The great recycling myth

There's absolutely no need to separate our rubbish by hand

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

My frail elderly mother has recently moved in with us in Epsom and in so doing has joined the 15 million people worldwide who spend their days sorting through rubbish. Mum, however, does not get paid $1 a day. She does it for nothing. This is because we now have five separate bins and every morning she and the other 10,000-plus members of Surrey’s army of housewives sort through their rubbish to make sure it all goes into the right one.

I am of course describing the phenomenon known as kerbside recycling, and Epsom Council would like you to think that it is good for the environment. But my day job is raising money for environmental projects, including waste plants, and I know that kerbside recycling is all a big con to save the public sector money. Everybody involved in the waste industry knows this simple fact: all rubbish can be sorted much more efficiently by machines without the need for any human intervention.

That may come as a surprise to you, but think about it for a moment. We are the generation that built the large hadron collider. Do you really think that it has been beyond human ingenuity to invent a simple and cheap machine that can distinguish a tin can from a glass bottle? Of course it hasn’t, and there is now a whole industry supplying clever bits of technology to separate your unsorted rubbish into the component parts of glass, metal, food, paper and plastic. One of my clients even has a machine that uses reflected light to distinguish between different types of plastic and different colours.

So given that these machines exist, why are we still sorting through our rubbish? The legislation behind kerbside recycling originates in Brussels, with the laudable aim of making Europe a ‘recycling society’. The EU bureaucrats then get very prescriptive about exactly how to do this: clause 28 of the 2008 EU directive on waste says that member states should ensure ‘that waste is separately collected if technically, environmentally and economically practicable’. Our government has decided that yes, it is practical for households to do this, and so from 1 January 2015 local councils must collect waste paper, metal, plastic and glass separately. No explanation, no discussion of alternatives: just do this because we tell you to.

However, what is very telling about all of this is that ‘practicable’ is a forgivingly subjective concept and gives the government a handy get-out to avoid imposing source separation on the rest of the UK waste stream. Of the 288 million tons of waste that were collected in the UK last year, only about 31 million or 11 per cent was domestic waste.

The remaining 259 million tons were cheerfully collected by a thriving private-sector industry contracting directly with waste producers and even householders. Nobody there is insisting on five different bins or limiting the amount of waste you can put out or saying they will only collect it every two weeks. The commercial and industrial waste producers are not circumscribed as we householders are because the government knows the disastrous impact it would have on our economy if they were. Legislation for 90 per cent of the waste stream is aimed at the end treatment of waste, not how it is collected.

And despite being left alone to get on with it, disposal contractors can achieve very high levels of recycling. One of my clients runs a big skip business and with mechanisation achieves recycling rates from completely unsorted skip waste in excess of 90 per cent. In comparison, local councils achieved about 43 per cent last year and Ashford in Kent came in at a measly 12 per cent. My client is incentivised to buy the equipment to do this because the increases in landfill tax over the last few years have made the cost of putting untreated waste into a hole in the ground so punitive.

It is worrying that our economic rivals outside the EU are not imposing this obligation on their citizens. The odd angsty liberal country like Canada and New Zealand may be following suit but the global powerhouses of India, China, Russia and Brazil are not.

So having survived the Blitz, tuberculosis and the Wilson Labour government, my mother is ending her days sorting through rubbish like a slum-dweller on a landfill site in Nairobi. She does this because the bureaucrats in Brussels tell her she has to. They know that there are mechanised ways of getting the garbage to the same place, but these machines cost money.

Turning the whole of Europe into a recycling society is a bit like building the Pyramids. It’s a worthy and ambitious aim, but very expensive unless you use slave labour along the way.

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  • Son of Hayek

    I go to the recycling skips in car parks – paper, plastic bottles and cans and glass.

    I throw plastic food trays in the plastic bottles one – most are marked with the recycling symbol. More info here:


    Of course the answer lies in manufacturers using mire eco-firendly materials in the first place, but then our food would cost more.

    • Daniel Maris

      Yep, to stop contact with the air which accelerates the natural decomposition process. Next question.

