As the father of two young children I am frequently reminded how early in life we develop a sense of what is fair, and (perhaps more intensely), what isn’t. One of my favourite methods of avoiding adjudicating on such matters is to step outside and busy myself with preparing materials for recycling. Given the nature of my work and my company’s culture, it will come as no surprise to hear that I am a pretty diligent recycler. Moreover, as far as I can, I try to prevent the generation of waste in the first place. The upshot is that the Sherrington family’s black bag waste is comprised almost entirely of plastic films and wraps.
However, a quick stroll down any residential street will soon confirm that households’ waste arisings and recycling performance are variable to say the least. When I ponder this situation, I confront the same sense of injustice felt by my children. My efforts to minimise waste and separate out recyclable materials bring environmental benefits – but also lead to financial savings for Bristol City Council. By contrast, the waste prevention and recycling actions (or more accurately inactions) of some of my fellow citizens don’t only represent missed opportunities to reduce environmental pressures, they impose an unnecessary burden on local authority finances.
What irks me is that I have to pay exactly the same amount through my Council Tax as those (in the same Council Tax band) who produce the greatest amount of waste, and fail even to separate out recyclable materials. It strikes me that this is neither fair, nor sensible. Environmental benefits aside, it is in the financial interest of local authorities to reduce waste arisings, unless like Stoke on Trent they are tied in to a put-or-pay incinerator contract. It would seem appropriate, therefore, to align the interests of individual households with those of their council.
Getting the incentives right
Imagine if every household paid a fixed monthly charge for electricity, regardless of the amount used. What would the rational response be? Faced with a marginal cost of consumption of zero, it’s pretty clear that usage would be higher than at present. Then consider how difficult it might be, under such circumstances, to encourage people to consume less electricity!
This is precisely the challenge facing local authorities in trying to encourage householders to prevent waste, and indeed to recycle. The same difficulty afflicts attempts to encourage water conservation, but whilst water metering is still far from universal, at least in that context the argument has been won, and meters are gradually being rolled out.
There is a strong case that ‘metering’ waste can be effective in changing behaviour. In a 2011 study, Eunomia reviewed the evidence in respect of the waste prevention effects of a range of interventions. The most compelling evidence of waste prevention effects came from Direct and Variable Rate (DVR) Charging, also known as Pay As You Throw (PAYT). Such schemes vary, both in how much is charged, and the basis of calculation – by weight, volume, sack and/or frequency. Typically, the highest charge is for residual waste, with recyclables costing less. The most effective schemes in the case studies that we reviewed led to a fall of 10% or more in the quantity of household waste collected.
Importantly, a comprehensive PAYT scheme provides a direct financial rationale for households not just to recycle, but to engage in waste prevention, perhaps by choosing reusable nappies, choosing goods with less packaging or by home composting (although the latter is not always considered to be prevention).
For the local authority, a well-designed PAYT scheme can save money in two ways. Any waste prevented or moved from disposal to recycling will reduce treatment costs – although it may actually increase the cost per tonne of collection. Refuse trucks will still have to drive by and pick up from every household just as often, and the additional recycling collections will require extra vehicles and crew. However, further savings can be made if a frequency-based element is included in the charge, so that householders can limit their expenditure by reducing the frequency of collection for some streams. This would be likely to cut the number of collection vehicles the council needed, and hence its costs.
PAYT can therefore bring the interests of householders, councils and the environment into line, and to me it seems intuitively fair. You pay for the service that you use. In the absence of PAYT, the marginal cost of waste generation is zero. Apart from those like me who would do it anyway, how else would households be motivated to reduce their waste?
Preventing waste prevention
So when Eunomia recently developed a waste avoidance toolkit for local authorities, you might have expected the list of measures for which it outlines the expected costs and benefits not only to include support for reusable nappies, community swap days, zero waste challenges and so forth, but also PAYT schemes. However, PAYT was notable by its absence because, to cries of approval from the Daily Mail, the Localism Act 2011 explicitly forbade local authorities in England from introducing it, despite its demonstrable waste prevention effect.
It is interesting how coy Defra has been about the position on PAYT in its recent call for evidence on a Waste Prevention Programme for England. There are evident difficulties in measuring waste prevention, and proxy indicators are needed to assess the effectiveness of actions taken. As I read through, I was intrigued to see, among the possible metrics from a list suggested by the European Commission against which performance could be measured, the following:
- “Percentage of citizens covered by a pay-as-you-throw scheme”
Defra’s comment in response was:
- “No citizens are covered by a PAYT scheme. If they were implemented by local councils this would be measurable”
No mention of the fact that any council implementing such a scheme would be measurably in breach of the law! To my mind this ban on the use of an effective waste prevention measure sits uncomfortably with the requirement to respect the waste hierarchy. Pity the poor local authority waste prevention officer, who is currently armed only with anti-junk mail stickers, promotional literature for paint reuse schemes, and Love Food Hate Waste tea-towels. Without PAYT, the effectiveness of any waste prevention strategy will be significantly constrained and the cost-effectiveness of other measures will be greatly reduced. We will be stuck with the current inefficient and inequitable approach.
A fair target?
It rather surprises me that the Daily Mail is not campaigning for PAYT. It would seem to appeal to their sense that the efforts of the diligent and hard-working should not be squandered by profligate local authorities, and that taxpayers’ contributions should be spent wisely, rather than used to subsidise the antisocial and idle.
I am happy to pay my fair share of tax, but when it comes to recycling and waste, I feel it is unfair that I am expected to subsidise those in my community who don’t make the effort.
Instead, the Daily Mail is dead set against PAYT, and bizarrely even the Taxpayers Alliance opposes any form of charging for waste collection, although it could be expected to result in lower costs to taxpayers overall. What is it about waste that makes it an exception? The Daily Mail doesn’t argue for the universal reinstatement of water rates!
It seems to me that the current flat rate charging system engenders a sense of entitlement, and an expectation that ‘having paid for it’ householders should cheerfully use the service to their hearts’ content. To the household, the marginal cost of waste generation truly is zero, while for the local authority this is far from true. Creating a link that aligns their interests would bring the consequences of an individual’s behaviour more closely into focus.
The development of personal responsibility for one’s actions, and an appreciation of their consequences, is something that we encourage our children to learn as they grow. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that as adults, we should practise what we preach. In fact, I think that would be fair.