Sunday, 8 June 2008
Battle of the bins
When I first encountered the wheelie bin, I thought it "a pretty neat idea." I came from a county that still used dustbins. Dustbins were heavy to move and their lids clattered. So a relatively quiet bin on wheels that I could simply wheel to the weekly collection point was a helpful innovation.
From time to time I worried about recycling and carried paper, bottles, cloth and cans to recycling points. I didn't do that as often as I'd have liked, because things to be recycled were heavy and awkward. Recycling points seemed to be located for the benefit of drivers. Fortunately charities sometimes went in for recycling and volunteered to visit and take the paper, glass and so on away.
The council decided to promote recycling. I bought a composter and fed it vegetable peelings and coffee grounds. These emerged, remarkably, as good earth. I did so little gardening that the composer was always in surplus but composting seemed the right thing to do.
Then the council got tough about recycling. There were targets and league tables and our council wanted to be seen to do its bit. Every household was provided with a green bin for recycling and given a list of what could be put in it: cardboard, paper, envelopes, cans and the right kind of plastic. I studied the list and did my best.
There were problems. Weekly collections were at an end. The green (recycling) and black (general rubbish) bin had to be put on the pavement on alternate weeks. Failure to put a bin out could mean a 4-week accumulation of rotting rubbish - and a stench. And, big as the bins are, there isn't enough space when re-organising the house and getting rid of rubbish. We're told to take excess rubbish to the local dump - but there's a proviso: pedestrians aren't allowed. The new recycling regime is determined that everyone should have a car.
Of course, I can ring the council and arrange for large items to be collected, and I plan to try that this week as my daughter and her boyfriend, despite numerous assurances, have failed to move her old bed to the dump - and it's rather unsightly in the garden. But I'll have to pay to have it taken away and I fear I'll be required to be at home rather than work so that this can be achieved.
Still, we're lucky with our binmen. They are friendly, cheerful and on one occasion, when I asked, they let me refill the bin with extra rubbish. They're an energetic, helpful crew and remind me of my Uncle John who became a dustman when he stopped working at the docks. He liked active, outdoor work.
Elsewhere, according to the press, binmen have become tyrants, egged on by the councils that employ them. There are story of binmen refusing to take bins that are too heavy in case they fall from the lifting device on the lorry. People in rural areas - including a woman of 79 - have been told that their homes are too remote for rubbish collections and that they must wheel their bins down long country lanes. Fines can be imposed for putting rubbish in the wrong bin. One man was fined £210 because his bin wasn't properly shut. And there are many such reports from all over the country.
We're told that the latest bins are microchipped, though I'm not sure how the microchip will work. Will it be weighing the waste, or photographing it to keep a record of who throws away what rubbish? The plan seems more like science fiction than real life.
I'm particularly alarmed by the story of a mother who put her bin out the day before collection and was fined £265. The local rule says that bins should not be left out before 7.30 a.m. on the collection day. I don't know what I'd do if a rule like that came in here. I'm always in a rush in the mornings and often have to leave home before 7.30.
None of this is the fault of the binmen, who work for long hours in all sorts of weather and aren't paid particularly well. The problem seems to lie in the councils' attitude to people. Too many councils - like government - take a punitive approach to problems. They shout the same cliches: "get tough", "name and shame", "zero tolerance." One council has designed a questionaire asking all sorts of questions about the rubbish produced by each family - and requiring every household to nominate an individual who will take legal responsibility for the bin.
Recycling used to be something that people did voluntarily. I remember mums, dads and other carers happily loading bins with paper for recycling so that the local primary schools could get more funds. I recall the long queues for reduced-price composters, on a one-day only offer from the local council. And there's still some pride left in living lightly - fabric and jute shopping bags have taken off, even if it's hard to get into the routine of carrying a strong bag at all times.
The punitive approach of government and councils has damped my keenness for recycling. It's no longer a project in which everyone is engaged but a mechanism for controlling people's lives and telling them off. (Sometimes, when I hear the scolding voices of local and national politicians, lines from V for Vendetta come to mind.) I know the problems of landfill and I'd like, if it's not too late, to do my bit for saving the planet. But when councils and governments target households for the rubbish they produce, are they starting in the right place?
How much waste is a result not of careless householders but of profligate supermarkets? I can refuse plastic bags but not the excess packaging. I can't remember when I first saw blister packs but I don't think they'd been invented in my childhood and they certainly hadn't taken over the aisles of supermarkets and stationery shops. I don't know why special offers - on beer, baked beans, etc. - so often include an extra layer of plastic packaging. We're encouraged to save more by being less green.
Why aren't governments and local councils turning on supermarkets and other chains of shops that offer over-packaged goods? Are companies more important to them than people - with votes?