Tipping point: The throwaway society

Time was when you could chuck something into your rubbish bin and forget about it. Not any more. Paul Vallely lifts the lid on one of the most pungent political issues of the day

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The new government has a fair bit on its plate, you might think. There's the £6bn in public spending cuts to find. The eurozone is in a spin.

And foreign policy priorities, like the war in Afghanistan, are being nudged by a wobble in the special relationship with America over the BP oil spill. The one thing to which you might expect they wouldn't have time to turn their minds is wheelie bins. But you would be wrong.

Last week, David Cameron announced that he is throwing into reverse Labour's policy of encouraging local councils to charge households for the waste we throw away and impose draconian new bin regulations to encourage us to greater recycling.

It is a revolution that has already proceeded much further than many people realise. Almost half of England's 350 local authorities have abandoned the weekly bin-emptying rounds that were established by law in 1875. Some 169 have instituted fortnightly collections. Other councils have issued smaller bins plus a multitude of different containers for recycling. Others are fining residents for putting the wrong rubbish in the wrong bin, putting out wheelies when their lids don't quite close or for leaving their emptied bins out in the street too long. Perhaps most controversial has been the move to install Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips inside bins to monitor the amount of rubbish created by each household.

The microchip is capable of being scanned by the rubbish collection lorry as it lifts the bin to record the weight of the contents. The info can then be sent automatically to a central database. The assumption is that such technology is the precursor for "pay-as-you-throw" schemes. Chips in bins have increased by almost two-thirds over the last year. Some 2.6 million homes now have the chip-and-bin system in place.

All this has caused outrage in the leafy suburbs of Middle England whose newspapers – the Daily Mail and Daily Express – have been whipping up a Great Bin Revolt in protest. Week by week they have been over-brimming with self-righteous indignation and reports on the latest incursions. Last week there was the decision by Bristol Council to appoint two "bin-snoopers" (or "waste doctors" according to your predisposition) at a cost of £45,000 in a pilot scheme to enforce the city's recycling scheme.

These bin enforcement officers will have the power to impose a £75 instant fine if they find rubbish – paper, cans or glass – in the wrong bins, and can launch a court prosecution, with maximum fines of £1,000 per offender, if their fines are not paid on the spot. The scheme will be extended to the whole city if it is deemed a success – though after news came through of the government's policy U-turn, council officials pronounced that the bin inspectors might be used to hand out rewards rather than punishments. And in Hull earlier this month council officials asked local people to shop their neighbours if they left their bins out for too long. They asked householders to fill in "environmental crime incident diaries" to log the names and addresses of anyone leaving their emptied wheelie in the street.

But what most makes the Bin Rage gorge rise is the installation of the microchips. This has largely been done surreptitiously, as in Devizes in Wiltshire, where ratepayers only found out when a loose-tongued council official at a Rotary Club dinner let news of the secret implants slip.

"The two things that provoke a backlash among the British – as the MPs' expenses scandal showed – are hypocrisy and secrecy," says Simon Davies, director of the lobby group Privacy International, which insists that chips in bins is a civil liberties issue. "People hate being deceived. At a time when everyone is talking about greater accountability in all areas of life, here they are up to something sneaky and underhand."

This is pretty high-octane stuff. But before we unpack it, a few basic facts might assist. Apart from Greece and Portugal, we Brits have the worst recycling record in Europe. We recycle just 18 per cent of our rubbish, compared with 58 per cent in Germany. What we can't dump in landfill we export. We send 2m tonnes of waste to China every year.

In 2005, the British government's Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme came into effect, imposing a penalty of £150 a tonne on excess waste dumped by local authorities. It was an attempt to comply with the EU Landfill Directive, which sets targets for reducing municipal waste in member countries. Limiting the frequency of collections, or the size of bins, the government concluded, was "the most direct way to compel householders to reduce their waste".

Two years later, in another policy document, David Miliband, then the Environment Secretary, announced proposals to allow local councils to implement a 'pay-as-you-throw' scheme using wheelie bins fitted with electronic sensors. Another Environment Minister, Ben Bradshaw, talked about an extra tax on non-recyclable waste – and accused people who failed to recycle household rubbish of behaving "antisocially and irresponsibly". It was, he said, "time to make the polluter pay".

Local councils responded to this tone. In Blackburn a man who called the police after two shadowy figures climbed into his garden using a step ladder in the dead of night discovered they were council officials looking for "non-regulation dustbins". When they found a house with two bins they pinched one without telling the owner.

