On Thursday, I went along to the Darlington Friends of the Earth meeting at the Quaker Meeting House in Skinnergate.
It was convened by the FoE specifcially to give a presentation on recycling in Germany to councillors, in the context of Darlington Borough Council's own plans to overhaul domestic waste disposal next April. Of course I had a special interest in the debate, given my portfolio responsibility.
I counted 14 councillors present; 10 Labour, 3 Tories and a solitary LibDem. In all, about 40 people attended. People's contributions were listened to with respect, even when significant differences of opinion were aired.
On a positive note, I thought the presentation about recycling in Bremen and Bremerhaven was very illuminating. It demonstrates the strides made on the continent in this important area. Whilst we have lagged behind cities like Bremen, ambitious towns like Darlington are now striving to catch up.
It's fair to say that there wasn't a meeting of minds on the new waste contract. Darlington FoE don't believe that waste should be sorted for recycling at a processing centre (as will be the case for cans, for example, after next April) and instead feel that everything should be separated by the householder at the kerbside. So in Bremen, for example, we heard that each property has 7 recycling bins.
In my contribution, I pointed out that there were points of agreement between the Darlington FoE and councillors from all the parties in Darlington. There is a cross-party consensus, it seems to me, that climate change is a real threat and is having a demonstrable impact now on the environment. I pointed out that Darlington has a strong environmental record already (think of the twin Sustainable Travel Town and Cycling Demonstration Town initiatives, for example).
Therefore, I thought it was a shame that the FoE weren't able to acknowledge at all the enormous change for the better that the new waste contract represents, even given their reservations about some of the scheme's details. This year we will recycle about 25% of our household waste - next year that is projected to rise to 50% and we have ambitions to take the figure to 70% by 2020. The contract with Wades will revolutionise recycling in the Borough, and make us one of the top performing in the North East, if not more widely.
That's a remarkable increase. Given that material will be taken out of the black bags for recycling, it means that everyone in the Borough will be taking part in the scheme, whether they like it or not! Currently, about 50% of people in Darlington actively recycle, which means that a lot of material is going into landfill which could otherwise be reused.
Before I had to leave, FoE member Richard Grassick made a very useful contribution in which he pointed out that there certainly were areas where FoE and the Council could co-operate - on waste minimisation, for example. I completely agree - the "reduce" message is a key driver of our waste policy, and there are signs that this is bearing some fruit - the total tonnage of waste generated in darlington actually fell during the last quarter.
With councillors on the Environment Scrutiny Committee gearing up to meet with local supermarkets to see how they can help with the 'reduce, reuse and recycle' approach, I hope that last Thursday's meeting will be the beginning of a fruitful partnership that will advance the sustainability message in Darlington.