      • Bonkim

        Fruit and veg best kept in cool location and not in plastic bags, Fridges have boxes at the bottom that are not fully sealed, cool but not very cold for that purpose.

    • Bonkim

      banana or other loose veg – to keep the items together and to avoid damage, also easier to manage/handle at home. However best for fruit and veg is paper bags that breathe. They start rotting faster in plastic that traps moisture – particularly if kept in a fridge.

    • dodgy

      Actually, bananas are held in plastic bags for a very specific purpose – from the wiki:

      Storage and transport

      Bananas must be transported over long distances from the tropics to world markets. To obtain maximum shelf life, harvest comes before the fruit is mature. The fruit requires careful handling, rapid transport to ports, cooling, and refrigerated shipping. The goal is to prevent the bananas from producing their natural ripening agent, ethylene. This technology allows storage and transport for 3–4 weeks at 13 °C (55 °F). On arrival, bananas are held at about 17 °C (63 °F) and treated with a low concentration of ethylene. After a few days, the fruit begins to ripen and is distributed for final sale. Unripe bananas can not be held in home refrigerators because they suffer from the cold. Ripe bananas can be held for a few days at home. If bananas are too green, they can be put in a brown paper bag with an apple or tomato overnight to speed up the ripening process.

      Bananas can be ordered by the retailer “ungassed” (i.e. not treated with ethylene), and may show up at the supermarket fully green. “Guineo Verde”, or green bananas that have not been gassed will never fully ripen before becoming rotten. Instead of fresh eating, these bananas are best suited to cooking, as seen in Mexican culinary dishes.

      Carbon dioxide (which bananas produce) and ethylene absorbents extend fruit life even at high temperatures. This effect can be exploited by packing banana in a polyethylene bag and including an ethylene absorbent, e.g., potassium permanganate, on an inert carrier. The bag is then sealed with a band or string. This treatment has been shown to more than double lifespans up to 3–4 weeks without the need for refrigeration.

  • Tom M

    I remember the local authority representative arriving at the factory, a young chap about 12yrs old I reckoned. He insisted that we put in place a waste separation facility explaining how this was environmentally friendly and designed to save the planet.
    We didn’t actually have a lot of anything to dispose of at all really mostly stuff from the canteen and offices. The process of the factory recycled its own waste anyway. However as the authority carries some clout we put in place numerous bins and notices around the factory and assigned the monitoring of these to the H&S bloke.
    The local authority bloke turned up again, made a few helpful suggestions as to how it could have been done better and left.
    Looking out of the office window some time later I noticed the waste disposal lorry in the yard emptying our bins. All into the same lorry. I rushed out waving my hands in disbelief and spoke to the driver. He admitted that all the bins were always tipped into the same lorry and henceforth all into the same local authority approved landfill site.

    • Daniel Maris

      Got to be the most moronic post today. Are you claiming all recycled waste goes to landfill? Er no, I don’t suppose so.

      • Bonkim

        Tom M makes a valid point – quite a bit does – if not to registered landfill but on private land as sending to landfill will incur charges.

      • Tom M

        Just to confound you further the landfill site where this was dumped was actually a huge crater of several acres that my company had created having extracted the minerals some years previously. My company rented the hole to the waste disposal company, the local authority licensed the tip for their use and we used the methane gas the site produced in the nearby factory.
        As far as being moronic goes I’m claiming nothing other than that for which I have first hand experience of.
        I have long lost the will to comprehend the inner workings of a local authority.

  • Bonkim

    Recycling is a religion – started by the previous government to get easy wins – recycling targets at huge expense.

    Multi-bin recycling collections cost 2 or 3X the cost savings from landfill diversion and increases carbon foot-print.

    The real question is how do you wean idiot council waste-officers to learn common sense business principles.

    • Daniel Maris

      Your middle “sentence” makes no sense. Please review.

      Recycling is not a religion. It is simply a sensible use of resources given our current state of technology.

      • Bonkim

        sensible use of resources:

        Resources have a value in terms of cost of collection and processing back to virgin materials – processing and transport have a crbon emission value.

        You will find substantial part of the materials recovered have low economic value and incur high carbon emissions. Glass for example sell for £5 to 25/tonne – costs £100 to 200/Te to collect and transport.

