Monday, 28 May 2007

Rubbish policies - the stench and the greed

If you live in the UK or have an interest in the country (which I acknowledge is a small collection of islands off the European continent) you will know that one key problem, as outlined in my posts is that utility bills are high and you get appalling service for your money. A 'utility' I have not mentioned so far is the collection of rubbish. This is carried out by local councils and is currently funded from council tax which every household pays. With rising costs, especially for things like residential care for the elderly, road maintenance, etc., many councils are finding it difficult to balance their accounts and have either had to cut back on provision of services or raise council tax. This is the legacy of the poll tax (a.k.a community charge) introduced in Scotland in 1989 and the rest of the UK in 1990. It was a charge at a flat-rate determined for each borough (taking no account of the household's ability to pay) levied on all households. The idea of the Conservative Government was that it would encourage people to vote for Conservative local governments which tended to cut services and charge lower poll tax than Labour or Liberal Democrat councils. There was massive default of payment (which still has a big impact as people remain worried about registering to vote even now, for example Tower Hamlets council in East London has 60,000 more adults registered with doctors in the borough than it has on its electoral register) and to rioting, notably in the centre of London in March 1990. It was scrapped and replaced by the council tax in 1993. However, the policy of always trying to keep council tax low because this is what voters want has hampered many councils from raising the revenue they need.

Another policy introduced during the Thatcher years had a detrimental impact on refuse collection. In 1988 all councils were forced to privatise 8 core services including collecting rubbish and they had to award it to the cheapest bid. Previously such work was part of the duties of the council, now they were forced to contract the work out but still pay for it. This meant refuse workers thrown out of work and often re-employed at lower wages, and refuse collectors never earned high salaries at the best of time. As always with privatisation in the UK it was the 'cowboy' companies who won the contracts and service deteriorated.

In the 2000s a new element has entered the equation, recycling. Though in some parts of the UK this has been improving, the UK was lagging behind its European neighbours, so last year councils were compelled to introduce recycling schemes. Each seems to have adopted different rules and some will recycle somethings such as shredded paper or bottles than a neighbouring borough will refuse. You now have a range of different coloured bins and bags and boxes and depending where you live you have to sort to a greater or a lesser extent what you throw out. People who get the wrong things in the wrong bag or box may be liable to a fine of £50 (€73; US$100) and it tends to be the elderly who suffer when they get confused, or as often happens, guidance is not clear. In my town they just stick embarrassing 'Contaminated' stickers on your bin. There has been a tendency not to consider the size of the households so blocks of flats often have too few bins and people with many children get penalised when their bins are over-full.

Now, I support recycling whole-heartedly. I have seen countries like Belgium and Germany that are well ahead of the UK in what and how much they recycle. Whilst there have been bottle banks and paper banks in the UK for years now, they tend to be used by a certain set of middle class people keen to show off how much wine they drink and what newspapers they read rather than by the mass of the population. In addition you need a decent sized car to transport all the stuff to the banks and there is a dichotomy here because you produce carbon emissions taking your recycling to these banks. So, to get up to targets the system has to be one of collection (one truck pollutes far less than a street of people driving to a bottle bank) and simple to understand, otherwise you will not get the bulk of people to be involved.

Of course the government, seeing that voluntary involvement has been so bungled by numerous councils now turns to penalties. About 4 million rubbish bins in the UK now have computer chips in them (we were told they would not be used for monitoring, but no-one believed that and of course we were proven right barely months later). Other countries, such as Belgium, already monitor how much each house throws out and matches this against what they expect for the particular household and rebates their council tax accordingly. In the UK it will be the opposite, you will be charged by amount of non-recyclable rubbish you throw out. Landfill sites are filling up so it is getting more costly, and given the shortfall in council incomes they cannot pay rebates on council tax. However, the government and councils do not seem to realise what they have unleashed.

I used to live in Milton Keynes in the early 2000s and it had one of the best recycling policies in the country at the time (though not always popular as it had potential of £50 fines and arsonists attacked both of its recycling plants and burned them to the ground). Yet, with all its woodland and parks it suffered immensely from people dumping their waste into hedgerows. Gypsies were often blamed but it was proven that none were in the city at the time the incidents occurred and then White, middle and working class people started getting caught on camera doing it. So, if in a town where recycling was easy and collected from your door, people dumped what is it going to be like elsewhere, especially when you begin being charged for every bin full of things you throw out. It will be far easier to throw it into your neighbour's garden or in the woods and avoid the charge.

The potential for hostility does not stop there, as some European countries have found, the dustbin collectors themselves become lords, as if they reject how you have packaged your rubbish or how small you have snapped the twigs, etc. they reject it and you pay heavily. In some areas of the UK dustbin workers have already come under attack and are likely to face that more in the future.

There is yet another twist to all this. An increasing number of councils will only collect refuse once per fortnight. Earlier this year there was scientific 'evidence' produced which conveniently showed that this was not a risk to hygeine. However, in London wherever you are you are only 13 feet (4.3 m) from a rat already. We are told that wrapping rubbish in two dustbin bags stops any smell. This is a scientific experiment you can do in your own house. After less than a week old food (which given that you cannot compost either, those people have the room for a compost anyway, usually consists of cooked vegetables and meat which vermin love) begins to smell, no matter how many bags it is in. In hot weather (and the UK reached 26oC (79oF) this week it gets even worse. Double the time you have to hold on to that rubbish and you can see how bad it is going to get in houses (and especially flats) across the country. The UK is set to become as smelly as some Third World countries and probably as equally plagued with rats and flies.

Yet again the UK has ended up with an ill-thought out policy. Most people see the point of recycling, but given that they already pay council tax which they resent, and have to pay high charges for utilities, adding an extra, complicated cost on to them is not going to win them over to recycling. In fact it is going to make rubbish a problem across more and more of our towns and rural areas. It is going to cost far more for councils to send workers round picking up all the stuff dumped in hedgerows than they are going to make from charging us for disposing of our rubbish. The fortnightly rubbish collection is unnecessary, especially if we are going to be paying more for our refuse collection, surely some of that can fund a weekly collections (some towns used to have collection every 4 rather than 7 days, but that was in the days when hygeine and not greed was the driving factor). So, if you live outside the UK, I suggest making any tourist visits you are intending to the UK in the next couple of months, otherwise you will be coming to a country with rubbish abandoned on every and the stench of two-week old decayed food in every kitchen.

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