About five years ago, South Norfolk Council received a grant from DEFRA for a technology trial to see whether it was practical to record how much rubbish residents threw away and to calculate the proportions between general refuse and dry recyclables. It seemed so reasonable for the LibDems who were then in charge.
Residents would have two brand new wheelie bins, each equipped with a little chip that would enable the weight of rubbish to be recorded. At the end of the year, the Council would produce a little statement showing residents how much they had recycled. There could even be a rewards ceremony for the highest achievers.
The Conservatives won the election in May 2007 and immediately started to review all aspects of the organisation. Pretty quickly it became clear that the £25,000 extra cost and practical difficulties with each bin lorry were causing real problems.
In about of a third of cases, sometimes more, the weighing system
failed to record the bin-weight at all for a variety of reasons:
Perhaps the bin-loader didn’t quite line-up the bin with the sensor
perfectly, perhaps some muck had got into the works preventing a clear
signal being read, perhaps a vital wire had been chafed away, perhaps
the reading did work but an electrical ‘spike’ on the vehicle fried the
data card end erased not just that reading but all the readings so far
Furthermore, when you have a close look and smell at the back of a bin
lorry, you can see why it might be a difficult task to accurately
record 1,000 bin lifts per day. It’s a miracle the equipment was made
to work at all in a filthy, chemically aggressive environment with
non-technical people wearing dirty gloves operating sensitive computer
Worse, the extra time taken to attempt to get the weighing equipment to
work and then for the non-technical bin men to trouble-shoot the
hi-tech problems meant that in some cases rounds didn’t get finished on
time. Over the months, suppliers of each component blamed each other
and, guess what, we needed more bin lorries at £120,000 each per year
to cover the rounds. How can you try and route your lorries most
cost-effectively when you’re forced add extra machines to fill-in the
Something had to be done and first we recognised that the technology
didn’t work and not for want of trying. It was also obvious that any
‘statements’ we’d be sending householders congratulating them on their recycling would be works of fiction if a third of the readings were missing or plain wrong.
Then it became clear that a sinister force was at work. Because if a
third of the readings were wrong, how could you base a tax on that?
Because the Government wasn’t interested in our cuddly statements. They
were only interested in money. When we looked at the unforeseen
consequences of the fatally flawed pay-as-you-throw technology it
became an easy decision to turn it off and consign it to the rubbish
But it wasn’t just about technology:
1. Flytipping in South Norfolk had risen by 250% in the three years
preceding the election. We’re now on top of the situation with our new
Environmental Crimes Team but it was clear that pay-as-you-throw
encouraged people to fly-tip in local beauty spots.
2. You couldn’t assess people who lived in flats or communal
accommodation. When more than one household shares a bin, how would
you apportion the charge fairly? It became obvious that
pay-as-you-throw was a tax for people who live in houses.
3. We were encouraging people, particularly in sheltered housing to
share their bin with an able-bodied neighbour and to reduce the number
of unsightly bins in the street in conservation areas. All this good
work would have to be scrapped.
4. We also reckoned that some people would put their rubbish in a
neighbour’s bin so they would kop the charge. Great for community
5. The fact is that the service people value the most from their
Council Tax is the refuse collection. Are we going to make people pay
There are easier and more palatable ways of increasing recycling rates
than imposing a half-baked, pay-as-you-throw technology that doesn’t
work technically or socially on 25 million households in Britain. For
example, by pushing optional ‘brown bins’ for compostable garden waste,
we’ve reduced contamination meaning that the dry-recyclables we do
collect are worth more and partly through good education we’re on
track to recycle 45% of our waste by the end of the year.
But, like a stuck record, the Government’s not giving up on
pay-as-you-throw. Councils have until the end of the week to express
interest to DEFRA to participate in brand new Bin-Tax trials. If they
want some advice from me, don’t bother.