        Food and garden waste collection and composting – low efficiency collection + processing overall costs 2 or 3X landfill charges saved.

        Check your sums from Recycling firms – good for the waste business but poor value for you and me both in terms of cost and also carbon emissions.

        • Not to mention the man hours wasted in sorting this rubbish and putting it out or driving it to a collection site.

          • Bonkim

            As with other customer interfaces councils are trying to put more and more collection/recycling costs on the customer. If you add all that – the overall costs would be prohibitive – not counting the water and energy used by householders cleaning the bottles and cans before putting them in the right bins.

      • Recycling glass and probably cardboard/paper is not sensible. In fact many localities no longer do it because it’s simply not cost effective and there’s no harm to the environment in burying paper and glass. Plastics may be a different case because they don’t biodegrade (at present) and because of their physical threat to wildlife (in the oceans, mainly).

        • Bonkim

          Glass not that much but paper and cardboard fetch goo money if clean. Burying glass OK but not paper, wood, etc – best to send to an energy from waste plant to generate heat and electricity – best overall carbon footprint as it displaces fossil fuels for the equivalent heat and electricity.

          Plastics can be recycled and some grades fetch good prices – but collection costs very high because of bulk and low density.

          Energy from waste – best for most low value combustible materials.

    • Please tell that to Oliver Frost (on the Rifkind blog), who thinks it’s immoral to eat an egg — or give your poor dog one (an egg, that is).

    • anncalba

      We used to have a bottle bank in the village, a blue box for newspapers which was collected fortnightly, and a weekly bin collection. Then the council proudly announced they were “investing” (at council tax payers’ expence) in Eco Deco, or some such, which could miraculously sort everything, and removed the bottle bank and newspaper collection. We now learn that Eco-Deco does not work, and later this year we are to have bins for tins, glass, plastic, and paper, which will be collected fortnightly on various days. We are lucky, we have an outbuilding we can keep this lot in; most of our neighbours will have to keep them at the front of their terraced houses. The Council has “invested” (our money again) in many extra rubbish collection lorries, and the staff to go with them. A few years back my daughter lived in an area where bins were only empied fortnightly. She had two children aged under 2, so by the end of the second week there were upwards of 100 used disposable nappies in her bin. Nice! Yet another load of rubbish (pardon the pun) with unintended and unpleasant consquences. Whatever happened to common sence?

      • Bonkim

        Secretary of State Eric Pickles calls that a barmy system of waste collection – the only beneficiary being the waste contractors.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        I tried in vain to educate West Oxfordshire RDC, explaining how much more efficiently garbage collection was handled in Japan. But they didn`t want to know.
        Jack, Japan Alps

        • George Smiley

          Japan means big Government and even higher taxes. No, thank you!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Where there`s muck there`s money.
    Get with the programme, Britisher pals. Save the planet.

    • kievjoy

      Will you get it through your thick head. THERE IS NO SUCH BEING AS A BRITISHER. We are British, or Brits when it’s shortened. You are no more British than my Ukrainian next door neighbours.

      • Bonkim

        Brit·ish·er (brt-shr)

        n. Informal – A native or inhabitant of Great Britain.

        The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

        Britisher (ˈbrɪtɪʃə) – (not used by the British) n

        1. a native or inhabitant of Great Britain

        2. any British subject

        Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

        So it is correct usage in many parts of the world. Jack is obviously not a Britisher and unaware that the term is not generally used by the native British.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          See above, Bon. Or can I call you Thicko?

          • Bonkim

            I suppose as a congenital imbecile no one will notice your ignorant muttering.

          • kievjoy

            I know you won’t take this the wrong way Bonkim, but I’m talking English, not American. At least you refer to a dictionary, unlike Jack who uses made up words from programmes such as Money Python and thinks they are correct English.

          • Bonkim

            No problem – English has many variations across the Globe – not just American English and each culture changes meanings and usage somewhat – and in the larger English dictionaries, these are added if there are significant numbers using such terms. ‘Britisher’ is commonly used in South Asia and other parts of the ex-Empire where the finer points of the terms are not fully understood.

