Local authorities look into increasingly obscure nooks and crannies for spare pennies these days. With all of them having to shoulder millions of pounds of cuts in central funding the council employee of the month is always going to be the one who digs furthest down the back of the sofa.
Waste not want not
Waste management is traditionally up there among the services with the highest budget demands, but it is not necessarily all that easy to make savings. Statutory duties on waste collection and disposal authorities mean there is not a lot they can stop doing and there is almost no area where they can recoup costs from the user.
But - have you been down to your local household waste recycling centre recently? Much of what goes on there is still the basics - providing big bins for local residents to tip their rubbish (no surprise that they are still called the tip by most people, why use eight syllables when one will do). What else is happening there, however, is a little more interesting.
What the place is basically trying to do is minimise the amount of general waste that has to be disposed of, usually in a landfill site. Because of the environment, you say? Well yes partly, but mostly because disposing of waste is so ridiculously expensive. It costs each disposal authority millions every year.
So what do they do to reduce the waste? Well, they take out whatever they can that can be sent elsewhere. Green waste (your hedge cuttings, branches and dead pot plants that you thought were perennials but copped it on the patio over winter) - this goes to massive composting facilities, gets bagged up and sold. Timber (the good stuff that your granddad would have made something with) - this goes to yards for re-use. Rubbishy wood and chipboard (I think we all know now that flat pack furniture likes to move house even less frequently than us) - this is chopped up into bedding that your gerbil will snooze happily on. Paper, card, glass, metal - we all know these can be recycled, it's been going on since before most of us were born.
Where there's muck there's brass
Taking out materials that can be recycled or re-processed is a bit of a win-win for the local authority: not only does it reduce the tonnage of waste that gets dropped into an expensive hole in the ground but also much of the material attracts payment from the companies set up to do something with it. Overall the costs of running the sites outweigh the income, but it helps.
Does it help enough, though? Based on recent decisions in municipal waste departments the answer is no. Still they want costs taken out. Still they want to find new sources of income. As authorities get more desperate for savings they arguably get more, um, "loose" with their interpretation of the rules that have regulated them for years. "Do we have to provide this for free?" they ask.
When it comes to the rubbish you created from your latest DIY project the answer is, well, perhaps not. Despite for years accepting that DIY waste is just the same as any other waste created by a resident in their house - i.e. "household waste" - they have changed their mind, on the basis that it often looks like stuff produced by a builder (and builders, like all other trades, have to pay for the disposal of their waste). Why is that suddenly the case? Has the law changed?
No it hasn't. In fact I would argue that the law has become clearer in recent years about DIY waste being household waste and that a householder, wait for it, cannot be charged for its disposal.
DIY waste and the legal toolbox
If only it were simple. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 defines household waste as waste from domestic property which is used wholly for the purposes of living accommodation (section 75). Do we need to go on?
OK, the Controlled Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2012 give waste collection and disposal authorities more detail about what is household, industrial and commercial waste and if they can or cannot charge for their collection or disposal. It depends on what the waste is and it depends on where the waste has come from and it is a short but very detailed piece of legislation. It has a long list of types of household waste, none of which can be charged for disposal if it is from a domestic household (charities and residential homes may be charged under some circumstances).
If that isn't clear, even WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) gives government guidance on DIY waste, stating, "DIY waste is classed as household waste if it results from work a householder would normally carry out." It goes on to say, "Local authorities understand that such waste can be generated by householders, and they therefore need to dispose it."
Yet several councils have introduced charging for DIY waste, including Devon, Bedford, Leicestershire, Northumberland and North Yorkshire.
Do they know something we don't about DIY waste, or have they papered the rule book to the wall and glossed over it?
Maybe I'm missing something....