By Jason Groves
Councils are secretly rifling through thousands of dustbins to find out about families’ race and wealth.
Waste audits allow officials and private contractors to check supermarket labels, types of unwanted food – and even examine the contents of discarded mail.
The local authorities are using social profiling techniques to match different types of rubbish to different ethnic groups or wealthy and poor households, as part of a recycling drive initiated by the last Government.
Householders can then be placed into social categories, which in some areas range from ‘wealthy achievers’ to the ‘hard-pressed’ – and subsequently targeted for future leafleting campaigns.
But last night critics condemned the move as ‘highly intrusive’. Most homeowners have no idea that their rubbish is being searched or that data collected could be used to prosecute those who place rubbish in the wrong bin.
At least 90 councils ran covert bin-rifling operations last year, according to Freedom of Information requests.
They targeted a total of more than 10,000 families and argue that Government guidance suggested all checks on bins should be done without the knowledge of householders.
‘Ideally, you do not want to inform the public of an audit taking place, as this could alter their disposal behaviour,’ it said.
But the secret nature of the audits will raise concerns about privacy. Although some councils used their staff to conduct the operations, many hired in private contractors.
Often, officials deliberately picked streets where different types of men and women lived to see if their ethnic origins, type of home or wealth affected the amount or rubbish they threw out.
Councils in Leeds, Poole, Kensington and Chelsea, Swindon and Cheshire East all used some form of social profiling to target homes for bin searches.
In Hackney, East London, researchers targeted homes based on their potential ethnic and social mix, collecting data separately on four different groups, including ‘multi-ethnic private flats’ and ‘prosperous young professionals’ flats’.
The study found that ‘as expected’ the ‘educated urbanites’ living in ‘trendy’ flats threw away the least rubbish.
In Bracknell Forest, Berkshire, researchers sifted through discarded food. They concluded that more than half of it could have been recycled or composted if householders had behaved more responsibly.
Officials in Wokingham, Berkshire, went through the bins of almost 500 homes, identifying almost a ton of rubbish that could have been recycled.
Dartford Council, in Kent, has refused to carry out the secret surveys.
Jeremy Kite, who is the council’s Tory leader, said: ‘I strongly object to the analysis and examination of waste put out for collection unless specific permission is obtained from the householder and have intervened to prevent such exercises in Dartford on more than one occasion. I do not believe it is right.’
Councils cited little-known guidance from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for secret searches. Enfield Council, in North London, said: ‘In line with Defra guidance we took the view that householders would not be notified in order to avoid prejudicing the results.