Saturday, 2 June 2007

Councils and "pay as you throw"

Of late the media have been full of stories and comment on the question of paying additional charges for waste disposal to landfill - the so called "pay as you throw". It is understandable that this has become a major issue because this is a very obvious way we interact with our local authorities and the whole question of council tax is something that generates a lot of opinion. What is interesting is that councils in Devon and Cornwall are unenthusiastic about these "pay as you throw" charges and that for Teignbridge at least there is a move to abandon the fortnightly landfill rubbish collection and revert back to the old weekly cycle.

Now I understand that some countries in Europe have successfully implemented "pay as you throw" and driven up their recycling rates so shouldn't we therefore do the same here. The answer from this passionate environmentalist is an emphatic "No!". Let me say why -
  • Firstly we are very different to the environmentally best European countries, witness our appallingly bad record on litter dropping and fly tipping. "Pay as you throw" would lead to an increase in these anti social activities unfortunately. Furthermore if you dislike your neighbour you will be tempted to sneak some of your rubbish into his bin. In the real world some of this will inevitably happen.
  • Where I live in the Caradon District area we don't use wheelie bins, our rubbish goes out in black bin bags or, in my case, an old fashioned dustbin. Many other places do use wheelie bins of course and here the technology is available to weigh the contents. For those councils not going down the wheelie bin route I understand that one solution to "pay as you throw" is for the council themselves to issue special bags at some cost to the consumer and the disposal operatives to take these only. Thus you would have the wheelie bin councils charging by weight but the refuse sack enthusiasts having a charging regime based around volume. In other words no consistency. And although landfill tax is I think dependant on weight (tonnes) it is the volume available for landfill that more concerns councils. It might be argued that there is a consistent relationship between weight and volume so far as rubbish is concerned but my point is that I foresee difficulties in establishing fairness between different councils.
  • On the subject of fairness consider two neighbouring households; the first one has just one person who produces one bin full of rubbish per week. Next door the family of six produce two bins worth of rubbish and so get charged twice as much even though if you do the arithmetic they are producing only a third as much rubbish per person. So effectively they are being penalised for being a large family. Is this fair? I think not.
  • Self catering holiday accommodation is popular in Devon and Cornwall. If "pay as you throw" came in the accommodation provider would have to pick up the tab regardless of the amount of rubbish left by the guests. Would that be reasonable?
  • There are significant numbers of people living in blocks of flats with communal facilities. How can you distinguish between the rubbish left by the various residents? And what about those people always on the move from one residence to another? By the time the bill arrives they have moved on.
  • The existing process of sending out council bills is relatively straightforward in the sense that ones payments are consistent over a year. With "pay as you throw" the amount to be paid could vary enormously causing a nightmare both for the council and for those trying to budget their outgoings.
  • How often would homeowners be billed? Monthly? Quarterly? Annually? So what about the family who move house midway between payment dates? I can see all sorts of problems arising.
  • From the bureaucracy point of view it is self evidently going to be an expensive process with these extra costs falling on the homeowners. And the extra paper required for the bills isn't environmentally friendly is it!

From these points, which are not necessarily exhaustive, it can be seen that "pay as you throw" might be superficially attractive but has too many things against it in this country. It is a big subject - I could talk about the excess packaging that is produced, the fact that different councils do not all recycle the same things thus introducing another variable, the list goes on. But I think I've written enough for now. Suffice to say that our policy makers are very good at making policy suggestions without thinking through the possible ramifications. I'm getting used to that.

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