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Last Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007, 02:56 GMT 03:56 UK
Out on patrol with the bin police
By Lucy Wilkins
BBC News

Test Valley Borough Council in Hampshire employs recycling advisors - otherwise known as "bin police" - to encourage people to dispose of their rubbish correctly. BBC News spent a day with them to see what they get up to.

Test Valley Borough Council bins
But are these bins filled with the correct waste?
Stand on a street corner in the estates off King Arthur's Way, Andover, and all you'll see are bricks and bins.

Black bins and brown bins, like pairs of plastic, rectangular sentinels outside the front doors of low, brick houses.

It's not a picturesque view in this part of Hampshire, but needs must if the council is to improve its recycling rate.

Gingerly lifting the lid of one brown bin, Sabrina Garside peers inside. "Actually, that's not too bad," she says, surveying cardboard, plastic bottles, tins.

"There's no contamination," she adds, referring to a lack of non-recyclables.

'Here to educate'

Councils throughout the country vary on what, when and how they collect waste.

In Andover, which comes under the control of Test Valley Borough Council, rubbish collections alternate with recycling on a weekly basis.

A handful of residents persist in putting the wrong things in the wrong bins. Step forward Ms Garside and her colleague Stephen Hatcher to keep an eye on them.

People can be a bit devious. They hide general waste at the bottom of the bin and put the recycling on top
Stephen Hatcher
Recycling advisor

They are officially known as "recycling advisors" - although "bin police" is more colloquial.

For Mr Hatcher, a real policeman for 30 years, such nicknames are harmless.

"It means absolutely nothing to me, names like 'bin busters' - they're just silly names that people have given us. Personally, they can call us what they like.

"We don't object to their use, but it is sending the wrong message. We're not here to tell people off, we're here to educate people. We don't sneak around and do things underhand. When we do do checks on a mass scale we let people know."

Blue, yellow and red tags

The council first employed advisors almost two years ago but will have none on its payroll by March 2008. It spent 117,500 of its annual budget of 11.6m on them.

The key to their job is information from collection crews who note who puts what out when, and if necessary attach tags to the bins to notify residents why their waste has not been touched.

A blue tag is for those who leave excess waste at the side of their rubbish bins - it won't be collected unless it is inside the bin and the lid shut flat. A yellow tag is a for "minor contamination" of their recycling bins.

Test Valley Borough Council recycling advisors Sabrina Garside and Stephen Hatcher
"Bin busters" Sabrina Garside and Stephen Hatcher

"People can be a bit devious. They hide general waste at the bottom of the bin and put the recycling on top. We're not all angels," says Mr Hatcher.

But it's the red tag that is the most "stern", he says, even though the largest words on it are "We are sorry". The red tag is put on totally contaminated recycling bins, left untouched by the crews for the householder to deal with.

Mr Hatcher says one of the biggest problems is that people collect the recyclable items in a plastic bag, and then put the whole lot in the bin - but plastic bags are classed as "contamination".

"But the thing that confuses people is the recycling logo. It means so many different things to many different people."

Glass in particular is a problem - in Test Valley borough it is not collected from households, but there are bottle banks around.

With just a whiff of the tabloid fear that "bin spies" are coming to a street near you, the crews report back to Mr Hatcher with information about properties who have had a tell-tale tag attached, or which simply have no bins at all.

The use of bin police is not acceptable. It is not the way to encourage recycling
Rod Bailey
Lib Dem councillor, Test Valley Borough Council

He maintains a multi-coloured database of properties and their misdemeanours - "our infamous blacklist". First and second offences are simply noted, with a letter sent out on the hat-trick.

If that still doesn't get the message across, the council officers go a-knocking.

"We're not talking terrible people here, just a few are causing us some challenges," Mr Hatcher says, emphasising that of 47,500 properties in Test Valley borough, only 30 are on his list.

"Some people out there live such chaotic lives that waste disposal doesn't register as a concern. Some have such clean bins you could eat out of them."

'Unauthorised bin'

And so we head to King Arthur's Way with its streets named Camelot, Galahad and Lancelot. In the car park near the local pub, a huge metal bin for paper recycling has been tipped on its side. It's about half full with paper.

"At least it's being used," says Mr Hatcher.

For Andrea Wye, a 34-year-old mother, a visit is necessary as she's put out an "unauthorised bin".

I didn't know when the collections were and they kept leaving the second bin full... it went on for four weeks. There were maggots coming out the bottom
Resident Andrea Wye

Mr Hatcher duly explains that she can have more than one bin because there are five people in the household, but she has to get a sticker to show the collection crews it's authorised.

Relatively new to Andover, she says: "I was confused at the start, because I had two bins out there and I didn't know I couldn't use them. I didn't know when the collections were and they kept leaving the second bin full," she says in her kitchen with the three kids on holiday and a dog running round.

"It went on for four weeks. There were maggots coming out the bottom."

But she says she does really try with the recycling, taking glass to a recycling depot.

"Recycling is a good idea but lots of people don't know what to recycle."

'Behavioural change'

Round the corner is another property on the list, another young mother with children and dog scampering around behind her front door.

Her recycling bin is in a woeful state, contaminated, overflowing. There's a vacuum cleaner beside the bin. She is surprised that glass is not allowed, saying later that the council "don't tell you, don't give you the information".

Test Valley Borough Council uses the same trucks for collecting rubbish and recycling.

The contents of the brown bins are emptied wholesale into the trucks to be sorted by a machine later. If glass was in the bins it would be crushed in the process.

The things people put in their bins are amazing - I've seen whole, unopened cakes in bins
Sabrina Garside

Ms Garside disagrees with the resident's claim of not getting enough information. Pamphlets are written in English, Polish and Portuguese and the council is always at the end of the phone, she says.

She is shortly to move to a job encouraging "behavioural change" when it comes to waste.

"The things people put in their bins are amazing - I've seen whole, unopened cakes in bins. Why make the waste in the first place?"

She sounds exasperated, but with no penalty for putting wrong things in wrong bins there seems no incentive for residents to obey the council edicts - apart from growing public concern and a government push for individuals to play a part in reducing waste.

'You have to be careful'

Mr Hatcher said recycling rates had improved in the two years he had been working as an advisor - from 20% in 2005 to just beyond the council's target of 30% this year.

Liberal Democrat councillor Rod Bailey was once chastised for putting the wrong items in his bin and publicly complained about the use of "bin police".

Recycling logo
What goes in and what stays out? Recycling can be confusing for some
He says he was simply following instructions from Hampshire County Council - which were at odds with the Test Valley Borough Council's instructions - but has had no more yellow tags slapped on his bin.

"You have to be very careful as you're never sure that you've put the right thing in the bin. Just have to hold your breath when the bin police walk past."

But he says the government needs to do more to encourage large companies, like Tesco, to cut down on packaging.

"The use of bin police is not acceptable. It is not the way to encourage recycling," Mr Bailey said.

He said the Liberal Democrats would not charge people more to collect waste, would rewrite the instructions to be clearer, and would pressure large companies to cut waste.

For Mr Hatcher the job at street level goes on.

"We try to educate people. Slowly we are getting there."

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