Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A Last Load of Rubbish

Waste and Wasted Opportunity

It's mostly all been said in the bins debate. Is it more about grabbing headlines than addressing issues that matter? If Local Authorities aren't even allowed to decide how often to collect rubbish, is Localism anything more than empty rhetoric? Turns out we can't afford weekly bin collections anyway in a climate of cuts - what a surprise! So I thought it was all over until I read that Eric Pickles is forming a unit in CLG to resurrect the plan.

To me there's also a vital point that's been lost in all this infighting and points-scoring. Weekly bin collections are supposed to be "a good thing", but why? Frequency of bin collection is an output, not an outcome. It might be a means to an end, but it certainly isn't - or shouldn't be - an end in itself.

To understand outcomes, we need to go back to the basic purpose of waste collection. Why do we do it? In my view there are three objectives:

  1. Minimise any risk to public health

  2. Reduce the amount of waste to landfill

  3. Control costs to the taxpayer

These are the real outcomes, benefitting health, the environment and the taxpayer respectively. Only the first might benefit from weekly collections, and even this is tenuous - I've yet to see firm evidence that fortnightly bin collections increase the incidence of disease. I also discount the argument about "rubbish on the streets" because this is about storing waste properly, not about collecting it.

Whilst 1 and 3 above are consistent with existing NHS and local government directives, there is no longer any recycling or waste-to-landfill requirement on local government. NI 191-193 disappeared with the abolition of the National Indicator Set, and although many councils have retained their Local Area Agreement targets, they are not obliged to do so. Surely if central government is directing anything it should be directing an environmental strategy, and reducing waste to landfill is a fundamental part of this.

Confirm that as the objective and everything else falls into place, because councils will have an incentive to:

  • increase recycling and reuse capabilities in their area

  • promote increased recycling and composting

  • encourage local residents and business to reduce non-recyclable waste

  • find imaginative new ways to reduce landfill, including collaboration with networks such as freecycle and other voluntary groups involved in creative reuse of materials

Some of this requires innovative thinking, but so much the better. Indeed, the whole thrust of targeting reduced landfill should be to encourage positive behaviours, from councils, their residents and businesses.

Many councils already have the right idea, but a combination of cuts and lack of incentive threatens progress in this crucially important area. The message from this voter is: please don't focus on how often our bins are emptied, focus on the future of our communities and our planet.

Check my web site at www.real-improvement.com for more information and ideas.

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