A new era of garbage rules

The citizens of Whitehaven try, really they do. They separate out their cans, their paper, their cardboard and their glass, and they recycle them all. They compost. They jump up and down on their trash to cram it into their government-issued garbage cans, and they put the trash out for collection at exactly 7 a.m., twice a month.

But when Gareth Corkhill, a bus driver, was fined $215 – and given a further $225 fine and a criminal record when he failed to pay – for leaving his garbage can lid slightly ajar this spring, Whitehaven's residents banded together in dismay. They raised the money to pay the fine, and they began to complain.

“I consider the fine against Mr. Corkhill to be a matter of injustice, really, and as a Christian minister I'm required to speak out against injustice,” declared the Rev. John Bannister, the rector of Whitehaven, a seaside town in Cumbria. Referring to the garbage cans residents here use, he said, “To be given a criminal record for leaving your wheelie bin open by 3 inches has, I think, really gone beyond the bounds of responsible behavior.”

Across Europe, residents are struggling to adjust to a new era of garbage rules. Britain, particularly, is in the midst of a trash crisis, with dwindling landfill space and one of Europe's poorest recycling records. Threatened with steep fines if they dump too much trash, local governments around the country are imposing strict regimes to force residents to produce less and recycle more.

Many now collect trash every other week, instead of every week. They restrict households to a limited amount of garbage, and refuse to pick up more. They require that garbage be put out only at strict times, reject whole boxes of recyclables that contain the odd non-recyclable item and employ enforcement officers who issue warnings and impose fines for failure to comply.

Few people could dispute that in this era of dwindling environmental resources, it is essential that garbage-heavy societies like Britain change their profligate ways. “These are challenging times, and the U.K. is behind the game when it comes to relying on landfills,” said Beverley Parr, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Or, as Ian Curwen, a spokesman for Copeland Borough Council, which encompasses Whitehaven, said: “Ultimately as a country, we have to do more. We can't just keep producing and throwing things away.”

But Britons do not like being told what to do. Encouraged by anti-government newspapers, they particularly resent government meddling, as they see it, in such intimate matters as the contents of their garbage cans. As regulations get more stringent and enforcement more robust, there have been reports across the country of incensed residents shouting and throwing trash at garbage collectors, illegally dumping and burning excess garbage, and even surreptitiously tossing trash in – or stealing – their neighbors' garbage cans.

“It's like something out of ‘Mad Max,'” Paul Nicholls, a resident of Cannock, near Birmingham, told the newspaper The Guardian recently, describing the free-for-all in his town at garbage-collection time. “Every man for himself, scavenging for an extra bin.”

The government says the new regulations are necessary if Britain is to adjust to the changing times. Along with the rest of Europe, Britain has been ordered to reduce the waste it puts in landfills – by 2015, to 50 percent of what it was in 1995 – or face untold millions of dollars in European Union fines.