Waste disposal

Factchecking WBC’s Bin Bag Claims


As regular readers will know, there has been some contention about the size of the new bin bags being distributed by Wokingham Borough Council. It’s far from the only contentious point about them, but it’s one hinging on a factual statement; namely, their capacity. The council claim that they are 80 litres, but a number of comparison pictures from @NikiH7 on Twitter and leader of the Liberal Democrat group Cllr Prue Bray.

Comparison pictures: a Wokingham bag next to a Tesco 80L bag (h/t @NikiH7), and a Wokingham bag next to a Waitrose 60L bag (h/t Prue Bray)

This is interesting, and raises suspicions, but isn’t anything more than advisory. So over the weekend I’ve been wracking my brains trying to think of a way to test the capacity. In the end, I lumped for the simplest option: pouring known quantities into one until it overflows. Because of concerns that the bags weren’t strong enough to hold 80L, I put it inside a bin to give it rigidity.

Below is a video of my experiment, conducted this morning. Apologies both for taking so long to get it up and the annoying watermark. They are aspects of the same problem: that my camera saved the video as a 3GB AVI file, and I had to both convert and downsize it before I could get it onto YouTube. The actual video is in the region of 25 minutes long, but if you’re only interested in the outcome then skip along to around 23 minutes 55 seconds.

So there we have it. My experiment found that the capacity of Wokingham Borough’s mandated bin bags is between 66 and 67 litres. So apologies to @ImogenSD, who guessed at 60L. As I said above, this doesn’t prove anything. My methods are clearly laid out, but there is a margin for error, and a rerun under laboratory conditions would be required to make a clear statement.

This is beyond my abilities. I would suggest that it is not beyond the abilities of Veolia, or whoever it is that is supplying the bags to the council (for 7p each) to do this? Perhaps the council would like to mandate them, or someone else, to do so. I have a feeling that only that will end the discussion on the matter. Local politics: it’s not glamorous, but it is important.

If you want to rerun my experiment, then please feel free. I’d welcome further results, and further evidence, so do please share them with me. For science!

Wokingham Bin Bags – the Astounding Truth

Yesterday I did another blog about the unbelievably flawed waste disposal scheme that Wokingham Borough Council are attempting to roll out. I hadn’t expected to be doing another one quite so soon, but it just goes to show that you cannot predict how things are going to progress.

Just to recap, so that you can get the full impact of my latest discovery, the new plan splits waste disposal into three schemes:

  1. The recycling scheme: a weekly collection of black bins, free, from which they will recycle a selection of materials. There’s not much objection to this, bar that they could recycle a bigger range of materials, and the reward scheme seems a bit ill thought out. Generally, everyone seems to agree that recycling is good.
  2. The green waste scheme: an opt in scheme, where residents can pay £60 for a bin (the picture seems to indicate that it’s brown) or £1 each for “75-litre compostable sacks”. The collections are fortnightly, and it’s for garden waste. The chief objection to this is that it introduces a charge for a previously free service, which is understandably unpopular. It is, however, legal.
  3. The general waste scheme: the borough are required by law, under s45(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to remove household waste, but the new scheme limits each household to 80 bags per year. Designated bags must be used, and more can be purchased at 40p each as required. The objections to this are manifold, but include: it’s a stealth tax; 80 bags isn’t enough; the bags are terrible quality; they’ve just been left on doorsteps and are being stolen; and my personal favourite, that it’s illegal.

The illegality argument revolves around charging for extra bags. A letter to local authorities from the Department of Communities and Local Government, in response to concerns raised by DEFRA, had this to say on the matter:

“If your Council sets a limit on the number of bins or sacks that will be collected from a single property, but allows householders to purchase additional waste receptacles, you may only charge for the cost of providing the receptacle…”

Which seems pretty clear and unequivocal, doesn’t it? The council may charge for extra bags, but only for the cost of the bags themselves. They cannot use it to subsidise the collection services that they are legally obliged to provide. So the whole matter of legality hinges upon the cost of the bags- how much did the council pay for them? On BBC Radio Berkshire yesterday, Cllr Gary Cowan, executive member for environment, claimed that he didn’t know how much they cost.

I thought this was a bit unbelievable. Cllr Cowan didn’t sound very believable and you would expect the councillor with responsibility for the scheme, going on the radio to talk about it, to know that sort of thing. So I emailed a Freedom of Information request to the council this morning, saying:

“Please could you tell me how much the blue bin bags for the new waste collection service cost the council, per bag?”