            You will find similar variations of terms in Russian or Ukrainian that has entered other languages.

            Smiling Jack is obviously from South Asia.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “Smiling Jack is obviously from South Asia.”

            Make “that resides” in.
            Live internationally, think international. Easier said that done for a risk averse loser like you, washed up on the UK beach with the rest of the trash.
            Jack, Japan Alps

          • George Smiley

            And the relevance to recycling is?

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “Jack is obviously not a Britisher”

            Meet Bon the moron.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Dictiioaries do not show that words are correct, just that they are used, eh gringo? is nigger a correct word? It is certainly used and can be found in dictionaries.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            You`re British, no question. Because Brits make at least one spelling error per sentence.

          • Bonkim

            Languages evolve continuously – spellings, usage, meanings, all – frequency of use determines acceptability. No right or wrong in language – many terms used today are new, or mean different thoughts compared with their meanings in the past. Of all European languages English is the most flexible same as the temperament and values – constantly evolving, and adapting. Simple!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        “You are no more British than my Ukrainian next door neighbours.”
        And you keiv, are a total *ucking moron. And I say this without the slightest fear of contradiction. If you believe the raving of a proven cyber stalking fantasist and liar (Jock McNutter) you must be the most gullible Muppet on these pages. And that really is saying something.
        For one origin of the expression, “Britisher pals” check the Monty Python Hitler skit, you humourless rube.
        Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

        • kievjoy

          Jack, Monty Python made up words as with the Hitler skit, showing that they couldn’t speak correct English. Now though I understand your stupid English, you get them from TV shows such as Monty Python, and just use a word you hear that has been made up.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “Taunton is a part of Minehead, already.” Arguably the funniest Python skit ever. Watch it on YouTube and don`t be a humourless rube all your life.

          • kievjoy

            Jack, I’m old enough to have grown up with Money Python, I’ve seen every episode at least three times. It doesn’t alter the fact that a lot of the words they made up.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            By the way, do you still think I`m not British. When cornered, people like you fall back on;
            “it was a wind up.”
            “Can`t you take a joke?”
            Britain`s a nation of bullies. No ifs or buts.
            Residing in UK would turn a saint into a seriously unpleasant person. So hate it and leave it, as I did over 40 years ago.
            Jack, Japan Alps

          • George Smiley

            No true 60-year-old can possibly be such a great time-waster as yourself.

          • Fergus Pickering

            What is a rube? Is it a word you made up? Of course all words are made up – except the ones that came down directly from God, that is.

            Oh God, Yankee vocabulary..

          • George Smiley

            You are obviously a foreigner to be able to find those old flogged-to-the-death rubbish still funny.

        • ian channing

          Jack, I know the Japan Alps pretty well and do not recall ever seeing a smiling black guy there, or a black guy in a bad mood, or indeed any kind of mood. Or come to that, any kind of foreigner, apart from the odd pastor trying to convert the Nagano heathens. No smiling blacks in Suwa, not in Kiso, not in Matsumoto, not around Kaikoma, nor Chino, nor along the Nakasendo. Are you really out there? Just curious ..

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “I know the Japan Alps pretty well”
            However the remainder of your contribution contradicts this statement. Nagano`s a large prefecture partly made up of the Northern, Central and Southern Japan Alps. Which reminds me, some years ago the resident nutter (the Rochdale *etard) stated that the Japan Alps don`t exist. I wonder if he`s of the same deranged mind. This the ignoramus you are relying on for your information. He also claims that the Trans-Siberian Railway didn`t operate in the 1970`s, even though I rode this train on my first visit to Japan in 1970.
            I only hint I`m Black to make myself more popular. It really is uphill trying to communicate with such humourless rubes as you ian. If you really want to learn the profile of the non-Japanese residents in Nagano Prefecture, I suggest you begin your research at the Ward Offices of the larger cities, rather than roaming the streets trying the identify “foreigners”. Start with the Portuguese population in Ueda.
            But you`re just a disagree for the sake of being disagreeable merchant aren`t you, admit it. When an Internet correspondent indicates their location, why should others doubt it? Bad case of envy, perhaps?
            Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

          • johnslattery

            You’ve got a great sense of humour, Jack, I’m not surprised you are so popular. Actually, I don’t think I care enough about your whereabouts to go to the Ward Office. My guess is you’re in Suwa, though.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Seriously, does it more banal, shallow and trivial than this?

