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Capital of the free heads for hell in a surreal trash cart

The agony and the indecision is worthy of a certain Prince of Denmark. To put out the box - or not to put out the box? Such is the latest problem to baffle the capital of the free world. The dilemma concerns the kerbside collection of old newspapers, glass bottles and so on for special recycling. As I write, no solution is in sight.

It all began last month, when the District of Columbia government decided to scrap the recycling programme. For three years we residents have been diligently separating out our recyclables and placing them in separate bags in special green boxes. Each week they would be picked up, leaving the streets (and our tidy middle-class consciences) a mite cleaner. Americans might generate more rubbish than any other people on earth (160 million tons of the stuff in 1994), but we were doing our tiny bit for Planet Earth. But what do these lofty considerations count against the broken finances of Washington DC? Recycling, says the city, loses more than $1m (£625,000) a year. Not much compared with a forecast budget deficit of $722m. But you've got to draw the line somewhere.

But where Washington is concerned, nothing is straightfoward. This spring has been the most beautiful in memory, but for students of local politics, also the most surreal. As the whole world knows, the city is going to hell in a handcart. Just last week the DC public-housing authority went bust and President Bill Clinton any day now will appoint an emergency financial control board to take over the city, which otherwise would go bankrupt by early summer. Yet there was Mayor Marion Barry, attending the third African African-American summit in Dakar, Senegal, and proclaiming that the city is "not in a state of crisis", that its budget problems were "under control". "What crisis in DC?" he asked.

But back to the rubbish. No less bizarre than Mayor Barry's Micawberism, a federal judge has granted a petition by the Sierra Club environmental group and twice ordered the District to continue the programme, despite claims that to spare money for the recycling it has been forced to suspend normal refuse collection, rat control and street cleaning in parts of the city. Reality too has been suspended between common sense and the legal system.

More pertinently though, do we or do we not put out our green recycling boxes? The District at first rejected the order, then changed its mind after the judge threatened it with contempt of court. But what if it appeals? No one has a clue.

Most surreal of all is the fact that DC contrives not to make a profit on recycling. Where there's muck, there's brass, and never more than now. Rubbish of almost every kind is a valuable commodity, but two-thirds of the recyclables collected here are old newspapers - andnewsprint prices are rocketing, with wastepaper fetching $150 a ton, a fivefold increase in just 12 months. But even if it struck oil in Georgetown, the District government would probably end up losing money.

Recycling, it seems, has been financed by a surcharge charged by the District on private rubbish hauliers who use its landfill. But competition for rubbish is fierce. Pennsylvania and West Virginia cut charges at their landfills and the hauliers took their business there. The result, falling revenues for DC and a loss-making recycling programme. The District has passed legislation changing the funding arrangements for recycling, but has not yet implemented the measure for fear of stirring another legal hornets' nest. Such is the drawback of having more lawyers per head of population than any other city on the planet.

Worst of all, the recycling fiasco has only served to polarise racially divided DC still further. Up in affluent white north-west DC, stronghold of the Sierra Club, hopeful green boxes are still to be seen on the pavements. But in the less-favoured parts of town, who really cares? Or to put it another way - the Great Trash Crisis of 1995 again proves that litigation is a rich man's sport.