Lift the bin-lid on Sheffield’s waste disposal and recycling services and you’ll find a whole can of worms; problems that go way beyond the weekly/fortnightly collections debate. Once upon a time we handled rubbish pretty well in this county. Apart from a few spills, it generally went into a dustbin, and was carted away by […]

Lift the bin-lid on Sheffield’s waste disposal and recycling services and you’ll find a whole can of worms; problems that go way beyond the weekly/fortnightly collections debate.

Once upon a time we handled rubbish pretty well in this county. Apart from a few spills, it generally went into a dustbin, and was carted away by dustbin men from our council. And we had ‘dump it’ sites for bulky stuff, open dawn till dusk every day – solid and relatively reliable. But all that is solid can melt into air. Some councils began to sell out. In Sheffield’s case it was to a fire-breathing dragon of a company called Veolia, which offered a gleaming new incinerator in return for having use of our virgin rubbish for 30 years. And the council said yes, take it for 35 years.

But that was the olden days, when the idea of recycling was just a sparkle in some green wizard’s eye. Fast forward to the 21st century and Veolia’s coining it. Waste is gold dust. It contains precious metals and lots of other lovely stuff to sell. How much? We’ll never know, because it’s not our service anymore. The details are now commercial, in confidence, and the whole deal stinks.

Veolia makes its multi-billions by squeezing out every drop of profit, so they sub-contracted Sheffield’s recycling centres to a venture called SOVA Recycling. You may have heard of this. It was described in February as the latest initiative from national charity SOVA, whose £8 million income for 2010-11 is reported to the Charity Commission as ‘charitable activities’. No mention of profit making from recycling sales. If they make a clean profit from selling rancid waste on for recycling, we can’t ask how much because it’s not our service any more. It’s now a commercial secret. And anyway, SOVA helps vulnerable and disadvantaged people by providing things like employability training, aiming ‘to inspire and support the people it works with to make positive changes to improve their lives and fulfil their potential’. Their website says so.

But when the government cuts hit, SOVA threw up its hands and proposed the most stingy deal possible to staff already scraping by on close to minimum wage. How about this? To reduce costs, let’s make about 1 in 5 staff redundant. The rest can take a pay cut, and a cut in hours during winter. Then let’s close most sites to the public on some weekdays, except for commercial use, as we mustn’t upset the beloved business community. Stinking brilliant.

Hardly surprising that a strike was called, and that the mid-June meeting of Sheffield City Council saw a hefty protest. The workers, the GMB Union, the Green Party and the public lined up to ask questions. Strangely, the council leader stifled debate by referring the whole reeking Veolia-SOVA matter to the Scrutiny Committee, where it will sit and stew for quite some time.

Look around and see what’s happening here. Little by little, things that we thought were public are becoming private. This is no conspiracy theory; it’s a trend. A school here, a playing field there, a community building down the road.

When it arrives at your doorstep you may feel indignant. Save our library! Save our whatever… Angry enough to look around for a protest meeting? Our local community hall was recently sold off for a private nursing home. Do you see this pattern happening around you? Everyone blames another organisation, or conditions, or the government. No-one seems to blame capitalism, which sneaked in and sprinkled the tainted fairy dust.

As Councillor Jack Scott, Sheffield Council’s environment cabinet member, said on the waste industry’s news website Let’s Recycle: “The basic problem is that Sheffield is facing massive government cuts. Of course, if there was an alternative …”

Best wishes for a good summer from Alt-Sheff, the Sheffield website for the alternatives.

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