Saturday, July 31, 2010

Waste (17 Different Bits Of)

Well, the stack of spam comments from China to be moderated suggests that its about time I got back in the saddle, blogging wise. My normal intermittency notwithstanding, I hope you'll understand that sooner or later, a dissertation and seven exams in two weeks were going to get to me and necessitate a rest from anything other than my council duties.

One thing I have been reflecting on in my time away is column inches and how they affect council debates. Cardiff Council is pretty good as a debating chamber, with plenty of speakers on all sides who'll give the political theatre some gusto and occasionally cover the issues reasonably well too. What's more, with webcasting you can now watch them in their entirety (and we'll ignore the terrible vision I just had of the highlights programme, complete with Alan Hansen...)

Now of course no local paper could cover such debates in their entirety, but space pressures can do them a disservice. Last year, for example, we had a debate on a foundation school application at Whitchurch High School that did an outstanding job of covering the philosophical underpinnings of new state school governance arrangements; the local press coverage, however, amounted to one column inch about me using the word screw (and even then only in attribution, not against anyone...)

Back in June, meanwhile, we had the latest in our regular series of Conservative motions on composting, which led to a brief article and an exchange of letters wherein I accused the Tories of wilful ignorance and they accused me of a lack of logic. Much as we could have kept going back and forth in the letters page, however, I suspect it will accomplish more to put the whole of the argument on record. In doing so, however, I'm mindful that at the end of the debate, Conservative group leader, Cllr David Walker, helpfully read out the dictionary definition of hubris, an act some might argue is itself the dictionary definition of hubris (though pointing that out may also be the dictionary definition of hubris, and so on until the heat death of the universe...)

Either way, the basic problem for the Conservatives was a fundamental failing of the English language, namely its lack of a plural indefinite article. Proposing the motion, Cllr Rod McKerlich said that he would lay out “the” facts. Instead, he laid out a range of things that may have been facts, some, none or fewer of which may have been in any way relevant.

The act that Cllr Walker thinks was hubris was the introduction, in September 2008, of food waste collections for every household that made Cardiff the first UK city to accomplish a city-wide roll-out. As with most waste policy matters for councils up and down the country, there were three key drivers for food waste collections. On the practical front, Cardiff's landfill site at Lamby Way is almost full and while we are (as part of the Prosiect Gwyrdd alliance of local authorities) pursuing alternatives, anything that can extend the life of the existing facilities is enormously valuable. Economically, between UK landfill tax escalators and EU recycling fines there is a huge financial impetus to perform. And of course morally there is the minor matter of it all being fundamentally the right thing to do, particularly with food waste and its potent mix of methane and pathogens.

Of course, once you've decided to collect something, you need to work out how to collect it and what to do with it. The Conservatives first objection to our scheme is that, by collecting food waste together with garden waste, composting of the garden waste now costs money when previously it was essentially done for nothing. But the costs of what you do with it and the costs of how you collect it aren't independent in that way; if you collect the food waste separately, that means a whole additional set of collections, with more trucks and more staff, plus more complications for the householder.

The other objection, the one that the Conservatives seem to think is a matter of public scandal, is that at present the food waste, once collected, is sent for composting at a facility in Derby. Environmentally they seem to think that that's a no-brainer, but that's why I accused them of not using their brains. If you put the food waste in landfill, it will release copious amounts of methane, which is at least twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; any carbon dioxide emitted by transporting it to Derby therefore still represents a tremendous saving compared to the methane that would otherwise have been emitted. As for the cost, again it's quite simple; the alternative is putting the food waste into landfill and then getting fined for doing so.

Cllr Page in his letter seems to think his party were only asking why we don't have the facilities to do it ourselves. In fact, they were going one step beyond that, saying that because we didn't have the facilities, we shouldn't have started collecting food waste in the first place. Clearly that would have been financially and environmentally suicidal, and in any case, had they listened to a word that was said to them in the debate, they would have had their answer.

Capital funding for local authorities doesn't grow on trees, it is begrudgingly doled out by your higher authority of choice (in our case, the Welsh Assembly Government) and only if they absolutely agree with what you want to do with it. So if they decide to say, “You know those in-vessel composters we were telling you to build? Yeah, actually, don't do that, build anaerobic digesters instead...” the local authority in question has to sit there and take it.

That may not be convenient for an opposition party that wants everything to be the result of a gargantuan cock-up on the council's part, but it is a depressingly regular occurrence with WAG. So for the Tories, there is the age-old politician's choice; do you want to listen to the answer to your question, or do you want to claim that any answer that isn't the one you want is a lie? Sadly, on waste our Conservatives appear determined to take the latter option.