Sunday, 25 April 2010

Recycling and the balance of power

Were I to take up the patio at FatBigot Towers and lay a new one I would have to dispose of the old paving slabs and incedental detritus. It's not the sort of thing you can put in the dustbin so I would have to hire someone specifically for the task. There are lots of such people around, for a few quid they will take just about anything. I have used them a few times over the years.

It was an interesting experience. By the way they carried on anyone would think they were providing a service and their customer was paying their wages. An appointment was made to my convenience, a couple of burly chaps wearing thick leather gloves traipsed over the finest tufted Wilton, followed by a boy with a little battery operated vacuum cleaner. The heavy stuff was collected, carried back the way they came and the boy ensured any crumbs of concrete or mud that fell to the floor were picked up immediately. I handed over some small paper portraits of Her Majesty, they said thank you and all was well with the world.

I wasn't doing them a favour, I was paying for a service. They weren't doing me a favour, the were providing a service in return for money. It was a perfect example of what a service is - the provision of something that one person wants or needs and either cannot do himself or cannot do as efficiently and easily as someone else.

The world of normal domestic refuse disposal seems to operate in a different way these days, but it was not always so. There have always been two aspects to refuse disposal, it not only gets rid of stuff that would otherwise get in the way but there is also a serious public health aspect by which waste products that might cause harm or attract vermin are removed and disposed of more safely. This is very much a service and, like my blokes with thick leather gloves, must be paid for or it cannot be done. I have no doubt that it is the single most important function of local government in the UK.

And to my mind it is a legitimate function of government because the health aspect is so important that only a branch of government, with the power of compulsion can ensure the risks of uncollected waste are kept within reasonable compass. Compulsion in this field is required for two reasons. First because the service must be paid for and that requires compulsion. Just as a private company providing a service can sue its customer for not paying the bill, so a council can take legal proceedings against those who fail to pay Council Tax (that Council Tax covers matters other than refuse collection is irrelevant for these purposes). Secondly because there can be risks to innocent third parties if someone does not dispose of waste there must be a back-up mechanism to ensure that potential harm is minimised. It might be that the waste itself presents a health hazard, or that it creates a nuisance through smell or that it attracts vermin; each of these is serious if you are living next door to it. But that is as far as compulsion should go in order for the council to provide the service we all want and need. By going that far and no further, compulsion is consistent with refuse collection being something done for us by the council.

Where things have become skewed is in relation to so-called recycling. I opined on recycling some time ago (here), the point I want to make today is not about the recycling process itself but about the way it has been used to change the very nature of refuse collection. Now it is not just a service provided by the council for us and for which we pay, now it is also an obligation we owe to the State and for which we pay even more than before. The additional payment is a result of the absurd EU landfill tax that requires councils to pay, I believe, £59 per ton (or perhaps tonne) of waste sent to landfill sites. Councils don't want to pay more of that tax than they have to, so they seek ways of reducing the amount they send to landfill.

It operates in different ways in different areas, according to what arrangements the council has made for recycling. Some take cardboard, others don't have a deal with a cardboard recycler; some find it more cost-effective to have householders separate glass from plastic, others find they can do it better and cheaper themselves; some take green waste, others think the cost of dealing with it outweighs the saving in tax; and so it goes on. I have no reason to think these things are not thought through and assessed very carefully by each council because the financial ramifications are significant.

Everything depends on what they can negotiate with recycling companies and whether the cost of recycling is higher or lower than the landfill tax. Actually not everything rests on that, some councils are so infested by manic Greenies that they happily waste money recycling despite it not being cost-effective. Nonetheless, the economics of the practice are important for all of them.

One consequence of the need to recycle (whether that need is driven wholly or only partly by the landfill tax) is that a new area of compulsion arises. If we little people do not sort our recyclable rubbish from our other rubbish there is a penalty for the council. That penalty is primarily through paying more landfill tax than is necessary although there is also legitimate democratic pressure on council officers to comply with every mad policy adopted by Greenie councillors; either way they either accept the penalty or they have to force us to help them avoid it. Of course they dress-up fixed penalty charges as necessary to "save the planet" when they are nothing of the sort, they are imposed in order to change behaviour so that the council keeps its costs down and does what elected councillors require it to do.

Refuse collection is still a service we pay the council to perform but it now has an additional layer in which the roles are reversed. Part of the process is now a service we perform for the State. Where doing so helps to keep down the cost of refuse disposal there is an obvious benefit to us, but only because of a tax that has no point in this country because we have centuries of landfill capacity. The cost of that benefit is that, in yet another area, our ordinary everyday lives involve an obligation to the State that previously did not exist whilst at the same time the cost of the State providing a service to us is increased. Isn't it odd how both EU and Greenie policies almost always result in that double-whammy for the little people?

There is a way out of part of the problem. Councils could collect everything, sort it themselves and make clear that the additional cost is due entirely to EU and Greenie initiatives. It might be more expensive than imposing obligations on householders and issuing fixed-penalty fines for non-compliance, but it would ensure that the balance of power between the State and the ordinary people is moved one tiny notch in favour of the latter.


