Bin baron

Let’s recycle like the Germans

Paul Bettison is talking rubbish. As chairman of the Local Government Association’s Environment Board, councillor Bettison frequently talks rubbish. But today he’s talking more rubbish than I can possibly imagine: almost 27 million tonnes of it.

According to the LGA, the average British household produces half a tonne of rubbish a year. Altogether, we send 7m tonnes more rubbish to landfill than any other country in Europe. One country in particular puts us to shame: Germany has 25 per cent more people but produces less than half as much trash.

And now we’re running out of space to bury it all. Within nine years, there’ll be no landfill sites left says Bettison.

At current rates of disposal we’ll fail to meet our obligations under the EU Landfill Directive. Councils, and consequently taxpayers, face fines of up to £150 for each tonne of rubbish dumped in landfill. The National Audit Office predicts a total fine of up to £200m.

Then there’s climate change: it takes a lot of energy, and creates a lot of emissions, to manufacture rubbish in the first place, then ferry it to landfill or burn it. The consequences were underlined by the European commission this week: global warming, it said, could trigger regional conflicts, poverty, famine and migration.

And that’s why councils are promoting “three Rs” for the 21st century – reduce, reuse and recycle.

New Zealand, Western Australia, California, Toronto and even a couple of English local authorities have adopted a target of Zero Waste by 2020 – with the ultimate goal that everything produced will be re-used or recycled, and nothing incinerated or sent to landfill.

Siân Berry, principal speaker of the Green Party, says the whole UK should aim for this. “If we go whole-heartedly for recycling, re-use and waste minimisation, we would create thousands of sustainable jobs, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and conserving finite resources.”

Thus a bottle of fabric conditioner, which will last a thousand years, would be taken back to the supermarket to be refilled. Indeed, shoppers would walk into supermarkets with almost as much packaging as they take away.

It’s hard to see this appealing to Tony Blair, whose approach to climate change and the environment saw him refuse this week to set any kind of personal example on air travel.

Variously nicknamed “bin baron” and “trash tsar”, Bettison oversees environmental policy on behalf of 411 councils across England and Wales. A retired printer, now in charge of Tory-led Bracknell Forest Unitary Authority in Berkshire, he’s a large man who wears spectacles, a white shirt and tie, a gold watch on one wrist and a gold chain on the other. Not particularly close to the green stereotype, but it’s quite obvious that he finds climate chaos terrifying.

As someone with similar concern – and as someone who has worked, albeit briefly, as a rubbish collector – I find myself surprisingly interested in what this stalwart of local government has to say. I’ve seen for myself, as a former bin man, how filthily and chaotically some householders put out rubbish. And having worked a whole shift with mushroom sauce and coffee grounds in my ear – after bins slipped from my shoulder in the rain – I have little sympathy for householders who can’t be bothered to sort their waste, or claim they don’t understand how to do it.

Bettison talked to someone recently who seemed to imagine she had to rummage through her bins at the end of the week and separate the contents. “Actually,” he said, “my wife doesn’t do it that way…”

But is his diagnosis of the national problem correct? And are his proposed remedies workable?

Many people will find it hard to believe we are running out of space for landfill. But as Bettison explains, we usually dump rubbish in old quarries and we’re filling up the holes much faster than we’re excavating them. Anyway some spaces aren’t suitable because the contents of rubbish – cat food, old batteries, nappies, aspirin – might leak out, poisoning crucial sources of water.

The alternative is incineration, but few communities are clamouring to have incinerators built in their areas. Even if the public loved incinerators, there is not time to build enough of them before landfill runs out at current rates of disposal – and we’d still need to get rid of all the ash somewhere.

So the most important part of Bettison’s war on waste lies in reducing the production of rubbish in the first place.

“People power has a large role to play. If you buy four or five apples at the supermarket, you can buy them loose or you can pay a few pence extra to buy them pre-packed in a plastic tray. That might look nice, but you’re not going to submit it to an exhibition or a harvest festival – you’re going to take it home and throw it away. If we stopped doing that – if the public stopped buying apples in trays – within a month the supermarkets would stop selling them that way. And councils can encourage consumers to do that by informing them through our local newsletters.”

