Mary Dejevsky: Recycling is no excuse for leaving bins unemptied

Among the most visible signs of uncivilised society are the piles of rotting rubbish at the roadside
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Did you, I wonder, put out your rubbish bin on Sunday night expecting a collection on Monday? And did you, when you saw your bin still sitting accusingly by the kerb, kick yourself (if not it) for forgetting the bank holiday?

Of course, you did. And have you any idea when the bin-men will actually come next? I bet the council's holiday schedule is at the bottom of the recycling container with the junk mail and the Easter egg packaging - and you are not about to scrabble through to find it.

You might be lucky. Your bin might be emptied this morning if the collections have just been moved on a day. If you are unlucky, your collection has been cancelled; normal service will resume next week. True bad luck, though, would be to live in one of those authorities that have reduced collections to once a fortnight.

The once-every-two-week rubbish collection is a concept that supposedly derives from green concerns, but ends up giving greenery a bad name. The official sales pitch goes like this. We, you and everyone all want to be environmentally responsible, reduce waste and save the planet. So we, the council, will give you, the resident, a variety of colour-coded containers, a list of instructions almost as complicated as an application for a bank account ("it's money laundering, you know"), and halve the number of bin collections. The rubbish lorries will make fewer trips, burn less fuel, spew less pollution into the atmosphere.

If you don't immediately get the message about sorting and bagging, you soon will do, when the plastic bags with their fetid contents start piling up around the bin and spilling back into your kitchen. And it is surely a message worth getting. Once every resident has been re-educated into recycling to the highest of German standards, then hey presto: the planet will be one small step closer to being saved and we can all congratulate ourselves on being true friends of the Earth.

Except, of course, that none of this really solves your rubbish problem. It helps the council, to be sure. It economises on the number of trips by the rubbish vans, so cutting the fuel bill and probably the wage bill for dustmen (as we used to call them), too. And it might allow you, the council-tax payer, a little more sleep, as you will now be woken at crack of dawn only twice, rather than four times, a month by the merry shouts of the bin-men and the bang-crash-walloping of their crushers.

Whether it is in overfilled black plastic bags, crammed into a wheelie bin or divided up into neatly stacked colour-coded containers, though, your waste is probably still with you. (How could it not be, with the next collection another seven days away?) Sorting and accommodating your own rubbish is just another of those activities - like being your own supermarket check-out cashier or "choosing and booking" your own hospital consultant on the internet - where the "professionals" save money by delegating the hard graft to you, and tricking you into feeling virtuous, or even privileged, to be doing it.

Yet if there is one service - surely that word cannot be extinct? - that the local council should provide, it is rubbish collection. Picking up household waste at the door and disposing of it safely and hygienically is one of the most basic duties of a local authority. Indeed, for residents without children at local schools, it is hard to divine what other major benefit they receive from their council tax.

A regular and adequate waste collection is the mark of a civilised and well-organised society. When order breaks down, security is not necessarily the first thing to go. Among the most visible signs are the piles of rotting rubbish at the roadside. Next up are the mangy dogs, rabid rats and disease.

Clean streets, at least in many of our cities, have become a matter of local pride, and a measure of the council's performance. But streets will not remain clean if household rubbish collections are too few. The few public bins will spawn piles of plastic bags around them, as residents' own bins overflow and they try to free space in their gardens and kitchens. The next resort is fly-tipping on the fringes of supermarket car-parks and suburban verges.

The next chapter writes itself. Already, the Government has approved the principle that councils may charge residents for "excess" waste. Hard luck if you have a large family, host friends for a week or throw a party. Overfill your wheelie bin, exceed your quota of plastic bags, stash a chicken skeleton inadvertently in the box for glass and plastic, and you will find a penalty charge slapped on to your next council bill. (Doubtless a special department will be set up to administer the scheme.)

Neighbours not short of a bob or two might club together for a "premium" service in the form of extra collections that councils will be delighted to offer "discerning" residents. Before you can say "dustman", there will be à la carte refuse collection for the boss-class with their assemblages of designer bins, and a "standard" - that is, economy - service for the rest. You can hear the patter of little rat's feet already; can the return of bubonic plague be far behind?

If you tied yourself in verbal knots, you could call such advances on the rubbish front "organic", or even "green". My own definition would be barbaric, and a gross dereliction of duty.