h1. Recycling and Charging

p(meta). 08 March 2010

The government has announced that it has ruled out plans (made under Labour) to look into charging households for the amount of non-recyled domestic waste. The plan is instead to ‘reward’ people based on the weight of the waste they leave on the kerbside for recycling. The first scheme, which is no longer being considered, was to charge people based on the weight of non-recycled waste over a certain threshold, thus encouraging them to recycle more. The Tories were keen to label this as a ‘bin tax’ and have campaigned against it. As far as I’m aware, no local authority has used such a scheme.

There are a number of issues surrounding both schemes that have raised comment. One is the fact that bins in such schemes need an RFID chip or other marker, and there are concerns about some sort of ‘Big Brother’ monitoring of rubbish. While there are many reasons to be concerned about surveillance and monitoring by the state, this is not one of them. There is a level of paranoia here that can easily be ignored. After all, if the council really wanted to it could weigh your rubbish right now - people who use wheelie-bins have an easily-indentifiable container without having to use any chip. Privacy concerns are a non-issue in this case.

The real concern is the effect that these schemes this will have on the overall goal of the policy, which is reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. Consider the old ‘weigh your non-recyclable rubbish’ scheme. This would encourage you to reduce waste by: (a) recycling more, (b) making an effort not to purchase non-recyable items in the first place, and (c) consider more re-use. A charge on the weight of non-recylables directly encourages all of these points:

Point (a) is clearly desirable since a charge applies to disposing of non-recyclables. Everything that goes into the landfill waste rather than the recycling may cost you more money, so people will make an effort to sort their recycling.

Point (b) is desirable because it will actually cost money to dispose of non-recyclable goods. I’m mostly thinking of excessive packaging and throw-away goods here. If you’re looking at two comparable items, one in a massive amount of plastic and one in easily-recyclable cardboard, it starts making actual monetary sense to choose the one in the sensible packaging. A result of this may well be the reduction in the ridiculous amount of packaging used by supermarkets, since the cost-consious shoppers (as well as the existing environment-consious ones) will stop buying items with excessive packaging.

Point (c) is more indirect but will be encouraged by waste charging. For example, people may be more ready to put serviceable items onto FreeCycle or give them to friends or charity shops rather than simply throwing them away. People will also be rewarded for home composting or feeding chickens food waste, etc. This will all help to reduce landfill.

Finally, charging for excessive waste is fair. Where there is no charging, people who make an effort to reduce their waste are subsidising those who don’t through their council tax. The wasteful are, in effect, being paid by the rest of us to continue their wasteful ways, and the environment still loses out.

So what about the scheme being discussed by Eric Pickles, where people receive rewards based on the weight of their recycling box? Let is consider our three waste reduction incentives discussed previously:

Point (a) - recycling more. This will be something that will undeniably be encouraged. People will have a financial incentive to sort their waste and put recyclable things in their recycling bin.

Point (b) - not buying non-recyclables in the first place. Here’s the big problem with the scheme. People will actually have an incentive to buy products with more packaging. True, this will only apply to packaging that can be recycled, but it’s more packaging none-the-less. As a direct result of this, retailers and manufacturers will face considerably less pressure to reduce their packaging. People will also directly financially lose-out by home composting, or otherwise processing their own waste. What would have been dealt with at source will now become the council’s (and therefore the tax payer’s) problem. This is also true of reducing food waste - people may end-up actually being paid to waste food by throwing it away. Let me be quite clear on this - paying people by weight for recycling is directly rewarding waste with taxpayers money.

Point (c) - the incentive to re-use items that would otherwise be thrown away is reduced. Things like composting at home have already been mentioned, but items that may otherwise be appreciated by the community may find themselves being thrown away rather than used. Imagine living in an area where electronic goods can be recycled, as happens in some authorities. People may put a perfectly good but old TV into the recycling rather than advertising it on FreeCycle as they’d receive a healthy payment (by weight) on a TV. The TV costs the council money to process, and the potential recipient still has no TV. This might be an extreme example, but there’s often a way to reuse a lot of waste. As we know, re-use is better than recycling.

So it seems fairly clear that charging for waste is a better system than rewarding recycling. So given that, why does the ‘carrot’ approach seem to be the one that the government is favouring? It’s probably down to political philosophy and a general Conservative aversion to taxes. In the much-publicised example authority using this approach, Windsor and Maidenhead, the American company RecycleBank also does rather well out of it.

The company receives a flat-rate payment from the council to administer the service but receives further revenue based on the savings in Landfill Tax it makes the council by diverting material from landfill. Councillor Liam Maxwell, lead cabinet member for sustainability at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has said that the costs of the scheme were “commercially sensitive”. Should we be paying foreign companies for such services? Would our own councils be able to do it for less? The fact that the Conservatives are not willing to let us know the figures makes me rather suspicious that the sums don’t add-up, and yet again, money is flowing out of the UK for things that we should be doing ourselves.

In any case, whether you believe that the private sector should be taking a slice of the pie or not, it seems reasonably clear that charging for not recycling is the more efficient and effective policy for reducing waste. If we really want to make our society more efficient and cleaner it’s really what we should be trying to do. If you would like to see your Council Tax being put to a more effective use, and most probably paying less of it, I would encourage you to let your council know your views.