20 June 2014

Big Brother Blue Bin Bugs in Barnet

Bug, bug, bug, bug, bug, bug...................
Credit for this story has to go to a former and a serving councillor, both of whom have or had reservations about the recently introduced blue bin system. Mr Mustard is sure that, like him, they understand the need for recycling but they also value openness and transparency.

The first mentioned, the former councillor, is Brian Coleman who mentioned the bins were bugged some months ago. Mr Mustard seems to think that it was in a tweet but as Brian has disabled his account that tweet is history and old ones are hard to find. Mr Mustard's memory is that Brian thought the offending bug was behind the label, which it could have been as there are some like the one below which could be hidden there

but it wasn't. Mr Mustard then thought that the QR code must identify the property so he scanned it and got taken to the council web page on Recycling.

Mr Mustard then turned to the Internet and found the answer. The RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) bug is hidden under the lip of the bin, like so

the bug is the black circle with the 4 round holes
 and if you would like a closer look at the bug on its own, here it is

so that is a plastic cup containing a little electronic device and then it is filled with epoxy resin which sets, which contains your address (and goodness knows what else, Mr Mustard will ask) and which enables the council to track how much recycling you put out each week as the bin lorry can read the RFID when it is within 10cm of it and the new bin lorries weigh the bins as they go.

These little devices screw out if you have a suitable tool which Mr Mustard doesn't but you will find that with a strong screwdriver and a little leverage (wear gloves and safety specs please) the bug will be lifted out of its little hidey hole.

Some time back Mr Mustard tweeted the council as to who owns the blue bins i.e. is it the council or the resident but he doesn't recall getting a reply. Almost certainly if you have to pay for a replacement it must be you. If replacements are free then the council can argue that the bins are theirs thus the bug also belongs to them (even though they buy everything with the money that tax payers give them) and so you shouldn't destroy the bug. Make a little home for it somewhere safe in the house.

The Internet warned Mr Mustard that bin lorries could be programmed to not lift a bin which doesn't contain a bug. A clever but devious extra check on residents. He had to wait until blue bin day to find that his bugless blue bin was lifted into the air and emptied as per usual.

Readers may well recall that we had to have new bin lorries when recycling was brought back in house (and now there is talk of moving it out again; change is expensive so Mr Mustard hopes that idea comes to nothing). This must have been so that ones enabled to read RFID chips were obtained. The specification for the bins included that they would have RFID capacity and this may be the extra technical feature that won the contract for SSI Schaefer.

Now to the second councillor, the serving one, Cllr Khatri. Mr Mustard went to the first meeting of the Performance and Contract Monitoring Committee on 11 June. Here is the video. You can see Lyn Bishop the Director of Streetscene on goodness knows how much a year (when in 2011 she was an Assistant Director she was paid £88,986 p.a.) at about 21m 45s into the film talking about a possible reward/recognition scheme in a year or so when there is enough data and at 29m 30s up to 35m Cllr Khatri giving the secret nature of the scheme a good kicking, the sound could be better so he says

"the council........being very underhand"

Performance and Contract Management Committee Wednesday 11th June Item 5- from The Barnet Bugle Ltd on Vimeo.

Thanks as ever to Dan Hope of the Barnet Bugle for filming which gives us bloggers a backup resource to check that we haven't scribbled something down wrongly. There is a plan to change the layout of this committee so that the officers do not have to disrespectfully turn their backs on the public in future.

So when asked why the bugs were fitted to the bins the answer was to start collecting data, to enable a process of education and to bring in a reward / recognition scheme in a year's time. Later on Mrs Bishop says data isn't being collected at the moment but Mr Mustard is not convinced of that as otherwise how can an incentive scheme (we are to get points apparently) be worked out. Mr Mustard also thinks it is wrong headed. He already recycles all he can. So let's measure it. He generates say 10kg of materials each week. He will get points to turn into,say, Argos vouchers (just like the traffic wardens aren't incentivised?) if he generates 15kg of recycled materials a week. The only way to do that is to consume more (hic) or when he is looking after the neighbours' cats to tip their blue bin into his! Neighbours already share bins to save on clutter so who will get rewarded? and more likely, will the person who appears not to recycle at all get a letter and threatened with prosecution. The stick has been much more common than the carrot in Barnet hitherto. Will the cost of administration work out more than the value of the data collected or the extra recycling that has been generated?

As you will see from the video, Cllr Khatri was unhappy that the public generally didn't know about the bugs being in the bins, that they can be weighed and recorded to their address (this won't work at all in flats who have communal bins nor for the people who have asked for bags instead as they have no front garden, and the bags won't be bugged) and he thinks that the council have been very underhand.

Mr Mustard agrees with you Cllr Khatri.

This is typical behaviour of a council and especially of Barnet Council. Let us remind ourselves what the Chief Operating Officer claimed in the Guardian on 22 October 2013 

"The default setting is open government"

When did the new recycling system with undisclosed bugs start?
14 October 2013.

Has Barnet Council been open on bin bugs?

Has it hell as like.

You know what to do if you don't want big brother in your bin, simply remove and keep the bug safe. You are only obliged to recycle, not to submit to intrusive and undisclosed monitoring. 

Please do recycle though.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard


  1. This is very old news to me living in Crewe. We got wheelie bins years ago, and they all had bugs on them. The "Bugs on the Bins" also ran in the Daily Mail as well when these bins first came out. Of course, when one looks at the deviousness of Barnet Parking Dept, I suppose one could get a bit paranoid.

  2. Hi Fras, the bug itself isn't the problem, it is that firstly it was fitted without telling anyone and secondly that it is more likely to be used to punish than to reward. Barnet sued some people who didn't recycle when it was made compulsory some years ago.

    It is not open and transparent to fit a bug and not tell residents. Perhaps Crewe told its residents of the plan or even consulted them first?

    I could easily, in my one person household, fit all my recycling in next door's blue bin, and then it would look like I don't recycle at all whereas I am out a lot (all those council meetings) so leave a trail of recycling at other locations. The measurement system will need to be able to take account of these local variations and either won't be able to or will entail a massive and expensive administration system.

    The money would be better spent on educating everyone to recycle and then talking to residents where no recycling takes place to find out why.


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