So much for “reduce”. When it comes to “reuse”, Bettison commends the work of his crack-troops: elderly volunteers working in charity shops and reselling all kinds of hitherto unwanted items. Councils support these shops, he points out, by waiving commercial rates on retail sites which might otherwise stand empty. The internet also helps – through businesses such as eBay, and networks such as Freecycle, where unwanted goods change hands at no cost.

Bettison also intends to wage war on the manufacturers of single-use products. “Including, dare I say it, nappies.” He mentions in detail a variety of schemes to induce parents to use terry nappies. One solution, he suggests, might be for central government to impose a tax on disposable nappies.

Hoping to influence the forthcoming local government bill, Bettison popped next-door before Christmas to the offices of Defra and outlined his strategy for the war on waste to David Miliband, the environment secretary. “And David said, ‘I’m up for this.’ Which I think is encouraging.”

In waste management, demand is entirely driven by legislation – without laws, we’d probably still throw rubbish from our windows. But some changes can be effected without legislation. A junior minister in Miliband’s department, Ben Bradshaw, recently encouraged shoppers to dump excess packaging at supermarket checkouts.

The most controversial aspect of the LGA’s war on waste is its request that government allow councils to vary taxes according to how much rubbish individual households produce. Many people have already criticised this idea as a fraudulent way to raise taxes by stealth under cover of tackling climate change.

Others fear the power might be extended into other areas. People with lots of children might be called to pay more for education, and so on.

Bettison concedes that when Miliband said he was “up for” the war on waste, he may not specifically have meant he was willing to grant councils the power to vary council tax.

“But this goes to a fundamental issue,” says Bettison. “Are local authorities supposed to iron out differentials, so that everyone pays the same, wherever they live, and whatever their income, and whether or not they’re participative in the community?”

At the moment, if council is fined for excess landfill, that fine is paid equally by everybody, whether they refuse to recycle or, like some energetic greens, they recycle printer cartridges, unravel old sweaters to reuse the wool, send unused bikes to developing countries, and tear the plasticky foil lining out of Tetrapak cartons before shredding the leftover cardboard to chuck in their composting bin. And that, as Bettison sees it, is not fair.

But even his own party is against “pay-as-you-throw” rubbish collection. It would require massive expenditure, says the Conservative’s shadow minister for local government Eric Pickles, on compulsory wheelie bins to be installed in every home in Britain and an army of municipal inspectors to check the contents. “Bin taxes would be deeply harmful to the local environment,” Pickles adds, “causing a surge in fly-tipping.”

Similar predictions were made in 2003, when Irish councils started to charge households according to the weight of their bins. Critics said that unscrupulous householders would dump rubbish in neighbours’ bins. To stop this, householders were offered locks for their bins. Refuse collectors had only to turn the bins upside down to release the lock – not something a neighbour would be able to do easily without being noticed.

But the Irish Environmental Protection Agency announced this week that a quarter of Irish households are disposing of their rubbish illegally – often by burning it illegally and producing serious amounts of pollution.

“That is a problem,” concedes Bettison solemnly, “and I don’t know what the answer is.”

Then he brightens. “But I come back again to our responsibility as councils to communicate. People can be incredibly helpful if you explain. In my area we recycle plastic bottles but we don’t want the lids, partly because they’re made of a different grade of plastic but also because we crush the plastic and if the bottles have lids on they’re harder to crush, and it costs more. By putting an article in our paper, we found the number of lids went right down.”

If there’s one thing that gives Bettison hope, it’s this kind of anecdotal evidence, backed up by market research. “The LGA does a lot of research. We recently did a survey asking if people recycle. About 85 per cent said they do, which we know is not true. Twenty years ago, if you’d asked the same question, only 5 per cent would have said yes. The point is that today people know they ITALIC should UNITALIC recycle, which is why they lie to the researchers. They know it’s antisocial not to do it.”