By Charlie Low
Those red and white household waste bags, huh?
Since moving to Maastricht, I have been curious to find out why we are charged €12+ on household waste bags. The specific bag is the only bag the waste collectors will take, I am told. Why the bag prejudice, and why so expensive? These are the two questions I had in mind, the answers I set out to find.
As the internet facilitates lazy communication, I first took a look at the Maastricht City Council’s helpful website. Here I learned several interesting factoids about waste disposal in this city. Most interestingly, however, I discovered that approximately 65% of household waste is recyclable. In addition to that, the English language section of the website spells out that the separation of household waste is not only important for the environment, but it can also save you money. Right, I thought, interesting in theory, but two points to think about: Purchasing generic-supermarket-brand waste bags could also save me money; why can’t the trash collectors accept those bags? Also, how can you actually incentivise me to recycle when the nearest recycling site is at least a five-minute cycle, and it is a pain to separate waste (I’m happy to play devil’s advocate here…)?
A step back and a quick donning of my economics made me think of two broad, and inter-related topics: those of taxation and incentives.
I thought back to living in Glasgow, where garbage disposal was paid for as part of the flat-rate council tax fee. So, I am thinking, why the difference? The trash collectors in Glasgow also collected all recyclable waste from my doorstep. Why so different in the Netherlands? In order to dispose of trash in Maastricht, it appears to be the case that either you stump up the fee for the red and white bin bags, i.e. the tax, or you fly-tip (the name given to the phenomenon of illegally disposing of trash wherever you please).
This way of making us pay for the specific household waste bags is a form of indirect taxation, that is, a tax where the expense is borne by the consumer. The council tax I used to pay monthly in Glasgow is also an indirect tax. However, in my simple mind, I find the upfront expense for red-and-white household waste bags a little bit more direct. So, as any armchair participant in a democracy does, I exercised my right to question, sent an e-mail to the city council and asked why I have to pay over €12 for 10 bin bags. The answer to my question was matter of fact and stated simply that I can pay for the red and white bin bags at any supermarket and dispose of them for free at one of the four waste-parks. If I have my trash collected throughout the year, logic follows, that I will also need to stump up cash for a so-called waste-tax. The exact amount of this waste-tax was not specified to me.
My question was always going to lead me to an answer I did not want to learn about. However, I persisted. I followed up with the question of whether Maastricht has any general problems with fly-tipping/illegal disposal of waste. My response pointed me to the helpful landing page, which is where I began the line of questioning anyway.
But back to my point on incentives. The Maastricht City Council specifies that the household waste you place in the red-and-white bags for collection should not exceed 7kg in waste. They also point out that if we separate household waste appropriately, and recycle the 65% of waste that can be recycled, we’d be able to save €45 per year. I am scratching my head as to where they are getting those figures and calculations, however, any form of saving does certainly appeal to the stingier consumers. The point here is that the seemingly large price of €12+ should be adequate incentive for us all to try to recycle as much as we possibly can. However, as many of us are lazy, and suffer from an inability to make the tangible link between recycling and altruism, many of us will bear the cost of these bin-bags, and pay the tax for their collection.
In theory, the price-tag should put us off from being wasteful, however, I often hear rumours that many students fly-tip. In sum, I see this as a very explicit means of controlling us, and incentivising us to recycle. The problem with this, in my eyes, is that I am not directly rewarded for recycling, at least not as directly as I am penalised for making trash. And, I am always wondering why I have to bear the cost of this waste disposal when the producers of the products that I buy that are non-recyclable (some packaging, for instance) don’t seem to face the same costs.
Ultimately, we all need to become more conscious about the waste we produce, and more conscientious about the way we can recycle more, and abate environmental degradation as a result. However, if the Maastricht City Council is trying to incentivise us to recycle more by penalising us by producing waste that we are sometimes helpless to produce, should there not be a greater reward-incentive for recycling?