December 1st, 2017
by Peter Jones
Are local authorities unjustifiably snooping on householders’ bins? Are they carrying out CCTV surveillance of people’s compliance with local bin rules? And are they looking to impose fines of thousands of pounds on people who break them?
Anyone exposed to certain sections of the media would be likely to come away thinking that these practices are widespread amongst UK councils – but like so much of their coverage of waste and recycling issues, it has only the scantest basis in fact.
What’s all this, then?
Let’s start with the basic problem: cash-strapped councils really need residents to use the waste and recycling system properly. If people recycle everything they can, it saves on waste disposal – freeing up money to be spent on other services. They also need people not to put the wrong materials (‘contamination’) in the recycling. If there’s too much contamination it can lead to problems. Those can be technical (some contamination may be difficult to remove) or financial (the contamination reduces the value of the recycled materials to whoever is receiving them).
How are councils to get the message across? Well, they could communicate with everyone, indiscriminately, to encourage recycling, and most already do send out leaflets annually. Stepping up universal communications would be expensive, wasted on those who already recycle well, and unlikely to reach those who are least engaged. Councils will want to focus their efforts on the non-recyclers and contaminators who are contributing the most to the cost of waste collection. But how should they identify the people who most need advice?
That brings us to the issue of “snooping” by “the bin police”. Of course, there are no bin police – no local authority staff with anything like the extensive powers of a police officer. The people dubbed the “bin police” will have job titles like “waste minimisation officer”, and such roles are nothing new. Their job is to assist in spreading understanding of and compliance with the waste and recycling system, thereby helping the council cut the costs of waste management.
Stoke City Council’s decision to recruit a team of waste minimisation officers occasioned an outbreak of tabloid ire in 2016 – although the posts had been filled months earlier. Much of the ‘outrage’ concerned the £100,000 cost of the team, which all of the newspapers placed front and centre; not all mentioned the fact that Stoke’s recycling offtake contract heavily incentivises against high levels of contamination: the council anticipates that reducing contamination will save £500,000 per year – or more, if they succeed in raising the recycling rate from 35% to 50%. Investing in staff to help achieve these goals seems understandable in context.
Part of the officers’ job description is to “identify those properties that are contaminating recycling containers and takes [sic.] appropriate action” – which might involve looking in some bins. For the tabloids, and for some of the residents quoted, the idea of someone “poking around” in your bin is a massive imposition, even if their aim is just to let you know if you’re putting the wrong things in it, and advise you what to do differently. It would be interesting to know how far these attitudes reflect public opinion – do people really see their bins as a private realm and their waste as something that must not be interfered with? Do such concerns persist once the waste arrives at a transfer station or sorting facility? I doubt that it is high on many people’s list of worries.
You’ve bin framed
But the papers’ outrage was still greater over the idea that councils are using CCTV on waste vehicles to somehow catch bin miscreants. The Daily Mail claimed that CCTV is used to “record infringements carrying a risk of £60 fines”, despite all of the councils it spoke to telling them that this wasn’t the case. They were particularly exercised about how many cameras some vehicles had, emphasising that Gravesham’s have seven – as if the sheer number made it somehow more “big brother-ish”.
Of course, modern refuse collection vehicles have cameras. This is true both of councils’ vehicles and those of commercial waste collectors, and has nothing to do with identifying contaminated bins. They can help to provide evidence when incidents occur, and can identify drivers who engage in stupid, dangerous behaviour around refuse collection vehicles.
They are also an important safety aid: waste vehicles have lots of blind spots, and need to manoeuvre on busy streets. Accidents are all too common. The Health and Safety Executive states that “a basic monochrome CCTV system can significantly reduce the risks from any unavoidable reversing” – risks to people and to property. Reducing the number of incidents cuts insurance claims and the downtime needed for repairs, and the equipment can pay for itself within one to two years.
When an incident occurs, and the vehicle operator is deemed to be at fault, cost cutting at the expense of safety is an aggravating factor in sentencing. So if CCTV could have helped to prevent an incident, but a vehicle lacked it due to the cost, it could land the operator in a lot of trouble. Little wonder, then, that CCTV is increasingly common.
They can provide evidence when residents (or commercial customers) complain that a collection has been missed – did the crew just miss the bin, or was it not left out for collection? In waste collection contracts, there are usually different rectification rules depending on whose fault a missed collection is, and a surprising number of customers will seek to blame the waste collector for a missed collection when in fact the customer didn’t put their container out. But no-one gets fined for not putting their bin out – so the attempt to link CCTV on vehicles to bin fines has no basis in fact.
The fine print
It’s the issue of fines that, perhaps more than anything else, appears to animate these tabloid stories. The idea that the council is trying to catch residents out with complex rules and then severely punish breaches seems to rankle – even though it’s a million miles from the truth. One Derbyshire resident was quoted as saying: “I don’t expect to be treated like a criminal over what’s in my bin.” The term “bin police” reinforces the idea that councils are criminalising bin infractions, and the Mail has claimed that people face fines of £20,000.
In fact, local authorities’ enforcement powers in respect of householders’ bins were significantly curtailed by the Deregulation Act 2015. Where an issue is identified, a council must now issue a warning, and only when the same issue continues or is repeated can a civil fixed penalty notice (FPN) – typically limited to £60 – be issued. That’s right – bin offences are generally civil, not criminal matters.
The newspapers may now be irate over councils keeping records about bin offences – but that’s effectively what the 2015 law requires them to do if they’re to demonstrate that offences are repeated or continuing and that a FPN is justified.
Making it more difficult to issue FPNs has also led councils to think more creatively about the powers they can bring to bear. Some are making use of Community Protection Notices (CPN) under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
These can only be issued for persistent unreasonable behaviour that is detrimental to local quality of life, following a written warning. If breached by an individual, the most likely result is a criminal FPN of £100. In the unlikely event that the matter ended up in court, and the defendant lost, the magistrate would follow sentencing guidelines to impose a fine. The absolute maximum is £2,500 – and this improbable figure is the one that hit the headlines.
If a business breaches a CPN, however, the maximum fine (again subject to the guidelines) would be £20,000 – but, the newspapers haven’t been too scrupulous about explaining that fines of this magnitude do not apply to householders.
In response to the CPN furore, local government minister Marcus Jones stated the obvious:
“We do not expect legislation to be used to penalise a householder for not closing a bin lid or for putting a bin out for collection a few hours too early.”
Of course, such behaviour would be unlikely to meet the criteria for issuing a CPN, and few councils would push their powers to the limit in this way. But were it not for the repeal of their more proportionate former enforcement powers, councils would not have been left scrabbling for alternatives.
Put simply, there are no ‘bin police’ – just council officers. There is no CCTV enforcement – just safety equipment that may incidentally show why a missed collection occurred. And there are no £20,000 bin fines for householders. There are just councils trying to persuade residents to help them save money, and using the few powers available to them to deter costly and inconsiderate behaviour. But that story wouldn’t make for many headlines.