26th September 2013

Saving public money: The new moral economy of recycling

In June of this year, Monmouthshire Council in South Wales told its residents of their plans to collect just two sacks of general rubbish from each household every fortnight. The reason – to save public money. For every tonne of waste disposed of in landfill sites in the UK, local authorities must pay £72 in Landfill Tax in addition to the gate fees to access to site.


A small number of local residents started a petition against the change, echoing an earlier debate sparked by Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) in 2010, when he claimed

“It’s a basic right for every English man and woman to be able to put the remnants of their chicken tikka masala in their bin without having to wait a fortnight for it to be collected”

But Monmouthshire council, like many of the English councils targeted by Pickles’ campaign, defended their decision to adopt reduced rubbish collections.

“Monmouthshire has said it’s making a priority of education and social services, and we bluntly have got to save about £4m in this year – and we’ve got to find it where we can…So for us to be throwing £3m into landfill every year – it’s plainly a total waste of money” (Councillor Bryan Jones, cited on BBC Website)

What is interesting about this debate is the changing moral economy of recycling – consumers in England and Wales are now being asked to recycle more and throw away less not in the name of environmental protection but in the name of saving public money.

In a forthcoming paper,[i] I explore this emerging moral economy of recycling in England, comparing it with the ways Swedish consumers are encouraged to recycle their waste. In Sweden, the protection and stewardship of the natural environment are key tropes. I show that the content of these moral messages is closely related to the system of recycling provision within a country, together shaping nationally distinct moral economies of recycling.

In Sweden, recycling and waste management are organised on a public, not-for-profit basis. The Swedish government has a long-standing tradition of pursuing environmental protection through its policy-making and waste management has been no exception. Producers were made responsible for the recycling of their packaging in 1994, in keeping with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Consumers are expected to transport their packaging to one of 5,800 bring banks across Sweden which are managed by a not-for-profit organisation, Förpacknings-och Tidningsinsamlingen (FTI).


The material collected at these bring banks is always the property of the producer and is therefore not open on the market to be sold for a profit. Waste that is not categorised as packaging – e.g. food waste, household waste and bulky waste – is the responsibility of Sweden’s 290 municipalities. Incineration is the dominant method of waste treatment and incineration plants are usually owned by collectives of municipalities so as to power district heating systems. Incineration is a relatively cheap method of disposal and because it generates energy, it is understood as a form of recycling. Environmental pressure groups do not oppose this technology as they do in other parts of Europe. The only third sector organisation promoting recycling is Hall Sverige Rent (Keep Sweden Tidy), suggesting that recycling has been linked to the established tradition of care for the environment and nature. Studies with consumers show that recycling is widely practised and clearly understood as an environmental action (Skill, 2008).

In England, on the other hand, the environment has not been at the forefront of waste management policy. Legislation from the European Union led to the establishment of recycling targets and provided the impetus to search for alternatives to landfill disposal.  Environmental pressure group, Friends of the Earth, lobbied for the introduction of kerbside recycling collections and this led to the Waste and Recycling Act in 2002. Local councils had to collect at least two fractions of recyclable material at the kerbside but they had until 2010 to implement this.


Unlike Sweden, there is no common system for recycling across England and each local authority area does it slightly differently. Many procure the services of private waste management companies to collect and process the waste. The trend towards the privatisation of waste management began in the 1990s, following the Environmental Protection Act which made it difficult for local authorities to own their waste disposal facilities. Recyclable material collected at the kerbside is not the responsibility of the producers and can therefore be sold by the local authorities or their contracted service provider for a profit. This private, for-profit organisation of recycling collection runs alongside the ever-increasing cost of landfill disposal for non-recyclable waste. Changes to ‘choice architectures’ (like fortnightly or controlled rubbish collections) have been employed to encourage consumers to recycle more and make the ‘right’ choice, echoing liberal-paternalist styles of governance (Whitehead et al, 2011). The justification for this intervention, as we saw in Monmouthshire, is as a means for local authorities to save money for other vital services. Even environmental pressure groups have started to stress the economic value of recycling for the taxpayer rather than its environmental benefits. The political economy of waste in the context of austerity is used to legitimize changes to the collection infrastructure and challenge those who proclaim they have a ‘right to throw’. Consumers in England are certainly less aware of the changing moral narrative surrounding recycling but are interacting with its consequences (fewer rubbish bins and more recycling consumption work) in the daily handling of their waste within the household.

In my forthcoming article, I draw out the implications of these diverse systems of recycling for the study of ‘moral economy’. Moral economy has been defined as ‘the study of the ways in which economic activities, in the broad sense, are influenced by moral-political norms and sentiments, and how conversely, those norms are comprised by economic forces’ (Sayer, 2000: 80). Although the concept has a long heritage, there have been few attempts to develop an analytical framework for its study that can account for its institutional formation and everyday shaping by actors from within. In a recent paper, Bolton and Laaser (2013) draw together different strands of the study of moral economy – informed by the writings of Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson and Andrew Sayer – into a holistic analytical frame that enables us to explore both individual agency and institutionalised structures of community and political economy.

There are three key levels to their framework:

1        How morals are embedded within economic processes (Polanyi, 1944; 1957)

2        How communities challenge/support state policies and economic systems (Thompson, 1991)

3        How individuals’ ‘lay normativities’ shape their practices (Sayer, 2005, 2011)

If we apply this to the study of recycling; at the first level, we would be interested to explore how the state intervenes in the market and how economic processes are instituted so as to foster relations of reciprocity. At the second level, we are interested in the role that communities and collective movements play in resisting the marketisation of waste or opposing unfair or destructive economic practices, as well as how communal legitimacy for particular policies is established. At the final layer, people’s everyday reflective capacities take centre stage to learn how the demands of governments, institutions and communities affect individuals in their daily lives and their response to these demands. I argue that any attempt to uncover the moral economy must pay attention to all three levels of this analytical framework and explore the interactions between and within these levels – the interplay, the challenges and the acceptance – in order learn more about the place of morality within the economy.


Bolton, S. & Laaser, K. (2013) ‘Work, employment and society through the lens of moral economy’, Work, Employment & Society 27(3): 508-525

Polanyi, K. (1944/2001) The Great Transformation (Massachusetts, Beacon Press)

Polanyi K (1957) ‘The Economy as Instituted Process’ in M. Granovetter & R. Swedberg (eds.) (2011) The Sociology of Economic Life: 3rd Edition (Colorado: Westview Press) pp 3-21.

Sayer, A. (2000) ‘Moral Economy and Political Economy’, Studies in Political Economy 61: 79-103.

Sayer, A. (2005) The Moral Significance of Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Sayer, A. (2011) Why Things Matter to People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Skill, K. (2008) (Re)creating Ecological Action Space: Householders’ activities for sustainable development in Sweden, Doctoral Thesis, Linköping Studies in Arts and Science: No. 449, Linköping University Sweden.

Thompson, E. P. (1991) Customs in Common (London: The Merlin Press)

Whitehead, M., Jones, R. & Pykett, J. (2011) ‘Governing irrationality, or a more than rational government? Reflections on the rescientisation of decision making in British public policy’, Environment and Planning A 43: 2819-2837

[i] ‘Nice Save! The Moral Economies of Recycling in Sweden and England’ is currently under review at Environment & Planning D. This article has been developed as part of a wider project, Consumption Work and Societal Divisions of Labour, and is funded by the European Research Council (DivLab 249430).