Why Belfast City Hall chiefs are wrong to unleash the black bin police
Council's controversial move ignores the real problem - that we are sending waste to landfill at all, argues Eilis O'Hanlon
The secret police in communist East Germany had a special unit called the Division of Garbage Analysis, whose job it was to rummage through people's rubbish bins for signs of subversive activity. That included looking for traces of 'Western' food.
"Is this a hamburger I see before me? Looks like we've got a filthy capitalist on our hands, comrades!"
Of course we're much too easygoing to behave that way on this side of the old Iron Curtain, aren't we? Apparently not.
Belfast City Council is preparing to write to all householders to warn that they'll be monitoring black bins for food waste in future, and that any houses which breach the regulations twice will no longer have their bins emptied at all. Come back, Stasi, all is forgiven.
Unsurprisingly, the decision has caused consternation, not only from ratepayers who thought they were forking out handsomely for a service rather than being made to feel grateful that their bins are emptied at all, but also from sceptics pointing out that people will only start dumping their rubbish on the sly up the nearest entry now, leading to infestations of vermin. Lovely. Who doesn't want even more rats running about the place?
There doesn't seem to be much that anyone can do to stop the new regime coming into place. The change in policy was passed unanimously by the council this week, on the back of some figures that it will save an estimated £800,000 a year in landfill charges.
So get ready for a visit from the bin police. It'll be a sticker first, then a warning letter, before the ultimate sanction - a shameful exclusion from the community of virtuous bin owners. And according to Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers on yesterday's Nolan Show, this system is "working exceptionally well" in other areas, so why not Belfast too?
But if the "they do this in other places" argument is the way to solve every problem, then maybe we should start videotaping the contents of bins as they're tipped into the lorry to see exactly what we're throwing out, like they do in parts of the United States.
Residents in Seattle have actually sued their local authority for breach of privacy as a result; but we're not supposed to mind when the council starts hoking through our stuff, because they're not looking for signs of political troublemakers, like the communist spies of old, they're just trying to make sure we're doing our bit for recycling, and who wouldn't want to help with that?
Not being green is the ultimate crime these days, after all. There's no greater way to become a pariah in nice leafy neighbourhoods than to forget to take your empties to the bottle bank or ensure that all your plastics and cardboard are neatly sorted each week.
Recycling is like the middle-class version of doing charitable deeds. It's your way of showing how virtuous you are for saving the planet, even if you do drive a 4x4, or fly off, loads of times a year, to the other side of the world.
The new law will be wide open to a challenge, of course. If your bin is sitting out on the road for a few hours before being emptied, how can the binmen prove it was the householder who put the food in there, not some random and untraceable passer-by?
Belfast City Council's own website tells residents to put bins out by 7am and to leave them out on the street if uncollected up to 8pm. That's 13 hours in which your bin is unattended, open to contamination. Are they suggesting we pay a security firm to stand guard at all times?
Anyone who's punished for leaving food waste in the black rather than the brown bin can easily claim that those potato peelings and uneaten pizza crusts were actually deposited there by someone else.
Most of them may be telling porkie pies about their half-eaten porkie pies, but how are you going to prove it? Having paid for a service, it will be up to the council to demonstrate we've misused it.
Things could quickly get messier than one of those offending bins. Not to mention complicated.
In the aforementioned US city of Seattle, you're allowed 10% of the 'wrong' trash in each bin, which is calculated as - wait for it - the height of the bin and the square of the radius multiplied by pi. Er… what?
It could get expensive too. Belfast council is already planning to hire new staff to enforce the fatwa on food waste. Those £800,000 savings may be swallowed up anyway, and then we're back to square one.
Let's be fair to Belfast City Council. Everyone should take the issue of waste disposal more seriously. Food can contaminate whole lorries of rubbish that could otherwise be recycled. Green evangelists are a pain in the neck sometimes, but that doesn't mean they don't have a point.
But punishing people for innocent mistakes is not the way to go. There are elderly people and others with poor reading skills who just won't get their heads around this at all. Not to mention a raft of antisocial types who won't even bother trying.
Expecting people who don't even control their feral kids or pets to suddenly become socially responsible about washing out their takeaway trays is a bit unrealistic.
Perhaps the real problem, though, is that we're still sending our rubbish to landfill at all. It eats up huge amounts of land, it's an eyesore, it's smelly, it pollutes ground water and releases methane and other unpleasant substances into the air; it attracts pests, from insects to rodents to seagulls.
We should be burning it instead. That way, once it's gone, it's gone for ever. Done properly, incineration can also be harnessed to generate extra energy for use in homes.
The amount of rubbish we throw away each year is only going to increase, no matter how much we recycle, so why not put our garbage to good use?
And who knows? If enough energy can be generated from rubbish, one day they might start paying us to take it away, rather than us paying them.
Let's see - financial incentives to run an environmentally friendly energy scheme. What could possibly go wrong? Did someone say "RHI"?