        • George Smiley

          And this from the Japanese resident Pedant extraordinaire and Pedant-in-Chief! You are always more than welcome to retire from these pages and b****r off!

  • The trouble with lazy Londoners is they expect their rubbish to be consigned to a huge landfill hole in Hampshire or Dorset….Except there aren’t enough holes!
    We all sort our rubbish out down here , why can’t they?

    • FuglydeQuietzapple

      Many urban settings do not have room for all the various lidded bins yokels are issued with. I gather some of the sorting post collection is carried out by East Europeans, a bit like potato “picking” on conveyor belts I’m told. Rural councils are presumably too mean to employ them, and prefer householders to sort your own ..

      • Bonkim

        Quite correct. Collection systems designed by idiots chasing imaginary targets.

        • FuglydeQuietzapple

          Copies of those in foreign parts more like!

    • saffrin

      My recycling efforts begin and end with everything going into a used plastic shopping bag then straight into the wheelie bin.
      Paper, glass, food waste, plastic, anything and everything.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Ah yes sorting rubbish is a moral thing. The more bloody bins, the more moral you are. Actualy it’s a plot by those in authority to give the proles something to do.

  • Radford_NG

    My Labour controled Council already has a 2 bin policy:one for `waste`;one for all recyclables.They have a large `sorting machine`at the Depot.

    Are you sure the directive means all items must be seperated at the kerb-side? By any standards this is not `practicable`:(clause 28 EU directive).

    • Bonkim

      Forget the directive – localism act means councils can tailor their own collections and disposal. Most are incompetent and hence the problems.

      Also any EU directives have to be processed by UK government to pass it on to councils – councils don’t interact with the EU Directorate.

      At present there is no LATS fines as UK has met landfill targets. And as said councils don’t have to meet any statutory targets.

  • tjamesjones

    Look, like most people here I’m going to agree with all this by and large, but for heaven’s sake, is India really a global powerhouse? Is Russia? Brazil? China is getting with the programme faster than anybody ever has before, but all 4 of these BRICs have GDP’s far lower than the UK and if they have laissez faire attitudes to recycling then that may reflect a lack of civilising structure to much of their civilian existence, even if, as you say, in this case it’s a step too far. Mostly you can get things done more easily with a cavalier attitude, but that also counts for, say, the 140,000 people who die in traffic accidents in India each year (vs less than 2000 in the UK. China, Brazil and Russia are also in the many 10,000s even if you believe the official figures, only the US stops these 4 being the top 4 according to the Wikipedia version of the data). These are absolute numbers, but that’s also the source of their ‘powerhouse’ status.

    Agree with me or not, I yield to no-one in my dislike for labour, libdems or any statist political viewpoint.

    • Bonkim

      You will be surprised – regardless of legal restraints many poor countries have highly efficient recycling as human labour is cheap and material values relatively high compared with the developed west where labour is expensive and hence recycling costs very high compared with landfill charge savings – councils are incompetent and waste a lot of tax-payer money chasing imaginary recycling targets – it is more a religion rather than helping the environment – multi-bin complex collections are inefficient and increase carbon footprint apart from costing the earth. Total waste of time and money.

    • ChickPea57

      “Look, like most people here I’m going to agree with all this by and large, but for heaven’s sake, is India really a global powerhouse? Is Russia? Brazil? China is getting with the programme faster than anybody ever has before, but all 4 of these BRICs have GDP’s far lower than the UK”

      Erm- not so. China’s GDP is about 4x that of the UK. OK, its per-capita GDP is lower, but it’s the second-largest economy in the world, and gunning for first place- which it will achieve sometime in the next decade, I reckon.

      Brazil is 7th to the UK’s 6th, and there’s not much between us- they’ll overtake us inside 5-10 years. I remember when Britain was #3, I confidently expect to see us drop out of the top 10 in my lifetime (and perhaps the top 20).

