Page last updated at 00:44 GMT, Tuesday, 10 April 2007 01:44 UK

Belgium's rubbish solution

By John Andrew
BBC local government correspondent

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?

Lokeren's paying system was unpopular with residents at first

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.

Chipped bin

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.

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

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.

Fly-tipping fears

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.

Compost heap
Compost heaps can help reduce the amount of waste

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.

Chicken solution

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.

Councils are under enormous pressure to reduce their waste mountain

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.

The local authority has even arranged with local poultry dealers to give discounts on hens bought for this purpose.

Dirk Strubbe, who runs municipal waste services for six Flemish councils, admitted there was some resistance to payment by weight when it was first proposed.

He emphasised that the public must be on board first.

"A large communication project has to be established to convince the population before you begin pay-as-you-throw," he said.

Pilot schemes

The British government is expected to publish its long-awaited waste strategy review soon.

There's speculation it may talk about giving councils in England the power to introduce variable waste charging.

Some councils are already piloting the technology.

Given that the tax on dumping in landfill is increasing by leaps and bounds - Chancellor Gordon Brown announcing another increase of 8 a ton in his Budget - councils are under enormous pressure to reduce their waste mountain.

So it wouldn't be surprising if, given the chance, some councils follow the lead countries like Belgium have given.


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