This month our big green debate asks if it is or isn’t right to charge for green waste collection. I have jumped off the fence for this issue in order to take-on our lead campaigner on waste about this important issue.
Environmentalists generally do not support ‘free’ goods and services, as they can lead to people over-consuming and being wasteful, with everyone else and the environment paying the price. Free plastic carrier bags are one example. Giving some monetary value to garden waste would mean that people would have to be more thoughtful about what they produce, and what they do with it.
The people who benefit the most by free collection will be those with the largest gardens, who could frankly afford to pay something. Paying for the service from the Council’s tight budgets is unlikely to be a priority for those who do not use it (because they do not have a garden or compost at home).
The Council’s garden waste collection requires a fleet of lorries touring all the streets of the city, looking for bags to pick up. The content is mostly air and water, of course. The waste is all taken to a composting site outside Wolverhampton. Some of the resulting compost finds its way back, but still many gardeners drive to a garden centre to buy their new compost.
Surely we should close the loop much nearer home – cutting “compost miles”. If left in situ, garden waste begins to break down anyway. The talk of a charge, although modest, has already had people asking where to get compost bins and worm bins. The government cash obtained for wheelie bins could subsidise home compost bins.
The garden waste collection was a way to boost the tonnage the Council can say that it is recycling or composting. It is quite heavy (as it has a high water content). This is not really a measure of environmental performance; a better measure is to minimise the amount of “residual rubbish” put out by households. Doorstep collections should be for materials we cannot deal with ourselves, such as metals, plastic, and glass.
When local or national Governments have to make cuts, some of the first things to go are schemes, projects or services that are seen as ‘green’ or which have some environmental benefit. There are many reasons for this but there are two that I see as quite important. The first is that ‘green things’ are still seen as a luxury that are all very well when we can afford them, but when the hard times hit we need to concentrate on the important things in life, like the economy. The second is that there is often not a statutory requirement to provide ‘green’ services.
While this isn’t the place to debate the economics of austerity and councils’ reactions, it does exemplify the above points spectacularly well. The Council has to make big cutbacks and, as a green waste collection is not a statutory requirement and is seen as a luxury, the result is the introduction of a charge.
However, is this the right way to go? While we can acknowledge the current financial difficulties, does that mean we say that charging for a green waste collection is inherently a good thing? In my view, this is bigger than green waste collections. If we say it’s OK to charge for this, what next? An outright end to doorstep recycling collection, as is being proposed in parts of Derby? The axing of positions related to the environment and Climate Change in the Council? To paraphrase Sir Humphrey Appleby, charging for doorstep green waste collections is ‘the thin end of the wedge’.
But it’s not just about the principle of protecting environmental services because they are seen as a soft target. There are very good reasons why a green waste collection should be free of charge. For a start, abolishing it adds to the perception that recycling is for the middle classes who can afford it, and not ‘real’ working people. Well-off people aren’t the only ones who have green in their gardens, people in less well-off parts of Birmingham still have plants outside to look after but may not have the space for a compost bin.
Furthermore, we have the slightly ridiculous situation where the most environmental damaging option is the one which remains free of charge, with residual waste collections being free because the Council are legally obliged to collect residents’ residual waste. Cost should follow a waste and environmental impact hierarchy. Although the best option is to compost, charging for green waste collections while residual waste collections remain free will simply encourage people to send more waste into the residual waste stream, rather than encouraging a rush on compost bins.