Dan said...

Very interesting post.

I'm not sure I completely understand your objection, though.

Let's assume that the scientific consensus on environmental matters is correct - I am aware that many people take issue with it, but let's just park that for the moment. It then follows that there is a pressing need to reduce non-biodegradable waste going to landfill.

This must be a legitimate function of government because the need to preserve the rock we live on is so important that only a branch of government, with the power of compulsion, can ensure it is carried out. Compulsion is required because it must be paid for, and because the cumulative effect of not making more efficient use of materials affects everyone.

So, still assuming the science is correct, compulsion is consistent with recycling.

As I understand it, your objection to the recycling regime(s), as opposed to the refuse collection system taken in isolation, is that it involves a new obligation to the state _and_ additional taxation.

I suggest that ordinary refuse collection also involves both obligation and payment. We pay for the refuse collection service, and we are obliged to refrain from disposing of our rubbish in other ways, such as throwing it out into the street, as was the common practice in, say, the 17th century. I suppose one could fashion a distinction of sorts out of the difference between an obligation to refrain from doing something and an obligation to perform a positive act, but it would be thin at best.

So, it may be possible to attack the recycling system on other grounds - the underlying scientific justification, perhaps, or the frequently breathtaking incompetence of its administraion - but I'm not convinced that your approach really holds water.

Of course, it's way too early and I'm only halfway down my first coffee, so I could be dead wrong!

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you are going to revisit this page Dan, if not maybe someone else can help me.

What is the environment scientific consensus you speak of that putting non-biodegradable waste into specific landfill sites will cause this rock we live on to perish?

I can't for the life of me fathom how putting a load of plastic bags (or whatever) into a hole somewhere will somehow destroy Britain.

I do actually agree that we should recycle what we can, it's just that your first paragraph raised points I'd never heard taken up before.

What are we now doing with our plastic bags now if not putting them into landfills (and so risking the preservation of our rock)? I know near to where I live there was talk of a giant incenarator being built but the locals protested. Is this the green way of the future?

I really would be interested to know.

TheFatBigot said...

"Let's assume that the scientific consensus on environmental matters is correct..."

Oh dear. You said "scientific consensus". Bit of a give-away there.

I smell Troll. Just the sort of offensive smell public health measures are designed to counter-act.

Nice try but you'll get no debate from me.

Frank Davis said...

Councils could collect everything, sort it themselves and make clear that the additional cost is due entirely to EU and Greenie initiatives.

Well, yes, I entirely agree. But that would mean hiring an army of people to sort through the rubbish. Council tax would go through the roof.

Instead what they've done is to impose this burden of extra work on every single household in the country. It's a hidden tax. It's paid in work rather than money.

I really do believe that this is where "Green jobs" come from. In the Green utopia, everyone has to work harder. And more work = more employment. When they've taken us all the way back to the Stone Age, there will be that wonderful thing: Full Employment - with everyone making stone axes and carrying everything on their backs.

Frank Davis said...

Dan wrote: I suggest that ordinary refuse collection also involves both obligation and payment. We pay for the refuse collection service, and we are obliged to refrain from disposing of our rubbish in other ways, such as throwing it out into the street, as was the common practice in, say, the 17th century.

Um..., when I put out refuse to be collected, I put it out on the street! The only difference between now and the 17th century is that the council comes along and takes it away. And I put the refuse in a sack or dustbin, so that it doesn't get blown all over the road. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

P.S. What happened to my previous comment?

Stan said...

First off - the EU landfill directive was based on German requirements (something about a high water table and the possibility of pollution through landfill if memory serves). It's not a problem Britain has and therefore didn't apply - which just goes to show how daft the "one size fits all" approach to regulation is.

Secondly, the local councils don't just see the compulsion to recycle as a way of reducing costs - they also see it as a way of raising revenue through penalties. Once you get to that stage you will find that the number of possible "infringements" that the householder can make will increase and more penalties will be applied.

It's like speed cameras. First they were there to stop you speeding - then they were there to catch you speeding - then they put in bus and cycle lanes and they're there to catch you going into those - then they are placed at traffic lights to catch you stopping on a cross hatched box ... and so on and so forth.

Once something becomes a way of raising revenue, new opportunities to exploit that revenue raising possibility will be found.

Lightf00t said...

Environmentalism is now a cult. The secular progressives hate on Christianity, but they seem to have no problem with worshipping Gaia.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed. Refuse collection is a 'core function' of the state. Inerestingly, the total annual cost is a couple of hundred quid per household.

Dan said...

No trolling. Seriously. I was genuinely curious and wanting to explore the argument a little more.

I always thought that one of the nicer things about this blog over, say, Guido Fawkes or Dan Hannan, is that commenters seem to be better informed and more inclined to reasoned debate than mud-slinging.

Perhaps it will help if I rephrase the "scientific consensus" thing: There is a large body of informed opinion that recycling is beneficial to society. Is that better?

gyg3s said...

I wondered whether or not recycling was a normal civic obligation; if not, isn't it forced labour?