Confessions of a Political Animal

March 31, 2009

A Week Decision

recyclingThe Animal tries not to be too parochial around here, but occasionally something comes up locally that illustrates a broader issue. So it was last week, when the London Borough of Greenwich put a leaflet through the door outlining amended waste collection arrangements.

I don’t tend to be overly critical of Greenwich Council, partially because that seems to be a bit of a crowded market online, partially because it is run by my Party, but mainly because from The Animal’s point of view there is little enough to complain about. Certainly, Greenwich isn’t the most exciting, or go-ahead local authority on the face of the planet, but it does seem to trundle along happily enough on a day-to-day basis, delivering key services competently enough most of the time.

However, on recycling, I do feel they are a *bit* special. Having moved from one (otherwise pretty good) local authority a year ago, being employed by another and having previously worked in London-wide government, I can pretty safely say that Greenwich is streets ahead of pretty much any other comparable borough in the capital: it may not have the highest recycling rate in London – see p.17 of this GLA report – but it is amongst the highest for inner London boroughs/outer London boroughs with inner London characteristics (take your pick), which tend to be the hardest to achieve high recycling rates in. As a result, in 2007/08, Greenwich sent less waste to landfill than any other local authority in England. There is a surprisingly fascinating report from Greenwich Phantom on a visit to the council’s recycling plant here. Friends and family who visit us from other areas, in London and beyond, are generally impressed by the range of waste that can be recycled and with relative ease.

So why the whinge? Because the evil do-ers down at Woolwich Town Hall have decided to provide me with more services for my tax dollar, that’s why. Until next week, the system is: dry recycling and compostable materials collected weekly, the remainder of non-recyclable  refuse being collected fortnightly. However, from next week the non-recyclable collection goes weekly.

To my mind, this is a major step backwards. With a significant gap between collections of the ‘leftovers’ in the black sacks, you think hard about what you are putting in them. As a result, whilst both of our two full-sized recycling wheelie-bins are full most weeks, we often produce as little as one half-empty black bin bag of non-recyclable waste each fortnight. My concern with the new system, therefore, is that Greenwich residents, myself included, will stop thinking quite so hard about what can go where. And, by this means, the steady increase in Greenwich’s recycling rate goes into reverse, and the council fails to meet the government’s target of 40% of domestic waste recycled by 2010.

Now, as a general rule, councils don’t increase their services for no apparent reason. They certainly don’t do it in periods of tight local government funding settlements, having just announced council tax and charge freezes. Equally, they don’t implement policies that could well lead to a fine from central government for missing a key environmental target. So why do it? Sadly, it is for the same reason that other councils are choosing a similar course: the absurd public outcry over the slow but inevitable demise of the weekly general waste collection. From the level of outrage shown in the predictable quarters (Mail, Express, Telegraph, Standard, Mirror, etc), I can only surmise that there is a sub-clause buried somewhere in Magna Carta guaranteeing a weekly bin collection to every free-born Englishman.

In part, its just a very basic form of ‘everything in the country’s crap, but don’t you dare change anything’ conservatism. Partially, it’s a symptom of the anti-environmentalist backlash I discussed in my first ever post, and partially its that good old suspicion that recycling is this weird continental thing that goes with eating pickled herring, not washing and investing in your public transport infrastructure. Oh, how we used to giggle back in the happy 1980s at those funny Germans with their bottle banks.

The cries of anguish are predictable enough: if you don’t collect weekly, the rubbish will rot, smell and attract vermin and disease. Well, yes, if you have a useless local authority that can’t be bothered to collect compostable waste separately, you might have a slight case. And sadly, examples do exist. Tory ‘flagship’ borough Hammersmith & Fulham has scrapped its garden waste collection service, allegedly because it is only used by a small proportion of borough residents. Well, in any large, densely populated inner city that’s going to be the case – so do what Greenwich does, and combine it with your general food waste collection. After all, everyone produces food waste – hey presto, a viable composting service.

But that is never the demand of the protectors of the weekly waste collection. Rather, we must return post-haste to the halcyon, uncomplicated world of unsorted, unrecycled, go-straight-to-landfill-do-not-collect-£200 rubbish collected every week. Never mind that the data on the link between fortnightly collections and vermin is highly questionable, as demonstrated by the admirable Ben Goldacre. Never mind that many councils have been running fortnightly collections for years with significant impacts on their recycling and landfill rates. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and the bins are going to be put outside the drawbridge every Wednesday, whatever those pinko-liberal socialist types say.

So, whilst the bulk of Greenwich’s rather good recycling service thankfully remains unscathed, I’m disappointed by the return to weekly general waste collections. Our general waste bin rarely contains much more than bits of polystyrene, metal and full vacuum cleaner bags, which last time I checked, weren’t very prone to rotting or attracting maggots. Indeed, the only animal and rubbish related problem experienced in our neck of the woods is when the local fox rips into and scatters the contents of…you’ve got it…the flimsy general waste sacks. And lucky Mr Fox will soon have the opportunity to do that every seven days, rather than every fourteen.

Greenwich has, I believe, cut off its nose to spite its own face. In order to obtain a bit of peace from a vociferous minority, the borough will end up slowing progress towards its recycling targets, increasing its landfill use and growing the carbon and other pollutant emissions from the extra refuse lorry journeys necessary under the new policy. If it was just going to be Greenwich, it wouldn’t be too bad, but sadly this seems likely to become a trend nationwide. In the Thatcher era, Britain became known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ for its failure to take basic environmentalism seriously. Are we preparing to head down the same road again thanks to a combination of a shrill media and cowardly councils?


  1. Trouble was, Greenwich cocked-up the introduction of the new recycling scheme and never really managed to find a way to get on top of the backlog, and has been too cowardly to take on those who leave rubbish/bins in the street and/or don’t bother recycling – none of the bright sparks who run the council seemed to think there might be some resistance, or that their message might not get across. It’s a badly-run, over-centralised system and, like much of Greenwich Council, seeks to avoid direct contact and consultation with residents as much as possible. In practice, non-recyclable rubbish has been collected weekly for some months now.

    Comment by darryl853 — March 31, 2009 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  2. It’s interesting – I sometimes think there are two parallel waste collection systems operating: the one that works well around us and the one that is a bit of a mess for everyone else! I’d probably agree with you that the council should do more to take on those who won’t recycle etc, but the question is very much, how? The powers afforded to local authorities in this respect are quite limited, and if they do start doleing out penalties, Greenwich immediately becomes the bete noire of the Mail, Express, Greenwich Mercury etc. Failing to do so certainly represents a degree of cowardice on the part of the council, but it takes a brave authority to risk the rage of the mass media.

    Comment by Political Animal — April 1, 2009 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  3. […] BANG! And half your readership’s gone). I doubt anyone but the local party hacks even read my mild criticisms of Greenwich moving to a weekly bin collection. But like it or not, with decreasing levels of […]

    Pingback by A Waste of a Post « Confessions of a Political Animal — November 13, 2009 @ 6:02 pm | Reply

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