Tower Hamlets once had a really poor recycling rate. Ten years ago only 12% of recyclable waste was recycled, against a national average of 31%, the main problem being that recycling from tower blocks is much harder than recycling from ground floor properties. The council's pink bag scheme, and a slew of positive publicity, helped to get the figures up.
Today the recycling rate is 28%, which is hugely better, if still not great. But the pink bag thing isn't going well.
• Originally, Tower Hamlets council delivered a roll of pink bags to your door at regular intervals.
• A few years ago the council stopped delivering pink bags to your door at regular intervals and you had to request them instead, either online or by phone. Someone then popped round and delivered some, just to the people who asked. This saved some money.
• A couple of years ago they started sending out flimsier pink bags, which was fine if you only recycled cartons and tins, but the bags now tended to break if you filled them with newspapers or bottles. Never mind, this saved some more money.
• Last year the council decided to stop sending out pink bags, and instead you had to go to your local Idea Store (i.e. library) to collect them. This saved even more money.
• Unfortunately it saved too much money, because the updated system was excessively miserly. Pink bags were now only available at five of Tower Hamlets seven Idea Stores, and only during brief fortnightly slots. In Bow for example they were only available every other Monday, and only for three hours, either from 10am-1pm or 3pm-6pm. If you worked and didn't get home in time, you'd never be able to collect any pink bags at all. Still, this all saved plenty of money.
• What's more, every time you turned up to collect pink bags, you had to show ID. Someone behind the counter then had to check your details online, and enter the type of ID you'd brought, and only then did you get your roll of bags. Collecting bags on behalf on another resident was strictly forbidden. This new procedure prevented the misuse of pink bags by residents who didn't need them, or local businesses trying to dispose of waste for free, but it created long queues and was bureaucratically insane. On the bright side, it had saved money.
• Back in January thankfully the council saw sense and the procedure was changed. Pink bags are now available at all seven Idea Stores, not five. Pink bags are now available every Wednesday and Saturday, not just fortnightly. Pink bags are now available all day, not just for three hours. This saved face, if not money.
• What's more you only have to flash your ID rather than it being scrutinised, and the librarian barely looks at it because she's sick of dishing out bags. Instead she simply reaches under the counter and picks out a roll of sacks and hands it over, sometimes at the same time as talking on the phone or serving another customer. This refocuses scant resources where they're most needed, making more efficient use of money.
• I asked why it was pink bags were only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when obviously they were kept in a box under the counter all the time, and was told some rubbish about this "ensuring stocks were always available". I suspect the real reason is not to give away too many bags, i.e. to save more money.
• The latest change is that the pink bags are no longer pink. Instead they're transparent, and fractionally flimsier, so it's even harder to fill them up with anything heavy. Also, we're now allowed to use any transparent bags, we don't have to use the council's, and they hope we won't, so this saves even more money.
In summary, flat-dwellers in Tower Hamlets are now having to make more of an effort to recycle stuff than they used to. This means less recycling takes place, but it also means the council gets to use fewer resources than before, so it saves money. This transfer of responsibility is very much in line with the way council services are going generally, as funding for non-essentials dries up and citizens are increasingly left to do their own thing. The pink bags were only the start.