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Tackling rubbish the smart way

February 14, 2004 12:00 AM
By David Boyle in Challenge
Cover of NU Magazine

Rotterdam has launched its NU smartcard scheme that allows people to earn points for green behaviour

Rewards for recycling

Tony Blair's long-forgotten pamphlet The Third Way betrayed a central flaw to the whole idea. As you turned the page to find out how he would improve people's social behaviour - the central purpose of communitarian thinking - you found yourself straight away in the world of curfews and punishments.

No, you hadn't turned over two pages at once. This is the problem with New Labour thinking: they distrust people. You can see why, of course, but you wonder whether something more positive might help when it comes to sustainability.

Needless to say, official thinking about the crisis in landfill and the failure to meet recycling targets has tended to focus on disincentives - on how to punish people who fail to take the appropriate action.

Policy staff at 10 Downing Street spent the summer of 2002 preparing a report that would suggest tackling the landfill crisis by charging the public for putting out rubbish. The suggestion was to charge people for each sack of rubbish - possibly allowing each household one or two free sacks a week - and levying a charge of up to £1 on each extra sack.

The report by the Performance and Innovation Unit also looked at whether charging should be introduced at household waste tips except where people are dumping rubbish for recycling. The report was greeted with outrage in the media.

More recently, similar ideas have been put into effect in Dublin - a city where this is actually the first local taxation that residents have had to pay - with disastrous results, mass protests and a number of leading campaigners jailed.

The height of the protest saw the blockading of bin trucks in housing estates and resulting action by waste disposal staff because they said their health and safety was put at risk by driving their lorries past pickets. Protesters claimed, quite reasonably, that they were not responsible for all their rubbish. More than half of household waste is supermarket packaging which they are unable to refuse. There were also claims that this was an early stage in the process for privatising waste disposal.

It seems likely that punitive charging - certainly without corresponding action against those responsible for packaging, and without safeguards that prevent dumping - will be seriously counter-productive.

Yet something has to be done. Household waste is still growing by three per cent a year, with many councils a long way from meeting targets to recycle a quarter of their rubbish by 2005.

Clearly there are other factors along with consumer behaviour that has to be tackled. Packaging must be reduced and kerbside recycling must be instituted across the country. But the behaviour of households is still crucial, especially when it comes to recycling and separating waste.

It is clear that successful solutions to the problem of landfill, as in so many areas of public policy, depends on a major contribution from the public. Recycling works when people divide their waste and make the effort to put it out for collection, or - in the case of bulky waste - deliver it to the dump.

There are a number of initiatives that officials can take to improve this process, but without the involvement of individuals, there is no chance of success.

The problem is that people's efforts are not rewarded in any way. Quite the reverse, they take time and are often inconvenient. Nor are they recognised. They are taken for granted by the local authority who presume that - either because it is ethical or because people want to be rid of their own rubbish - people will take whatever action they are asked to do.

Good behaviour that is inconvenient, unnoticed and unrewarded is unlikely to be successfully reinforced enough simply by rhetoric. On the other hand, the evidence from time banks for example, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that people do not need to be rewarded very much, and often will make no use of the rewards. But they do want to be recognised somehow.

The Brazilian city of Curitiba has been running a scheme that issues points to people for recycling their rubbish, together with an explicit encouragement to children to bring in rubbish from the street and collect points too.

These points can be spent during off-peak times on the buses. The result is that Curitiba is now one of the cleanest cities in Latin America, and all paid for by spare public transport capacity.

A similar project could be imagined that used ordinary money, but it would not have been so effective because the message and opportunities with ordinary money are so complex. People might spend their points on a range of things and not use up the bus capacity at the right time. Creating their own points system enabled the city to target their spare capacity directly on the problem that needed solving.

But now the city of Rotterdam has launched an even more ambitious project along the same lines, called Nu Spaar-pas, which allows people to earn points on a smartcard for green behaviour - anything from buying eco-label products or organic food to recycling.

They can spend their points on public transport - as in Curitiba - or theatre tickets, or sports training, or going to the zoo, or education, and if they can arrange it, green tourism as well.

The project has been in gestation for almost a decade, but was taken up by the Dutch environment ministry some years ago, and now it's a joint venture between Barataria, Rabobank and the City of Rotterdam's departments of environmental policy, public transport and waste.

The NU card now has 10,000 users in Rotterdam - with 86 per cent of points earned by separating waste - and the scheme is being launched in Amsterdam too. A recent seminar in London organised by the National Consumer Council and the New Economics Foundation brought together top-level participants from all the sectors necessary to launch a similar pilot project in the UK.

Smartcard technology may soon give way to contactless electronic cards or other versions of internet technology. Either way, the NU idea does recognise and reward the efforts that people make.

But if you can reward them with a city's spare capacity - at theatres or on the trams - then you are being efficient in a way that simple accountancy with ordinary money never can.

This isn't to criticise ordinary money. It's just that the feedback it provides is so wide-ranging, about every kind of industry and consumer desire, that it can't be brought to bear on a very simple trade-off like this one.

Nonetheless, economic purists may not like it because it complicates the balance sheet. Environmental purists may not like it because people should be behaving like this anyway. Even so, Rotterdam is a better place to live as a result.

The question is, which UK city is going to be the first to launch something similar? Three cities have expressed an interest, and - though I can't reveal which they are yet - one of them is Liberal Democrat.

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