Saturday, 8 March 2008

"The Waste of Nations"

The Adam Smith Institute have come out in favour of 'Pay-as-you-throw'.

"the report stresses that PAYT must not be used as a 'bin tax' and that its introduction must be accompanied by a corresponding fall in council tax ... The report also calls for the full liberalization of the refuse collection sector, so that private companies would have to compete for customers"

Woah! Slightly wrong on all counts!

The whole topic of refuse collection is a lot of sub-issues, you have to deal with these on a 'divide-and-conquer' basis.

1. Some things are worth recycling, there is a market for waste paper, used aluminium and steel cans and so on. Councils have to rely on the good conscience of their residents to put these into separate bags or boxes, and councils can sell these to private companies for market value, the proceeds should come off the costs of waste collection. Those people who are too lazy or inconsiderate to do this are hardly going to change their behaviour as a result of tweaks to the tax system.

2. Some stuff burns, like plastic, cardboard, polystyrene. This should be taken to incinerators as cheap raw material for electricity generation. Again, this must have some market value to the company that runs the incinerator, so it reduces the cost to the council and hence to households of refuse collection*.

3. Some stuff rots, which the council can use to make into compost for free use at its allotments (like in Waltham Forest) or, remembering that methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2** for methane generation, which in turn can be used to generate electricity or even as an alternative to petrol in cars***.

4. There's glass. Hmm. Seeing as most of our bottles and jars came from abroad, there is more than enough waste glass to provide domestic producers, and it seems a bit mad to sail crushed wine bottles back to South America or Australasia. I suggest we chuck the excess into the ocean where it can turn back into nice shiny sand.

5. There's poisonous stuff, like batteries, oil, paint and the like, this has to be dealt with separately.

6. There's bulky stuff, mattresses, fridges and so on.

7. As to the Adam Smith Institute's final point, privatising refuse collection and allowing companies to compete for customers, they tried that in New York and it got taken over by organised crime who just dump everything in the river. And what do I do if my neighbours 'opt out' of waste collection and just let it pile up in the street? Refuse collection is not just for the benefit of an individual household, it is for the benefit of your neighbours as well, the local council does have a rĂ´le to play here as final arbiter, even if the council itself sub-contracts to private bidders (as most of them do).

Right. Now we can look at taxation.

A cornerstone of my tax policies is to get rid of VAT, which'll be the first thing on the agenda once we've left the EU, just to set the scene ... 

Let's start with bulky stuff, that's easiest. It is pointless trying to make people pay for the council to remove bulky stuff, you just end up with fly-tipping - but for every fridge that is chucked out, a new one is bought. So why not levy the tax on the purchase of new mattresses or fridges instead? If it costs the council £20 to dispose of a fridge, then there should be a £20 tax on new fridges. And it will make second-hand fridges cheaper relative to new ones, so there's your recycling/re-use thrown in!

If the value of recyclable waste (aluminium, paper) exceeds the cost of collection, the council is breaking even. There is no need for any further tax.

It costs about £100 to incinerate a ton of rubbish, so there should be a £100/ton tax on plastic, cardboard and polystyrene at the point of production or import. A plastic bag weighs one-third of an ounce, so that's a tax of one-tenth of a penny per plastic bag, and so on.

The same principles apply to every other category. Assuming that domestically produced waste glass can be sold back to domestic producers, that is cost/raw material neutral. If it costs £10 to transport a ton of excess imported glass to the middle of the ocean and dump it, then you'd have a tax of £10/ton on the imported glass bottles or jars. An empty wine bottle weighs about 1lb, so the tax on that would be half-a-penny. The nasty stuff, like batteries, engine oil, electronic stuff costs £400 a ton to 'process'. An AA-battery weighs half-an-ounce, so there'd be a tax of half-a-penny on an AA-battery, 50p on a Mac Mini, about £5 on a PC, and so on.

Finally, there'll always be residual stuff that goes to landfill. Landfill Tax is one of the most insane taxes we have. £32 a tonne! What are the real costs of landfill? Well, one acre of agricultural land sells for anything up to £5,000. That's £1 a square yard! If you pile waste ten yards deep, you can easily squeeze ten tons of waste on every square yard. So to protect something worth £1, the government wants us to pay £380? Are they completely mad?

I accept that there is some hysteria about the whole country ending up as a giant landfill site, but fear not, fellow citizens! Total waste per household is about 1.3 tons, surely half or three-quarters**** of this can be dealt with as above? That leaves 0.3 tons x 25 million households = 8 million tons per annum, which, piled ten yards deep would cover about a quarter of a square mile. Provided you dig the holes deep enough, you can cover 'em up again afterwards, job done. Even if we didn't cover them up, it would take four millennia before even one percent of the UK were covered with residual household waste.

* As I posted on Blog Action Day "... the proposed waste incinerator at Belvedere, East London, will be able to burn over 500,000 tons of waste a year (the waste generated by about 400,000 households in a year) and generate 66 megawatts of electricity, or enough for 66,000 homes." And all these greenies can shut up - of course, part of the planning permission has to be that they separate out the really poisonous stuff and have proper filters and so on. There has been a massive waste incinerator in the middle of Munich for decades and you can't smell a thing. Fact. And if people don't want to live near them, then build them in the middle of the countryside or something.

** To the extent that you believe in this man-made-climate-change stuff at all, of course. Many don't.

*** The funny thing is that Waltham Forest gives you a separate brown wheelie bin into which you put all your organic kitchen and garden waste, whereas the council where we now live asks you to put kitchen waste into the normal wheelie bin, and asks you to put out garden waste separately. I think that Waltham Forest is correct on this one, but hey...

**** Ten years ago, we used to fill up our wheelie bin every week. Now that we separate out glass, plastic, cans and paper, it takes us one month to fill it with whatever's left (they do alternate fortnightly collections where we live now, but they missed us out two weeks ago and it was just about full). So if they asked us to put organic kitchen waste separately, we'd be down to about one-fifth of the volume of ten years ago.


T KronenbourgBlanc said...

I think the ASI need you to re write their paper.

Philip Thomas said...

Now you've outlined your stance on this in detail, I'm inclined to agree with your position. I have some problems with incineration (I'm one of those pesky people that believes in human-driven climate change) but that just involves changing which category you put stuff in, not the overall approach.

Good thinking, Mark. This just leaves the very difficult problem, which seems to get overlooked by most, of how we organise collection. My little terrace can't handle five wheelie bins, it can barely manage the two at present. Perhaps communal street skips?

Mark Wadsworth said...

Communal bins work fine in Germany where most people live in blocks of flats. It's a question of educating people/appealing to their better nature. If people can't be bothered, they can't be bothered, not much we can do about that.