In Trowbridge, binmen were told not to empty bins left more than 18 inches from the kerb. In Stockport a woman was fined £700 for putting her bin out a day early. In Whitehaven a man was fined £210 because his lid was four inches from closing.

The outraged responses were not confined to those penalised. In Bournemouth, when residents discovered that microchips had been secretly fitted to bins, they removed thousands of them. The internet has been buzzing with tips on how to disable the devices. (Neodymium magnets are popular). Bloggers fulminate about innocent citizens being criminalised by public officials who should have better things to do, as with speed cameras.

David Cameron is not a politician who under-estimates the potency of a populist gesture. That is why he has had ministers announce that the Government wants to drop the stick and switch to the carrot. It is endorsing a scheme pioneered by the council in Windsor and Maidenhead which awards households reward tokens if they recycle heavily. The tokens can be redeemed in local shops, restaurants and leisure centres, or donated to schools. Yet campaigners are giving it only one cheer. "It's an improvement," says Simon Davies. "People have to opt-in. It's not compulsory. I don't mind chips if people have consented to them. But an incentive can mutate into a fine or a charge. That happened with direct debits where utility firms offered a £3 discount for people paying by direct debit, but soon were adding an extra charge for people who didn't pay that way. It's called function-creep; it happens all the time. And fundamentally I don't trust local authorities."

But the Bin Rage movement has its provisional wing, who are not placated at all. "The chip is still in the bin," protests Dylan Sharpe of Big Brother Watch. "It will reveal whether you are at home or not. And all the information will go to a central database. Who will have access to that? Every week a government body, NHS trust or local council loses a memory stick with people's private details on it. This is another piece of data being held on us by another authority."

The risk to civil liberties, however, seems a pretty low-grade one to inspire such levels of anxiety. Dr Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire thinks she knows why.

"It's about territory. It's seen as an invasion of our private domain," she says. She is a specialist in anger, stress and boredom, and is author of a book, Upping Sticks, about moving house and how and why we get so attached to our homes.

"Some people don't even like their friends dropping in unannounced. And we get irritated with cold calls from salesmen on the phone or at the door. When we are safe at home we feel we shouldn't have these pressures from the outside world." This private sphere, we feel, should be especially resistant to interference from public authorities. She does not speak of the home as womb, cocoon or an Englishperson's castle but she has an equally vivid metaphor. "The chip in your bin is their spy on your land."

But isn't this all getting terribly out of proportion? We all need to learn to recycle more for the good of the planet. If we produce waste wantonly, why should we not pay to dispose of it, in the way that – with our electricity bills – the more we use, the more we pay. Payment is a disincentive to waste.

"Some people might see it that way," says Dr Mann. " Some people have more public consciousness than others and a more far-sighted vision on the wider consequences of their actions. But others are more narrowly focused on how something impacts on them directly. Also, people can experience a kind of helplessness. A lot of this packaging is forced upon us by supermarkets, so why should we be penalised to get rid of it?"

And there is something else. "There's an element of guilt. We all know we ought to be doing more for the environment and we project that guilt as anger onto the local council."

If she is right, there are far fewer of the public-spirited types around, and far more of the me-focused ones. A survey by Big Brother Watch claims that 80 per cent of people would object to the idea of a microchip in their bin. "What people throw away is private," Dylan Sharpe says. That seems a pretty odd notion. It might be private before they throw it away, but once it leaves their home, doesn't it go into the public domain? "That's not how people see it," Sharpe says. "You don't want everyone to know how much alcohol you have been drinking. You don't want your wife to see the receipt for the drinks you bought in a strip club. When you throw things in the bin you expect them to disappear from your life.".

So the bin is a vanishing place. It is a psychological black hole. Just how odd it would be to become attached to our rubbish is clear when you look at the work of Mike Thompson, of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, the Netherlands who did a thesis called "My Beautiful Garbage: Changing the Perception of Refuse".

He carried all the rubbish he produced in one week around with him everywhere in a see-through container. If everyone had to do the same, he concluded, they would pretty swiftly control their waste production and up their recycling of materials. It is a pretty extreme solution. The smell got unbearable by Day 5 and started to make him gag. "Normally I wouldn't eat stale bread, it would go into the bin," he wrote. "But the thought of carrying round a furry piece of bread changes my mind."

Not that the Middle England bin-ragers are disposed to take lessons from abroad. After all, they point out, these chipped wheelies have all been produced by foreigners. "Germans plant bugs in our wheelie bins," one recent headline railed. David Cameron, it seems, has some way to go before Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is fully appeased.

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