As little as three months ago, the Government rubbished calls to let local authorities charge residents for the waste that they fail to recycle. During a parliamentary debate on the Clean Neighbourhoods Bill, the then-Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael threw out proposals for variable charging.
However, as MRW reported last week, during the election campaign Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett officially opened a factory in Bradford that manufactures bin-weighing technology.
According to PM Onboard, owner of the facility, Beckett was keen to know more about the waste weighing system, as well as the issues that surround a pay-by-weight scheme.
So has the Government changed its position on variable charging as it looks to hit 30% recycling by 2010? The position of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is unclear.
A DEFRA spokesman said: "The Government has no plans to introduce variable household charging powers. We are focusing on working with householders to encourage them to reduce, re-use and recycle their waste through positive incentives."
But he then contradicted himself by adding: "The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report, Waste Not, Want Not, published in November 2002, recommended that local authorities wishing to take forward household incentive schemes - including charging - to help reduce waste volumes and increase recycling should be allowed to do so."
Speculation has mounted in recent weeks, with several weighing technology manufacturers insisting that pay-by-weight is on its way.
P&L Software Systems makes electronic chips that allow the weight of bins to be calculated, and marketing director Julie Emery-Priest said: "Variable charging is only used for commercial and industrial waste at the moment, but it will be allowed for councils. The Government is going to trial it in September."
Plastic Omnium marketing manager Simon Dutta agreed, while PM Onboard marketing manager Mark Bottomley commented: "This Government isn't going to introduce variable charging in the short-term, but it probably will in two to three years' time after the pilot schemes have been conducted."
The pilot schemes referred to by Bottomley are the result of £5 million in DEFRA funding for local authorities to run incentive schemes for households to recycle more.
The closing date for applications is July 1 and the proposed schemes are as yet unknown. But when the funding was announced in March, DEFRA said the types of applications that would be considered would include tax dis- counts, prize draws, cash rewards and charitable donations.
It is possible that such schemes would use bin-weighing technology and this may be why, according to Bottomley, PM Onboard has been in talks with both Beckett and Environment Minister Elliot Morley, while officials from DEFRA have expressed an interest in the company's weighing system.
However, previous incentive schemes have had only limited success in improving recycling rates.
Bristol City Council offers £200 prizes for recycling households. Recycling officer Sean Spencer-Wort said: "Whatever you do to raise awareness and encourage people to recycle, one in four people just isn't interested."
Variable charging, meanwhile,