      Russia is not far behind Brazil, in 8th place. India is 10th, just behind Italy.


      These are 2012 rankings, and are probably already out of date.

      And then the MINT countries are gaining, too (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey).

      • tjamesjones

        sorry, in my excitement I left off per capita. I stand by the rest.

        • ChickPea57

          In that case, we’re 23rd- and beaten by quite a few European countries, and by a handful of Middle Eastern ones, plus the USA (10th), Canada (8th), Singapore (9th) etc.

          If you use the World Bank list and not the IMF one, we’re outclassed by the Faroe Islands. 🙂

          • Daniel Maris

            Why are you surprised by the Faroe Islands? 70,000 people who can lay claim to a lot of fish.

          • ChickPea57

            It’s just that by tjamesjones’ criterion, they’re more of an “Economic powerhouse” than the UK, or indeed China.

  • saffrin

    If the recycling gurus want paper/class recycled, why not allow residents to sell it by the weight?
    When I was a boy scout, our scout group covered various areas weekly, collected tonnes of newspaper waste and sold it by weight to the local paper mill.
    Glass at one time was sold with a deposit on the bottle, I’d earn my pocket money running around the streets collecting empty bottles then collect the deposits.

    • post_x_it

      In most countries in Europe it remains common for supermarkets to operate bottle deposit schemes. I’m not sure why it never took off here. For all those who can’t be bothered to return their bottles there are others who will pick them up to make a bit of cash (as you mentioned). It’s much more energy efficient than a bottle bank because as long as bottles are fully intact, they can simply be sanitised and re-used rather than melted down.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Try reaching under vending machines.

  • Epimenides

    Recycling is a total waste of money and resources. Here is a video by Floy Lilley, an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute. She was formerly with the University of Texas at Austin’s Chair of Free Enterprise, and an attorney-at-law in Texas and Florida.


  • Ian Walker

    My local council, Shepway (neighbours with Ashford, interestingly) does not insist on sorting the recycling – we have a large wheelie bin in which glass, plastic and metal goes unsorted.

    It’s probably no coincidence that this far simpler system results in very high recycling rates – recently reported as over 45% for domestic waste.

    • Bonkim

      Quite right – the materials recovery facility can play tunes only removing valuable materials – best if you also have a waste to energy plant. Nest combination – lower cost and better carbon footprint overall.

  • James Heartfield

    … also one would be unwise to trust the large number of reluctant volunteers who do recycle to do it according to any agreed specifications, meaning that the waste collected would have to be checked

  • ian channing

    Having done an awful lot of PR work for all kinds of industrial companies, I suspect that the technology already exists for automated sorting of paper, glass, plastic, metal, wooden and other types of non-perishable garbage, and that manual sorting is a complete waste of time. It should be possible to chuck all your non-perishable garbage into one container, give it to the dustman, and let machines do the sorting at a garbage-processing plant. The reasons for placing the burden on the individual are political, I suspect, not practical.

  • Paul Cunningham

    I’ve got a recycling project that may well be worthwhile and doesn’t involve slave labour. Would like to discuss. pecunningham1@gmail.com

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Manufacturers of canned food products could help by using printed rather than paper labels on their products. Here we have to soak off the paper off imports before dumping the empty can.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • George Smiley


  • Peter McIlhon

    Well, it’s nice to know that the US isn’t the only country that buys into this drivel.

  • Six Edits

    While our limited intellect quickly comprehends usefulness, the complexities of judging merit make it impossible to be judged correctly.

  • Hutin Poy

    Put your Russians in the correct bin please. They are vile evil filth!

  • L Anthony

    What an acquiescent nation we are!
    Government says “Jump” and we all become Springheel Jack! There is one magic word so useful but so underused – NO.
    Imagine if householders decided not to grub about their waste and to dump everything in the bin and make the local authority do the job legislation tells them to do.
    Remember the days of steel dustbins and the weekly collection of waste under the Health Act? It didn’t matter what was in the bin, it was collected by those gangs of men adept at rolling the heavy bins on one edge to the bin lorry.
    Why not fight for one bin, one weekly collection and a council that believes in democracy not oligarchy.