Azara Blog: The BBC claims the Belgians have a waste paradise

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Date published: 2007/04/10

John Andrew of the BBC says:

Councils in England could soon be allowed to charge residents for the amount of rubbish they throw away. But what effect have "pay as you throw" systems had in other countries?

When I visited the Flanders town of Lokeren - half-way between Antwerp and Ghent - I was following in the footsteps of environment minister Ben Bradshaw.

He went with a team of officials last year to see how this part of Belgium recycles more than 70% of its household waste.

In Lokeren itself, the rate is nearly 80% - more than three times that in England as a whole. So how do the Flemish do it?

Not long ago the cost of rubbish collection and disposal was "hidden" in the main local tax - as it is in Britain.

But a few years ago the Flemish moved to a system where people pay a separate annual waste fee. In Lokeren, it's set at 80 euros (£56).

On top of that, they pay variable charges based on the weight and volume of waste they leave for collection.

The idea is to encourage people to produce less waste and recycle more.

For the keenest recyclers, the total final bill for the year including the fixed charge can be as little as £70.

For those who don't control their waste, it can climb to nearly £180.

The bins are weighed before and after they're emptied on the truck and the weights recorded in the cab.

The system also reads a microchip under the bin lid which identifies it as belonging to that household.

Some papers have dubbed this the "spy in the bin", but it can't see what you throw away, it merely confirms that the bin is yours.

At first, some families were hostile.

Suspicious householders even weighed their bins on their bathroom scales because they didn't trust the council's measurement.

Now, though, the vast majority accept the system as the best way of encouraging recycling and helping the environment.

Although people were given the chance to buy locks for their bins to stop neighbours dumping their rubbish in them, only 300 out of 40,000 households asked for one.

There was no significant rise in fly-tipping, and where illegal dumps did spring up the council quickly pounced on them and put up warning notices.

One family I met said the payment-by-weight system had changed their behaviour.

They now tend to buy food with less packaging, like fresh fruit and vegetables.

And because they are also charged for food and garden waste - though at a lower rate than other rubbish - they avoid using the green bin at all through a mixture of composting and using chickens, which gobble up much of their left-over food.

Of course you have to be suspicious of any article which claims it is greener on the other side of the fence. And any article which mentions "one family I met" is extremely suspicious (one example of anything proves very little). But it seems at face value that Belgium at least has thought this through logically, even charging for organic waste collection (and hopefully for other material intended for recycling as well). One of the problems with the chattering classes of Britain is that they don't seem to recognise that so-called recycling (by which is meant the collection and industrial processing of certain material by the State) has a cost just like landfill.

And one of the reasons a comparison with Belgium is not exact is that Britain has much more land than Belgium, so landfill waste should be correspondingly cheaper. The cost borne by the householder for collection of waste (of whatever type) should be the cost to dispose of the waste (including externalities, if any). Perhaps this is the case in Belgium. It is unlikely to be the case in Britain, where an arbitrary tax level will almost certainly be set.

And perhaps the Belgians are perfectly law-abiding and there has been "no significant rise in fly-tipping". It would be amazing if the British turn out to be equally well behaved. People already dump plenty of household waste even though it is currently (effectively) free to have the State collect it. One can also imagine British people will start to dump more waste at work, and let their company pick up the bill. So the Belgian waste paradise sounds all very good, but meanwhile back in the real world it is unlikely to be as perfect as the BBC would have you believe.

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