Sunday, February 25, 2007

Is this the way to oppose recycling?

Oxford is a battleground. There’s a war on waste but there’s also a war about the war. While recycling sounds like a cause akin to loving Mandela and wanting world peace – a progressive’s no-brainer – it has become in this city a cause for the barricades. Yes, in Oxford, which prides itself on its intellectual and liberal credentials, even here there’s a backlash against raising the city’s appallingly low rate of recycling by the tried-and-tested method of wheelie bins and alternate weekly collections. For anybody who’s interested in how a political dog-fight can threaten to derail even the most uncontentious of causes, it’s a salutary tale.

A couple of things need to be made clear at the outset. First, there has long been a significant majority in this city for the introduction of recycling. It’s been advocated for years by both LibDems and Greens and, last municipal year, Labour came on board. But – and this is the second point – there are a few Labour councillors who have become champions for the claim that they are in favour of ‘choice’ instead of ‘forcing’ people to recycle.

Some background is necessary. It is simply not the case that Oxford’s recycling scheme forces everyone to have a wheelie bin: if a house can’t cope with a bin, then the council’s staff will arrange for the inhabitants to have waste collected in sacks; if a resident can’t cope with moving their bin, then fortnightly assistance will be arranged. It is a flexible policy, more so than in many cities. But that’s not enough for some councillors. A recent Council motion, proposed by a Labour councillor, asked the administration not to ‘force’ people to have a wheelie bin. The Greens presented a helpful amendment outlining what is present policy: that if there are ‘access, storage or safety concerns’ at a property, then alternatives to a wheelie bin are available. As the LibDems supported this phrasing, it seemed as if there might be a consensus. But the dealbreaker came from the proposer of the motion: he would only accept the amendment if it also envisaged residents rejecting a bin on ‘aesthetic’ grounds. It’s on this that the debate about ‘choice’ revolves: whether you can stand in the way of recycling if you can’t stand the colour green.

The mantra of ‘choice’, so beloved of New Labour and fresh-faced Tory policy wonks, is a smokescreen: waft it aside and what you find is a threat to recycling itself. I am not saying that’s the intention of the Labour councillors, but there’s no doubt that would be the impact. The system works, of course, on the change of habits which comes with alternate weekly collections, encouraging all of us to reconsider how we deal with different elements of our waste. In turn, alternate weekly collections only work if residual waste can be safely stored and that is possible in wheelie bins: the more sacks you have, the more you have a danger of a public health risk – and, as we already know, Oxford is like any other city in sharing its space with a population of rats. As we are running a flexible policy, the percentage of sacks is already high. If you added to that a wrecker’s charter, allowing anyone to reject on a whim a wheelie bin, then you would undermine the practability of the system. The ‘aesthetes’ would consider landfill taxes and pollution preferable to a green bin in their own garden.

As I said, I’m not convinced this is what those clamouring for fewer wheelie bins actually want, if they stopped to think about it. And this is where it gets interesting, for the politicians are not in control of the issue, instead the momentum has taken hold of them. There are two councillors who are pushing this cause. They are ward colleagues and are doing so because their patch includes streets where there do seem to have been more difficulties than elsewhere. Some of us would think the answer is not a change of policy but everyone – including local councillors – working together to alleviate problems and to reassure residents, rather than stoke their concerns. Of those two, one has been heard to say it is a pity to have introduced recycling now when it could have waited a couple of years. But, while neither is the most ardent advocate of the environment, the stance of both of them seems to me to be formed by assumptions, however mistaken, about what is best for their small patch.

What’s made this larger than a ward issue is that the Labour leadership have jumped on it as if were political gold-dust. They have their reasons to do so: it trumpets their New Labour credentials with the catchword ‘choice’, at the same time painting the LibDems against type as they would describe us as usually preaching individual freedom at the expense (they would say) of collective responsibility. It also might not be a coincidence that the tempo has quickened in the days following the budget session where Labour felt that had lost out in the negotiations. (They are wrong on that, as I’ve said before, but that’s by the bye).