The council have 20 working days to respond to my question, but to their credit they responded this afternoon. I’m going to put a screengrab of the email response I received below, just so I can’t be accused of misquoting:

Wokingham waste and recycling manager Mr Peter Baveystock's response to my FOI request asking how much the blue bin bags cost the council.

Mr Baveystock, the local government officer in charge of waste collection, says that the council paid 4p per bag. They are selling them at 40p. That is a mark up of 1000%, and a profit of 90% on the price that the council are selling it at. That is very definitely more than the cost value of the bags, and explains perfectly why Cllr Cowan couldn’t answer Andrew Peach about the cost of the bags to the council yesterday.

Someone has to respond to this. Not a local government officer, not some spokesperson. I want a senior member of the council to respond to this- to actually respond to the issues raised here, not just sweep it under the carpet and dismiss all objections. This allegation, that they are pursuing an illegal policy, is serious.

If you live in Wokingham and you’re as appalled at the council’s behaviour on this as I am, please write to your local councillor, to Cllr Gary Cowan, or to the council leader Cllr David Lee. Answers are needed to this, now.

UPDATE: With many thanks to Richard Greenhill, another campaigner on this issue (not just with Wokingham- this is a more widespread problem) I have a little more detail to add. The 4p price that I was quoted apparently refers to the initial 80 bags distributed to residents. For the paid-for additionals, Richard’s own tireless FOI requests have revealed the breakdown of the cost charged to residents:

£0.063 “bag costs”
£0.075 “administration”
£0.182 “delivery”
£0.080 “VAT”
= £0.400 total (per purchasable sack)

So this means that for the purchased bags, only around 7p of the 40p for each bag is the cost of the bag. The remaining 33p is therefore not. So 82.% of the price that residents pay for these bags is lumped into ill-defined overheads. Even aside from the legality issue (which remains), that’s absurd.

100 Days

If all goes to plan, the next 100 days will see the return of Matthew S. Dent, Labour candidate for Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe (probably with a new candidate photo...)

Thanks to someone on Twitter, for drawing my attention to the fact that we’re now less than 100 days from the 2012 local elections, on May 3rd. It’s nothing official yet, but I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m hoping to run again in Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe. My last run at the by-election was an amazing experience and gave me a whole new outlook on politics.

In the interim between then and now, I’ve gotten much more involved in politics on a local level. I have clear expectations for what will meet me on the doorstep, and an understanding of what a successful candidate will and won’t be able to do. The EU, the national economy and bankers’ bonuses (am I the only one who thinks that plural should be bonii?) are bound to be emotive issues, but are largely beyond the ambit of a local councillor.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t be engaged with, or that I won’t. Thursday’s meeting of Maidenhead CLP saw a very lively and involved discussion of what needs doing to fix the economy, and amid the competing ideas the one consistent strain was that the government’s approach was making things worse, not better (hurting, but not working).

Local elections in May will be taking place across Wokingham, and I expect to be travelling far and wide across the borough to support candidates in other wards (including the excellent Greg Bello over at Bulmershe & Whitegates).

Many of the issues elsewhere in the however, don’t really apply to the northern parishes. For example, the Wokingham town centre regeneration and the utter mess that has been made regarding public toilets in Woodley is of only tangential interest to Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe residents. Instead, they have their own worries. I expect the dominant issues in my own campaign to be:

  • The library: the issue that initially brought me into the July by-election and local politics is still going, and the war of words between myself and Conservative councillors in the local press has only hardened my opposition. The announcement of the tender process results should be made in May, so I expect the Tories will be looking to brush this under the carpet. I don’t plan to let them.
  • Waste disposal: one of the Tories’ pet issues nationally, locally Wokingham are retaining a weekly collection service, but are introducing limitations on how much waste will be collected, as well as a £60 opt-in scheme for garden waste. Expect a fuller analysis nearer to the polling day, but with household budgets already stretched, I’m not convinced residents will welcome the extra concerns.
  • Local democracy: this is something I’ve been banging on about to anyone who will listen. There is no political plurality in Wokingham, only utter dominance by the Conservative Party. As I discovered when I attended a council meeting in November, the executive makes the decisions between themselves, and the legions of backbench Conservative councillors are used to rubber stamp it through. They have no fear of facing electoral consequences of their actions, so the result is a disconnect between residents and representatives; as clearly demonstrated by the refusal to pre-publish the budget, which feeds down into a whole council operation which the people feel they have no stake in.

These are only the issues that jump out at me as the biggest at the moment. There will be countless others, and I fully intend to address and discuss those as they arise. But there is certainly fertile soil for local political debate, which I hope to be able to use against the Tories’ “Here we are, vote for us again please!” approach.