The Big Question: Should householders be charged for the collection of their rubbish?

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The Independent Online

How do we pay for our rubbish to be collected?

We take it for granted, don't we? We put our refuse out, and the binmen come and take it away. It doesn't matter if it's one bag, a bin-full or if it's 10. We give no direct thought to paying for the collection - the flat-rate cost is hidden, covered by the council tax we pay to our local authority - and we certainly don't think about paying for it by the bag, which would mean paying 10 times as much for 10 bags as for one. But be warned: this sort of variable charging regime for domestic waste disposal may be just over the horizon.

Why has the issue come up now?

The Government has set up an independent inquiry into the reform of the council tax - the idea being to make it fairer and get rid of anomalies - which is being carried out by Sir Michael Lyons, the head of the Audit Commission. Sir Michael has let it be known that giving local councils the power to charge householders directly for waste disposal is one of the options he is considering. He may or may not recommend it when he reports back to government at the end of the year, and even if he does recommend it, the Government is not obliged to accept his recommendation. But that said, it is an idea that is definitely gaining ground.

Why should we do it?

It would undoubtedly give a significant boost to recycling rates in Britain, which for decades has lagged behind much of Europe in recycling its domestic waste. Sir Michael sees the issue in terms of fairness - direct, variable charging for everybody would prevent people who do not take recycling seriously from getting a free ride on the backs of people who do. But waste campaigners and professionals see it more generally as a valuable tool that would improve recycling right across the board.

But aren't recycling rates in Britain rising rapidly?

They are now. For many years we were at the bottom of the European recycling league, and before 2000, when statutory recycling targets were set for the first time, we recycled less than 8 per cent of our refuse, while Germany was recycling 46 per cent, Austria 45 per cent and the Netherlands 44 per cent. Since that time, with the introduction of doorstep-recycling collections by most councils, our rates have indeed shot up, and currently we recycle 23 per cent of our domestic rubbish, with targets to reach 30 per cent by 2010 and 33 per cent by 2015. This is an undoubted success, but it still represents one of the worst rates in Europe - the Belgian region of Flanders, for example, recycles 71 per cent.

The Government is reviewing its waste strategy, and it is proposing raising the UK recycling targets to 40 per cent by 2010 and 45 per cent by 2015, but green campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth say this is still not ambitious enough and a long-term target of 75 per cent is both necessary and attainable. However, to reach that sort of level, numerous carrots and sticks would be needed - and variable direct charging for rubbish collection could well be one of them.

Does variable refuse charging really work?

It seems to change radically the way people think about the amount of rubbish they generate, rather like water meters change the way people think about their water use. Variable charging schemes have been implemented in many of the countries of the EU and have had a significant impact, increasing recycling rates by up to 40 per cent, and also - and this is vital - shrinking the amount of waste that remains to be collected. According to Friends of the Earth, the latter typically falls by 10 to 25 per cent, and often by about 30 per cent, with charging based on weight, to below 150 kilos per person annually. (In the UK, the current average is about 400 kg). In the USA, the amount of waste sent to rubbish dumps went down by an average of 40 per cent after introducing variable charging.

How would it operate?

It is probable that local councils would be given the power to introduce variable charging, if they so chose - it would be up to them, and there could be a local debate about it. (Some councils might favour it, for example, because it might enable them to reduce the council tax itself.) The system could be operated in one of two ways - with either wheelie bins, or council rubbish bags. With wheelie bins, the bin, electronically identified for each householder, would be weighed as it was emptied and the householder would subsequently receive a bill based on the weight, just like an electricity or gas bill based on units used. With a bag system the bags would have to be bought from the council - like parking permits - and so the charge would be paid in advance.

Fears have been expressed that with a variable charging scheme householders might dump some of their bags into their neighbours' gardens, but either method would rule that out. There have also been fears that it might lead to an increase in fly tipping, but this has not been the general experience in Europe. To make sure charging did not penalise poorer families unfairly, there could be a rebate scheme.

Why is there so much emphasis on recycling now, anyway?

The days when we sent all our domestic waste to landfill - rubbish dumps - are over, for several reasons. Firstly, it is not good environmental practice. Second, in Britain we are actually running out of suitable holes in the ground to put our refuse in. And third, crucially, a powerful European law, the Landfill Directive, is putting a vice-like legal squeeze on our dumping practices. By 2020, the directive stipulates, the amount of our domestic refuse we send to landfill must be down to 35 per cent. The figure is reducing - in the five years between 1999 and 2004 it went down from 82 per cent to 72 per cent - but there is still a long way to go, and it's a moving target: even as we are struggling to cut back on landfill, the total amount of household waste we are generating is rising by about 3 per cent a year. That's the price we pay for being a throwaway society, surrounded by pizza cartons, drinks cans and - let's admit it -newspapers.

Should we be charged by the bag for rubbish disposal?

Yes...

* It would immediately change our attitude to the amount of waste we generate.

* It would give an enormous boost to Britain's recycling rates.

* No one could evade responsibility for recycling their rubbish.

No...

* Council tax payers might feel they were being charged twice for the same service.

* It might hit poor families disproportionately.

* It might encourage abuses, such as fly-tipping.

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