Monday, 8 March 2010

It's time we talked rubbish

Rubbish collection is a public service not a private sacrament, says Jemima Lewis.

By Jemima LewisPublished: 5:33PM GMT 06 Mar 2010

Utter rubbish: resistance to recycling seems curiously at odds with small-c conservatism
Although my friends assure me that I am a natural-born reactionary, somewhat to the Right of Silvio Berlusconi, there are certain populist issues that entirely fail to stir my blood.
I cannot, for instance, summon up one ounce of sympathy when self-righteous citizens complain of having been fined thousands of pounds and clapped in irons for dropping a cigarette butt or strewing bread on the ground while feeding the ducks. Littering is littering, and if I had my way they’d be breaking rocks.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I feel much the same way about rubbish collection – an issue that makes my fellow libertarians exceedingly hot under the collar. Every attempt to make householders recycle more and throw away less is greeted with ululations of outrage, as if it were an Englishman’s right to keep slinging his empty beer cans into landfill until there is no green and pleasant land left – only a vast, steaming rubbish dump.
Even if you have your doubts about the broader environmental benefits of, say, transporting our plastic bottles halfway around the world to be processed by Chinese peasants, this empurpled resistance to recycling seems curiously at odds with small-c conservatism.
At the very least, recycling makes us think about what we are throwing away, and why. A natural Tory – nostalgic for the good old days of home cooking, thrifty housekeeping and local produce wrapped in greaseproof paper from an independent butcher or baker – should approve of anything that encourages a return to such Arcadian practices. And if that means having a microchip implanted in my wheelie bin, so be it.
Privacy campaigners warned this week that 68 local councils now have microchip technology at their disposal – up from 42 last year – and 2.6 million bins across the nation already have the chips in place. According to the campaign group Big Brother Watch, this amounts to a “surreptitious” attempt to monitor our “waste habits” and intrude into our “private lives”. It will also lead to the possible introduction of “punitive taxes” for people who throw away large volumes of rubbish.
Now, even allowing for the hyperbole of the single-issue campaigner, this seems a little strong. A microchip in a wheelie bin can weigh or measure the rubbish contained within, and identify the household it belongs to: that is all. It cannot read your bank statements, count up how many ready meals you’ve been eating, or raise a disapproving eyebrow at your consumption of Tennent’s Extra.
In any case, why shouldn’t the council know something of our individual “waste habits”? Rubbish collection is a public service – an increasingly burdensome one – not a private sacrament. True, we pay for it through council tax, but that does not automatically confer the rights of a consumer. We all pay for the emergency services, too, but we accept our responsibility to use them sparingly.
The more rubbish there is to collect, the more expensive it is for councils – and ultimately, therefore, for us. Again, you might expect the natural Tory to welcome a technology that could help pare the cost of public services and tilt the tax system in favour of responsible householders.
Granted, it isn’t always easy to have faith in the practices of local councils, staffed as they so often are by jobsworths, misanthropes and outright dunderheads. Every time I am forced into even the most glancing contact with Hackney council, I stagger away like a defeated boxer, stars circling around my head.
It’s not just that the officials are so often obtuse, but that their policies are too. Many councils, for instance, are draconian about domestic recycling, yet offer no recycling services at all to local businesses, which create far more mess.
A public that had more reason to trust the wisdom and integrity of local government might be less easily spooked by words such as “microchip”. Until then, it seems, the British people will fight for the right to live in a quagmire of rubbish – and call it freedom.