I was calmly reading my annual council-tax statement from Southwark Council when something extraordinary jumped out at me from the figures. In relation to the total council-tax the figures for waste disposal looked ridiculously high. Grabbing my calculator I found Southwark was spending an eye-watering 37% of council-tax on waste-collection and disposal. What a pointless waste of taxpayers’ money.
Researching the figures for councils across England and Wales revealed that a THIRD of the council-tax requirement for English District Councils is spent collecting and disposing of waste. For all councils including the Unitaries and London boroughs the figure is 20%. The total annual figure is a staggering £4,500 million.
The good news for Tory councillors is that something can be done if the political will exists. I have not had a wheelie-bin collection from my house for non-recyclable waste for more than 13 years. I produce less than half a wheelie bin of non-recyclable waste every year, so I have no ugly contraption in my front garden. It really is possible even in the inner city!
The key to this success was simply changing how I shop. My bread, cakes, jams, cheese, eggs, fruit and vegetables etc all come either with no packaging or which can be returned to the farmers market. I use a shaving brush instead of shaving-foam, toothbrushes with replaceable heads and so on.
Having discovered how much council-tax was being wasted on waste, I looked into what councils are doing to prevent this expenditure in the first place. The truth proved sadly to be very little. In London out of a budget of over £700 million, less than £1 million is spent on waste minimisation.
Most councils pay lip-service to the waste hierarchy of reduce, re-use, recycle but practically nothing is invested in reduction. Instead contracts for incineration, recycling plants and new landfill sites are being signed all over the country tying tax-payers into hugely expensive commitments, sometimes exceeding £4 BILLION pounds each for 20 years.
For Tory councillors committed to spending council tax wisely, waste minimisation is a win/win, without even having to mention the huge environmental benefits of slashing carbon emissions and saving precious resources.
Some councils are already realising the value in this approach. West Sussex has an ambitious target of reducing total waste by 80,000 tonnes by 2015. As compostable waste makes up to a third of household waste, Worcestershire Council requires home-composting for residents with gardens. Remember every tonne of waste not created could be a tonne of waste your council does not have to pay for disposing of.
There is a whole raft of practical actions that councils can take to reduce this taxpayer burden:
- Reduce waste-paper by signing residents up for the mail-preference service to stop junk mail.
- Help residents cancel their annual phone book and yellow pages.
- Introducing a council- sticker scheme for shops and markets thataccept returnable bags/jars/egg-punnets/milk bottles etc.
- Develop a local Green Shop Award sticker scheme to encourage local chemists and supermarkets to encourage the supply of reusable products such as shaving brushes, cloth-handkerchiefs, mooncups and replaceable toothbrush heads.
- Cleaning-product waste can be slashed by promoting e-cloths, which require no cleaning products whatsoever for windows and surfaces.
- Create local community wood-stores where uncontaminated waste-wood can be dropped and sold to local people for wood-burning stoves. High temperature wood-burners now exist licensed for the inner city.
- As up to 50% of municipal waste originates with the big five supermarkets it is crucial that you set up a round table with your local outlets to address this issue.
But crucially do NOT sign up to pay and provide contracts that include no shared rewards for contractors REDUCING the total amount of waste being collected. The authorities in California found that by rewarding electricity companies for helping their customers reduce their energy needs reduced overall costs, as expensive new plant did not need to be built to provide forever-increasing demand. It is crucial that such an approach is adopted here on waste if we are to reduce the run-away costs for residents. Tory councils could lead the way on this.
If you are a councillor on a Tory council you could get officers to draw up a practical waste minimisation strategy for your council, including your local strategic partners. Consider including progress on reducing total waste as a key annual appraisal target for relevant senior officers.
If you are a Tory opposition councillor get the figures for what your council is spending on waste and calculate it as a percentage of your local-council tax and then see what if anything is being done on minimisation. Find out if the council has signed a contract that means contractors make more money as more waste is produced. Data on waste expenditure for councils across England has been posted in a data-blog I did for The Guardian environment website.
Great motions for council can be made from this information and even better local press coverage can be gained. Getting the public on your side on this potential cost-cutting measure can be really helpful and of course could help get you re-elected – saving the environment, saving money for tax-payers and help getting re-elected – now that is what I call a win/win/win for local Tory councillors.