Gina Davidson: Time for staff to bin the attitude

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BINS ain’t what they used to be, are they folks? In fact, it’s getting to the stage that to be able to remember a time when the collection of household rubbish happened without incident is like reminiscing about rationing, or being able to recall when the B word was only mentioned in polite conversation when referring to a Princes Street department store.

It seems improbable to a generation brought up with a multi-hued choice of plastic binware in which to place differing detritus, that there was indeed a golden age when it all just went in the same humble black bin bag and got carted off never to be thought of again (unless, of course, the bag was ripped open overnight by cats or seagulls and you had to spend the morning before work picking up soggy toilet roll inners wrapped in potato peelings and soaked in some unidentifiable foul liquid. There were things in these bags you wouldn’t wish your worst enemy to clap eyes on).

Of course, environmental concerns changed all that. Bin bags were banished – not without a fight – to be replaced by sleek, modern wheelie bins (unless you live in a communal flat in the New Town, of course), and ever since trash talk has been the bane of household and council life.

Questions like which coloured bin is for plastic, which for glass and which for paper? What days do they get collected on? Why can’t the food waste bin be larger – there are five of us in this house, you know? 
have been infrequently asked around town.

Now the council has gone a step further in forcing people to recycle – by changing bin collections from weekly to fortnightly, and all hell has broken loose with rubbish piled up in streets, bins not emptied for weeks, and pestilence on its way.

Though if we’re lucky that particular apocalyptic figure will be waiting for a tram rather than on its horse.

There can be few who would doubt the good motives behind changing bin collections – getting more rubbish recycled than off to landfill makes sense environmentally and financially.

So you might imagine those in the cleansing department would have thought ahead. Just slightly.

We’re not talking a five-year master plan here. Done the sums and stocked up on er, recycle bins. But no, the council has run out of the necessary receptacles and is now struggling to empty the bins thanks to the increase in rubbish as well as general incompetence like the incorrect worksheets being handed out to bin crews and doing it at a time when road resurfacing works on major routes like Gorgie Road might as well mean the lorries are under a restraining order when it comes to getting within winching distance of a bin. The words elbow and derriere spring to mind.

If there is one thing that people understand they are paying for through their council tax it is the bin collection.

It shouldn’t be hard. Even when you’re changing a system from weekly to fortnightly, it should not provoke the kind of winter-of-discontent ire which is currently gripping some households in Edinburgh.

Not living in the city any longer – though I remember being completely baffled by the reason I couldn’t have a brown bin for garden waste was because the lorry couldn’t get down the street, though the bin men and women obviously could and did so to pick up the green bin – I have lived with fortnightly bin collections for five years.

It’s brilliant. We have a large grey bin for all landfill waste (unfortunately, we don’t have food waste bins yet), and an even larger one for recycling which takes everything except glass, and a brown bin for garden waste.

And it’s week turn about for putting them out. As a meerkat might say: simples.

So in Edinburgh, given the council department involved, you have to wonder just how recalcitrant the bin staff and their unions are being with this change.

Shift patterns have had to be altered and that doesn’t normally happen without a fight.

And as a result of the chaos six contingency crews have been drafted in to supplement normal crews, which probably means overtime payments.

I hate to be so cynical, but when refuse collectors say they can’t pick up bags of rubbish left out because the bins are overflowing, when they work to rule for two years because a change to pay conditions means they won’t get a bonus just for doing their job, that’s what happens.

And if, as sources have told me, it’s true that the same department can’t be bothered to fill out tender documents properly when bidding for non-council work in waste management, you have to wonder just how much they value their, and others’, jobs.

The refuse collection work to rule was called off eventually when the whole service was threatened with privatisation.

It didn’t happen, but problems like this will undoubtedly raise that thorny issue again.