Episode 1: Letter is published 19 September 2013
Episode 2: Councillor replies, prompting a response 3, 17 October 2013
Episode 3: Meeting is set up, then cancelled, then erm… 22 Oct –
Episode 4: FAO questions are submitted 25 November 2013
Episode 5: [to come…]
The Barnet Green Party assigned me to write a letter to the editor about energy. At the last minute I sat down to write, and out from under my fingers came a polemic on waste. I had discovered a passion for rubbish.
(Watch out for updates!)
This is the letter I wrote:
Let me be clear: I don’t like recycling – the need for it! It’s all wrong that almost every time I buy anything, stuff I don’t want comes with it. Who wants to pay for and deal with all that packaging? Not me. Yet it’s very difficult to avoid.
I might spend weeks looking for an item to buy, but then resent the fifteen minutes needed to cut and separate its packaging into the right recycling box. What is the solution to that? Barnet council says: Poor you! Here, have another large wheelie bin, and just dump everything recyclable into it.
When much of our housing was built, no provision was made for the separation and municipal collection of waste. Barnet’s answer? Too bad, mate! Here’s another wheelie bin you can crowd into your front yards and pavements.
This contradictory, passive/aggressive approach is typical of the shambles that surrounds Barnet’s revised recycling service.
What was needed is all to clear: Reduce the need for recycling by working with retailers to minimise packaging, as has been done elsewhere.
Lead the culture change, so we value managing our waste as much as we do our consumption.
And in the process work with residents to resolve the logistics of waste collection, whether by offering small boxes, or collective bins for a street, or whatever. Put those three councillors in each ward to work!
The current system and confusion over how to sort our co-mingled waste risks losing the profits from selling the recyclates.
This shambles risks our taxpayer money. It would break my heart were I not so angry about it.
A reply from Cllr Dean Cohen cabinet member for the environment was printed in the paper two weeks later. His letter challenged me and made assertion contradicting me. That’s his job, but I was amused and aghast at some of the points he did, and significantly, did not make.
He accused me of “unfairly putting the woes of the world on the council’s doorstep”. So in my response, I reminded him of the central tenet of sustainability: act local, think global. Isn’t that what local councils are for: to implement locally, to best advantage, policies that will benefit us all?
He further accused me of “belittling how frustrating Barnet residents find the current system”. Whereas I fully identified with the resentment. My point was that I need to change my attitude. The few minutes cleaning, sorting, and arranging what I no longer need into the right place is as much a precious duty as buying the right item in the first place. Rubbish, as we know, is simply a resource in the wrong place. Put it in the right place, it reverts to being a potentially valuable resource.
The council has hired recycling service people to knock on doors in the borough. Think of the usefulness had they been sent in before the change, to remind us of the value of recycling. But why do it now, after the system has changed? What is that supposed to achieve? Oh wait a minute: it’s near an election. There are people from the council door-knocking to “help” residents to recycle. Hmm..!
At no point did Cllr Cohen mention money. So I did. May Gurney – the company that collected our recycling until 14 October this year – was making huge profits from selling its clean, sorted Barnet recyclates. I suspect that is why the council made the counter-intuitive decision to bring recycling back in house – they wanted those profits for us, but sadly mucked it up. How much will our co-mingled recyclates bring into the council’s coffers? I’ve looked for the figures – I can’t find them.
I invited Cllr Cohen to meet me and show me the figures and facts surrounding this system of which he pronounced himself “proud”.
A week after my response was published, I e-mailed Cllr Cohen direct asking for a meeting. A few days later I rang his mobile. He asked me to send an e-mail which resulted in an offer to meet at a particular date and time. I jumped at the chance, and accepted.
The afternoon before the scheduled meeting, I was rung to be told that owing to personal reasons Cllr Cohen was having to cancel the meeting. Could I propose other dates by e-mail?
I sent in four proposed dates. I was sent a reply that none was suitable; did I have others to suggest? I replied saying that I had offered dates, could they offer me some now?
I waited a week. I e-mailed again. I rang once or twice over the following two weeks. No alternative dates were forthcoming. Throughout I was talking to council officers who were always courteous and friendly. It’s just that they were not able to suggest dates from their bosses’ diaries.
In that time, someone I know had a meeting with the most senior officers of the council and thoughtfully asked, How about rescheduling the meeting with Poppy. Is it important? Asked the officer with weary scepticism.
Excuse me while I spit feathers!
It seems that the council never worked out what it was doing: that changing the recycling system was the biggest piece of public relations this council will ever have done! There is no other single thing that the council can do that will tangibly and visibly affect every single resident of Barnet. How would they define important?
Then there’s the principles of the thing.
Politeness: when you offer a lady to a date and then postpone, you don’t leave her hanging without a reply, so she slowly comes to realise that you’re too chicken to confront her.
Accountability: As citizens, our wish to understand the decisions the council makes on our behalf should be welcomed by councillors and officers. That is open, accountable government at the heart of democracy.
Is democracy ‘important’?
I gave up on the meeting, and submitted a number of questions to the council under the Freedom of Information Act. The questions are designed to reverse-engineer the two decisions – to bring recycling collection back in-house; and to change to co-mingling from separate kerbside collection.
This is a rigmarole that will elongate the process, but won’t make me go away. Sorry.
Stay tuned for updates…