing to adhere to correct recycling procedures. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that those powers had been reduced, the columnist had still been entitled to refer to the case of a man being fined £100 for putting paper in the wrong recycling bin, which was not disputed. The reference was not significantly misleading; there was no breach of the Code on this point.
27. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant disagreed with the columnist’s position that the UK’s waste policy had been “obsessed with recycling”, this was an opinion that he was entitled to express. As was made clear in the article, the hierarchy of waste, which was made law in the UK in 2011, rules that recycling is preferable to incineration and to landfill. This statement was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
28. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. The Committee did not identify any significant inaccuracies or misleading statements which required correction under the Code.
29. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 28/08/2016
Date decision issued: 12/12/2016
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