Yesterday afternoon RTÉ Drivetime had a segment devoted to waste collection. The private bin operator Panda was installing cameras in its bin lorries in order to identify households who were putting regular waste into the recycling bin. Dublin City Councillor Cieran Perry was invited on to speak, along with Managing Director of the Recycling Division in Panda Waste, Des Crinnion.
The item was introduced with the claim from Panda that 40% of the content of recycling bins was regular household waste. “Some customers”, the intro said, “going as far as hiding nappies inside cereal boxes”, and asked “what is the best way to get people responsible for their waste?”.
The presenter Mary Wilson began by asking Crinnion about the “abuse” of the recycling bin. Crinnion listed nappies as the number one item, and used the example of how people used the green bin to hide their heavier waste, a reference to how certain bin providers, including Panda, charge by weight for their collections. He outlined how the installation of cameras and chips that matched the household to the bin waste would be used to fine people who persisted in using the green bin as a means of disposing of regular waste.
Cieran Perry outlined how the whole problem stemmed from what the anti-bin charges campaign had highlighted: that people would begin to dump illegally, and use recycling bins for regular waste as a means of avoiding expensive charges. He emphasised that waste management was a vital public service that should be financed from general taxation.
“So you think it’s just to avoid paying bin charges, the bad behaviour”, Wilson asked, and asked why people could not go along to a local authority facility and recycle there instead. It was a curious question, since as far as I know, there are no nappy recycling facilities in existence. And even if there were, it is hard to imagine people loading up with dirty nappies to make the journey.
Perry said that in so far as the general public was mixing recycling waste with normal waste, a lot of it was likely down to ignorance, of not knowing what could and what could not be recycling. Crinnion for his part was keen to emphasise that a lot of it amounted to laziness. That is -though he was not drawn on this point- a lot of lazy parents putting nappies into green bins.
Wilson then asked how much was down to ignorance, how much was down to laziness, and how much was down to ‘couldn’t care less’, having apparently opted to set to one side the matter of cost, and the more general question -proposed by Perry- of how waste collection ought to be funded.
In response to Perry’s suggestion that more education would be a more cost-effective means of ensuring proper recycling, Wilson wondered how much more education people needed. “Every child in junior school up is taught about the green flag and recycling and composting and everything else.” Perry countered, not unreasonably, that people were generally aware about recycling, but not necessarily aware, in the specific case of green bins, of what could be recycled and what could not.
Mary Wilson then asked Crinnion about the roll-out of the scheme, and noted that it would be “the citizens of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown first. They’re probably the best behaved, are they?”. The attempt at jocularity could scarcely conceal the class contempt that motivated the question: less affluent locations could be presumed to be worse behaved.
And that was that.
It was a short segment, but one that managed to ignore the substantive issue of affordability of bin charges altogether, and instead focus on the misuse of recycling bins as “bad behaviour”, allowing the representative of a private company to characterise people who put nappies in green bins as “lazy”.
An underlying assumption of private and individualised charging for waste and water services is that such charging makes people individually responsible for what waste they produce, and what water they consume. When it comes to household waste, people are supposed to have an incentive to recycle more by making it more expensive to not do so: putting recyclables in the black bin costs more.
Adam Smith would be familiar with the reasoning: it is not through a feeling of general benevolence that one recycles, but by acting in one’s own economic interest, a greater level of recycling on the whole will be attained.
However, the logic of this regime inevitably entails that people are compelled to act in their own economic interest, not that of society more broadly. In so far as people use the recycling bin to get rid of general waste because they cannot afford or do not wish to pay the charge, they are merely acting according to the logic imposed. But when this logic produces adverse outcomes, the abusers are singled out as ‘lazy’ and ‘badly behaved’.
Which brings me to nappies. Have you ever taken out a black bin full of nappies? A single nappy in your hand may not weigh much, but a bin full up with nappies requires considerable strength to manoeuvre and wheel onto the street, without it keeling over. Now imagine trying it with a baby in your arms.
Prevailing views on household waste production come with a moralistic streak, often encapsulated in the view that ‘the polluter pays’. In the case of homes where there are babies, the polluter in question is someone who cannot help it. All other things being equal, the weight of a bin for a home where there are babies in nappies is far greater than that of a home where there are no nappies used. And they fill up more quickly: we took out the black bins with far more regularity when subjects to the nappy regime. Hence the costs of waste disposal for homes where there are babies are far higher than those where there are not. Not everyone with babies in nappies has the money at hand to pay for a black bin collection every time it becomes necessary, or, for that matter, the presence of mind required to always throw the right waste into the right bin. That kind of thing is often quite hard, when there are babies to be fed and cleaned, and a home to be maintained.
Thus beneath the moralising disciplinary talk about ‘laziness’ and ‘bad behaviour’, there is the brute fact of a waste disposal regime that penalises poorer parents with babies, one more indication that we have no responsibility for other people’s children, or their welfare. Moreover this regime can only but penalise poorer single parents -usually mothers- even more. But the consequences of this regime are cast by the public broadcaster -through the words of a private company representative- in terms of the virtue of the rich and the wilful vice of the poor. What is all this, if not a form of widespread pollution?