Blue Box Blues

Oxford City Council has sent round a mass of printed information about its new recycling policy – which box to use for what rubbish and so on. Each document seems to have been the work of a different person. This being local government, there were probably teams of different people of mixed abilities and properly diverse backgrounds, each encouraged to give free rein to their human right to self-expression – which is why no two sources of information say the same thing.

The upshot, when thrown away (in the correct bins, boxes or bags, if you can work out which they are) will certainly help boost the tonnage of paper recycled from the city, creating a truly virtuous circle – wrong rubbish about right rubbish recycled to make more rubbish – but it does not do much to clarify the new scheme.

On Wednesdays, I usually look and see what my neighbours have put out and follow them. I don’t know who goes first, but if he ever gets it wrong, the whole street will.

Yesterday, I retrieved my box from wherever they had thrown it – they make a cracking good noise when thrown in sequence down the street – and found it had a smart blue plastic sticker on it and a lonely beer bottle in it. We will in due course hold a formal committee of inquiry into which member of the household put a beer bottle in the blue box – although given the number of boxes and bins outside our house now, there is only a one-in-four chance of getting it right; all horrid plastic boxes are grey in the dark so one beer bottle in the wrong box is not bad really.

The label is a masterpiece of the self-important pen-pusher’s art:

“Waste materials that cannot be recycled were found today in your blue recycling container. Your blue recycling container is for the collection of recyclable materials only.”

Well, if it is just the bottle you are whining about, it is not correct to say that the blue box contained “waste materials that cannot be recycled”. Glass most certainly can be recycled but only on alternate Wednesdays and out of some other bloody box. I would have got the idea if you had just left the bottle behind, without a silly sticker.

If, however, your complaint is about something else then it would have been helpful to tell me what it was. If stuff which really was not recyclable went out of this house into one of the recycling boxes, then it was not for want of trying to comply with the rules, or at least with one of the sets of rules. Instead of just leaving semi-literate, patronising stickers, you might have explained what it was.

If we did indeed get it wrong then it was almost certainly because the information leaflet we use is the wrong one of the many variants which Oxford has published since September. The original web “information” page consisted largely of typos and mis-spellings – “trimings” for ”trimmings”, “order more pages” where it meant “order more bags” and “fornight” for “fortnight”. The downloadable leaflet which promised more information gave the collection rota (i.e. which rubbish type was paired with which) differently from the printed leaflet which was circulated at the same time, and stated incorrectly that cardboard could be put in green bags. That error persisted until last week – more than 6 months into the scheme – when a new leaflet was put up.

Let’s just compare the list on my sticker with what the web site now says – i.e. the two most current versions.

The sticker says:

What can I put in my blue container (a question mark would be nice here).

Plastic bottles
Drink cans
Food cans
Other paper products

The corresponding list on the city’s web site says

Plastic bottles
Aluminium cans and foil
Food tins
Card and cardboard
Paper not suitable for green box

You would think, wouldn’t you, that a horde of pen-pushers promulgating a complicated new policy in the face of both political and user opposition, would at least try to get a uniform vocabulary established between different sources of information?

It gets worse when you turn to the two lists of items which are NOT supposed to be in the blue box. They diverge even more completely – the sticker lists only four things, the web site has eight and “glass” is the only thing which is described in the same way in both lists.

Neither list makes clear what I know to be the case – that thick plastic bottles are acceptable but thin ones are not. I know this because we studied what got left behind each week (sorry, each fortnight) and deduced that there are two classes of plastic bottle. Thin ones are acceptable if you take them to the tip but not if you leave them in a box. I hope you are clear about that now.

Let us finish reading the blue sticker

“We have emptied your box on this occasion, but we would ask you to please make sure that your box is used correctly in future.”

It is like a weak Kafka parody translated by a Japanese school-child. The sense that they think they are doing you a favour despite your heinous failure to comply with the regulations; the syntax mangled as only a half-educated bureaucrat can mangle the language – “we would ask you to please make sure that” – it is not just the split infinitive but the wrongly-placed “please” which conveys the sense that the writer is not entirely at ease with English; a slight air of implied menace – we have you on our list, it suggests, and you cannot expect such lenient treatment next time.

Well, I should think you did bloody well empty my bin. I have just had a Council Tax bill for £2,379.71, and collecting the rubbish is one of those basic and very visible functions of local government.

I am willing to do my best to comply with the regulations. I do so because that is the social trend, because (though critical) I am largely compliant with regulations passed by competent authorities (that’s “competent” in the sense of “having the power” not, of course, in the wider sense, not in Oxford), and because there are better thing to spend money on than fines.

I am also willing to support Jean Fooks, the councillor dumped with the task of complying with Government requirements, who has faced political obstruction and much unfair public comment.

But there is a trade here. If I am to pay £2,379.71 in Council Tax and sort my own rubbish into boxes (or drive it to the tip, which is sometimes easier) then I expect a minimum level of competence from the people who actually run the scheme.

It matters because they will shortly start fining us for putting things in the wrong boxes. It will not be a court or other competent authority which has this power – the right to fine will lie in the hands of the sort of people who write this drivel, little men with a clip-board instead of a brain, no discretion, and an unhealthy interest in routing through other peoples’ rubbish. Six months into the scheme, they cannot even devise a consistent description of what is allowed, yet they will fine you for getting it wrong.

As a final thought, the blue sticker does not appear to me to fit any category of recyclable. It will therefore go to landfill. I wonder what the volume was of the stickers left around Oxford this week?



About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Oxford, Oxford City Council, Recycling. Bookmark the permalink.

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