And then there’s the matter of the Greens. On this I differ from my learned friend, the other councillor for Headington. I hear that elsewhere, in Reading, the Greens have decided to oppose alternate weekly collections, but I don’t sense the same inclination here in Oxford. If anything, they find themselves in a quandary, in principle in favour of the scheme, but worried about its impact in what passes for their heartland, where there are many students and terraced houses. It’s an understandable dilemma, but my money would be on principle winning out this time.

To return to Labour: what fascinates me is what a gamble their stance is. Promoted by a couple of backbenchers and adopted as a group line, it has a real disadvantage for them. Labour’s environmental credentials have never been strong but this is liable to weaken them further. Already the press are painting their position as a route to madness and lower recycling. The longer they allow the issue to run – and they show no desire to end it – the more likely it is that the public will rumble their rhetoric and write them off as anti-recycling. There are few votes in that, let alone any good sense. If that’s the battle they want to have, we’re up for it. But I’d much prefer it didn’t have to be a battle. I, for one, hope saner counsel prevails amongst their ranks.


Tristan said...

One day I hope to see recycling based on facts not on the mantra that its good.

I am yet to be convinced that recycling makes sense all the time. Aluminium is one case where I think it is good, paper I'm not convinced about (and have not been able to find anything either way - apart from people talking about saving trees, but the trees are farmed for paper making so it doesn't really follow).

Glass bottles should probably be being reused (although that this fell out of use shows its not economic and therefore probably not environmentally efficient - although without green taxes how can we really tell?)

Recycling makes you feel good, but its easily conceivable it does harm, especially in terms of CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately nobody ever opposes recycling on this basis, instead it comes down to party politics and political games...

Jo said...

I am constantly amazed that wheelie bins get opposed on aesthetic grounds! After all, what could be less aesthetic than the big pile of black plastic bags and the loose rubbish which gets scattered around when our local cats rip them open for the interesting smelling whatever inside? This is one of the primary reasons I'm looking forward to wheelie bins!

donpaskini said...

Hi David,

Hope you are well. A little while back, I read an interesting and persuasive case by a city councillor which:

- questioned whether the administration's plans to introduce wheelie bins for most Oxford residents is going to produce the increases in recycling rates which all parties on the council want.

and said:

- "it is essential to take time in the initial stages to get residents on side, and to make sure they understand and accept the changes. Otherwise, you will end up making mistakes and wasting money because you have to keep changing the collection arrangements."

- "there are many terraced houses in Oxford with front doors opening directly onto the street. Residents find it difficult enough coping with the green boxes they already have, let alone large wheelie bins. We have to listen to their concerns and find ways of making the new arrangements work for them"

- "If the administration insist on forcing the pace, they will create resentments and suspicion unnecessarily"

So my question is this. Why choose to air your disagreements with Cllr Armitage in such a public forum? And will he be the next to leave your group, thus giving you a majority to successfully challenge for the leadership?

Take care

Dan xxx

Brynley said...

I enjoyed reading David Rundle's thoughtful comment on the politics of recycling household rubbish.

Virtually everyone wants to increase recycling.

Very few active citizens want to pass up this opportunity to have a good old bin fight.

What's missing from your article is the part bins play in the larger scheme of things. Corporate power has overwhelmed so many of the public services.

Bins will always be different. The householder can help or hinder. We want to help, but we will not be patronised and we will not fit in with schemes handed down from Whitehall.

Those councillors who see this issue as 'gold dust' (your words) are making a shrewd judgement.

Stephen Tall said...

Fortunately, Dan, the Lib Dems took over the Council from Labour, and have helped make the expanded recycling system work in reality rather than theory, taking the (vast majority of the) people of Oxford with us - much to Labour's chagrin.

Perhaps that's why there's such a lot of tribal carping from the sidelines?

cheers, stephen

Dan said...

Aha. So when you said in your leaflets last year that people should have the choice between a wheelie bin and sacks, people should have understood that this offer wouldn't apply if it the Lib Dems ran the council, because they would have the honour of receiving a wheelie bin from Jean Fooks.

'Tribal carping' is part of one of those irregular verbs - We represent our constituents, they engage in tribal carping etc.

The funny thing is that we would probably be having exactly the same argument in reverse if the election results had been slightly different :)

Take care

Dan xxx

David Rundle said...


Good to hear from you. I thought of you as I wrote my most recent posting.