Terence Blacker: Being wasteful is not a personal liberty

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The Independent Online

We are being watched from every street corner. Those slightly creepy men from Google are turning our computers into domestic spies. But the surveillance that really has the British people worried, at least if one believes reports in the family-values wing of the press, is the microchip that could be included in our dustbins. A Tory shadow minister has even pronounced upon the subject. "We face the prospect of bin chips quietly being fitted in bins across the country to spy on families without their knowledge," says a man called Eric Pickles.

There is something oddly primal about the British and their waste. It represents a personal liberty, rather as the right to carry a gun does for many Americans. We may chunter on about global warming, moan about supermarket packaging or fret over the carbon footprint left by air travel to holiday destinations, but when it is suggested that each household should recycle more, or pay a price to the community, it is as some great breach of our civic rights.

Here is the terrible scandal that, according to Channel 4's Dispatches programme last night, gravely concerns the majority of the population: the government is considering the introduction of a tax which would reflect how much un-recyclable rubbish each household throws away. The chip in the bin, foolishly described by Pickles of Central Office as "a spy on families", would merely be a way of measuring how careful or lazy we have been with our trash.

There are signs that the government is being characteristically feeble in the face of opposition to what some papers call "a European-style [translation: bad] bin tax". In a posture similar to the one they adopted over air travel - express sincere concern about its ecological effects while approving the headlong expansion of airports - the Environment Secretary David Miliband has asked for a "collective effort" towards recycling. In his long-awaited English Waste Strategy, the tricky details about rubbish collection and charging are likely to be left to local councils.

It is time for a bit of leadership from our politicians. Britain shovels a scandalous amount of waste into the ground, our idleness supported by a weekly collection which removes the problem from our sight and thought.

The cost of this service, on average £140 per year for every household, is hidden away within the Council Tax. To revise the system so that civic virtue is rewarded and selfishness penalised is the very opposite of the stealth tax to which the Conservatives refer. It is open, honest and makes the rather important point that concern for the environment begins at home. The squawking about infringements of liberty or invasion of privacy is opportunistic and irrelevant. No one worries about gas or water being metered as it enters a house, so why should the measuring of rubbish as it leaves be a cause for concern?

One newspaper reports that David Miliband is considering whether every kitchen should have a slop-bucket so that leftovers can be collected and turned into fuel or fertiliser. It is an excellent idea. He should ignore the alarmist clap-trap of the Conservatives and their newspapers, and take a strong line. A government-issued container for slops, which could perhaps be known as "the Milibin" - would soon become a defiant symbol of the government's commitment to educating the British people about the facts of waste and saving.

Going from servant to master

At the next round of awards for business enterprise, there must surely be a prize for the little bouncing butler, Paul Burrell. A few years' working for a now-dead princess has been brilliantly finessed into a lucrative franchise, with the "royal butler" cheerfully exploiting his past for money and fame.

Burrell's latest wheeze is to launch the Royal Butler wine label across America. He was still close to the Queen, he told shoppers at a supermarket in Miami. The royal princes kept in touch with him, he claimed. We need more of this shameless hustling. Now a hard-working mini-celebrity, the butler has said he likes meeting the common people. "That's some of the influence the Princess had on me," he says. He is a credit to the scullery.

* When it was announced that the 2008 Olympic Games would take place in Beijing, the event was to be an opportunity for China to be welcomed into the world community. Many of the irritating little problems associated with its government - human rights stuff, some rather significant environmental concerns - would be resolved by the warm, inclusive spirit of international sport.

All the indications now are that the Games have had, if anything, the reverse effect. Last week, the rights activists Hu Jia and his wife Zeng Jinyan were placed under indefinite house arrest on the eve of a tour of Europe, during which they hoped to draw attention to their country's neglect of Aids sufferers and its human rights abuses. Apparently, they were "endangering national security". Thanks to the determined sanitising work by the Chinese government, we seem to be in for some efficiently run and entirely dissent-free Olympic Games.

Terblacker@aol.com

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