News analysis: Refuse-niks

Emptying wheelie bins less often helps save the planet, say the experts. But councils that tried it could be thrown out by the voters this week. So why has waste made the people revolt?

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You can raise taxes. You can close maternity wards or send soldiers to die on foreign fields if you're a politician, but don't ever mess with the bins. Do that and you will find the British people revolting. Not revolting like maggots writhing in a black bin bag left out in the sun. Revolting as in marching on the town hall with placards and banners, urging voters to kick you out.

Several council leaders have already lost power because they decided the bins should be emptied every fortnight instead of every week. Many more are expected to go the same way on Thursday, when elections take place in England, Scotland and Wales. Never mind Iraq or house prices - bins are making the biggest stink this time around, and could lead to a change of party in at least 50 areas, influencing the results in 100 more.

"A weekly collection is the right of every Briton," said the Daily Mail, which sensed dissent among the privet hedges of suburban Britain and is leading a campaign to reinstate the service introduced by Disraeli in 1875. Four out of every 10 councils have already gone fortnightly, but many are now panicking.

Some have changed back, such as Bolton. "It was horrendous," said Brian Derbyshire, a local resident and critic of the scheme. "The smell! The flies! It really was a health hazard," said the 65-year-old retired engineer who lives in Breightmet, on the edge of town. The bags piled up, split with the weight of rubbish or were ripped apart by animals, and the stink rose like flies born from inside rotting fruit. "The bigger the family the worse it was. People with young babies put dirty nappies in the bins and after a fortnight they'd be stinking."

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, blames the Government for pushing the policy of change too aggressively. "Some councils have been put under far too much pressure and have been bullied into doing this," he said. "It should be a matter for local people to decide through the ballot box."

And they will. But is this a challenge to a cherished way of life, as the Mail suggests, or is the issue far more difficult than its window posters and leaflets allow? And why is the Government so keen on breaking with tradition? The answer lies in landfill sites across the country, filled with rubbish that cannot be recycled or burned. The British throw 22 million tons of waste into these holes every year, but at current rates they will be full in less than a decade. What then?

The obvious way of putting off this crisis is for everyone to use less stuff. The Independent has long campaigned to reduce the mountain of unnecessary packaging in every shopping bag, such as shrink-wrapped coconuts. Retailers have now pledged to reduce packaging by a quarter, by the end of next year. Asda is asking customers in York and Dewsbury to pile up unwanted cartons and plastic so photographs can be sent to the manufacturers.

We use 17.5 billion plastic bags a year, but Modbury in Devon has just become the first town in Britain to ban them from all its shops. Customers will be given cotton, jute or paper ones instead. Sainsbury's banned plastic bags from its stores on Thursday, but for one day only. Queues formed for its exclusive alternative bag by designer Anya Hindmarch (which turned out to have been flown here from China, but you can't have everything).

The second way of slowing down landfill is to fine us for it. Councils pay a levy for every ton of rubbish they send. This has been raised from £3 to £24 and will rise again over the next three years. European fines are also on their way: Britain is expected to recycle 40 per cent of its waste by 2010, but for every ton over the landfill target the EU will charge £150. The total cost to the taxpayer is an estimated £3bn over four years. "For decades people have been used to being able to throw their rubbish away without worrying about the environmental consequences or rising costs," says Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the cross-party Local Government Association, which speaks for councils. "Those days are now over."

If councils don't increase recycling they will be fined. But they don't have the money to pay for the extra work either. So some make the old-fashioned collections less frequent, freeing up people and resources to hit the new targets. The LGA says this is a good thing in the end: councils that alternate recycle 30 per cent of their waste on average - 7 per cent ahead of those who stick stubbornly to the weekly collection. Why? Because people find there is no more room left in their ordinary bin, says the LGA, so they have to start thinking about what else they can put out for recycling.

Maybe, says the Campaign for Weekly Waste Collection - a small Hampshire-based pressure group suddenly riding a huge wave of public opinion - but the extra week can lead to stench, maggots, flies and so many rats that we may soon face "an insurmountable pest problem leading to a 21st-century plague".

Infestations by rats in the summer have soared by 70 per cent over the past six years, according to the National Pest Technicians Association. It blames, in part, the new "recycling mania" that leaves green bins full of organic waste fermenting in the heat for 14 days. When the BBC reported the rise in rats, its online message boards were quickly infested with complaints. William in Crewe had a rat dig into his kitchen: "I have been at this house for 10 years and never did I see a rat within a mile of my garden until this two-week-collection rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the environment minister, rejects all this. He told the Commons that an independent study funded by his department showed "no evidence of rises in rat populations resulting from alternate weekly collection". Neither is there any increased health risk, according to another Defra investigation, although its findings are disputed by critics.

They cite a study showing that the bin men of Norway (who collect fortnightly) have suffered inflammation in the chest because of bacteria and fungal spores rising from putrefying waste. A Canadian scientific report said such exposure could "trigger sore throats, respiratory problems, faintness, weakness and depression, asthma and other allergic reactions". But the biggest independent study to date, the Wycombe report commissioned by Defra, found no evidence of health impacts on residents. Wrapping rubbish up well should prevent any problems, says the LGA.

A safe way to increase recycling? Sounds like common sense. But suspicions were raised again when another quango, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (or Wrap) advised keen councillors that "the timing of local elections may affect your thinking on when best to introduce the concept". The advice, since withdrawn, said councils should go fortnightly in the autumn, winter or early spring, so that "by the time warmer weather arrives, residents are used to the scheme and initial resistance has faded".

That didn't work in Bolton. The bins overflowed. Traffic jams clogged up the dumps, and the next time there was a vote, in 2006, the Lib Dems were binned. They lost seats and control of the council. "We lost an election on a single issue," lamented the Lib Dem leader.

"Labour councillors brought back the weekly collection in defiance of Westminster. Wrap sent people up to give me a good dressing down," said Labour Councillor Elaine Sherrington, the woman in charge of Bolton's waste. She believes the arguments for collecting grey one week and green the next are strong, but only if councils get the money they need to make recycling work. The town is not yet ready to give up a service that nobody realised it loved so much.

The lesson of Bolton is that however good the reasons for change, you can't just dump it on people. So now the council semi where Brian Derbyshire lives has a grey bin that is emptied every seven days, as it always was. There is also a green one for compostable waste and a white bag for paper. Soon a burgundy bin will arrive for plastic, glass and cans. "We used to have gnomes in our front gardens," said Mr Derbyshire. "Now we have coloured wheelie bins. But we got things back the way we wanted them. They listened. How often can you say that?"

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