Boston's refuse vehicle CCTV cameras reveal more than bargained for

Fitting cameras to refuse vehicles to combat fraudulent claims against the council has been mooted as a solution to such incidents, but could they also have other uses? Kate Dickinson learns more

Contaminated recycling, calls for repeat collections and claims of damage by refuse vehicles are common occurrences in waste management, but an unusual addition by one council may have found a solution. In 2014, Boston Borough Council (BBC) took the step of fitting CCTV cameras to its fleet of bin lorries, a decision met with mixed responses from the 65,000 residents of the Lincolnshire local authority. Three years on, the scheme has proved useful in ways the council may not have initially expected.

The borough operates a dual bin system: a blue bin for all recyclable waste, and a green bin for non-recyclable refuse, including food waste, not yet collected separately in the area. Residual waste is collected fortnightly by nine vehicles, each equipped with four cameras designed to give a 360-degree view of the immediate area.

The cameras were originally fitted, according to Matt Fisher, Operations Manager at BBC, in order to “reduce the risk of fraudulent claims for damages for injury, fraudulent insurance claims in respect of accidents and incidents, as well as to improve safety, efficiency, performance and customer service.” Claims include those of damage to property such as parked cars by passing collection lorries, as well as complaints of bins left uncollected. The camera footage is used to verify such claims and resolve disputes in a faster and more cost-effective manner.Boston refuse vehicle CCTV cameras reveal more than bargained for

Tangible evidence that the number of fraudulent claims has dropped, or that such claims are being processed more efficiently, is sparse, though the borough’s quarterly performance review reveals six non-collection complaints proven to be valid so far in 2016/17, and no invalid or fraudulent complaints on the subject, though whether this can be connected to the increased surveillance is not clear.

Elsewhere, however, footage from lorry CCTV cameras has clearly provided key evidence in cases not directly involving either bins or lorries. In the case of a collision occurring close to a refuse vehicle, police used the CCTV system on board the lorry to prove who was to blame. BBC’s portfolio holder for refuse collection and recycling, Councillor Michael Brookes, acknowledges that “the cameras are proving worthwhile in other areas. Properly authorised agents, such as the police, can review the footage to aid criminal investigations”.

Roving cameras onboard council vehicles might be a concern to some members of the public, especially given growing worries of how our personal data can be used. Cllr Brookes described the cameras as “all-seeing eyes”, but exactly what those eyes see – and how this is used – is subject to the surveillance camera code of practice, which sets out ways that CCTV systems must balance the stated purpose of the cameras with the public’s right to privacy.

This article was taken from Issue 90

To this end, BBC carried out a privacy impact assessment, published on the council website, which states that despite ‘the potential for invasion of privacy’, the scheme has controls in place in order to ‘mitigate the associated risks, including careful consideration of camera positions to reduce collateral intrusion’.

Transparency is a key principle of the surveillance camera code and something central to BBC’s approach, stated Fisher: “We carried out a media campaign with press articles in local papers, information on our website and all the vehicles are fitted with signage saying who is operating the cameras and where to go for more information.” Crews on board the lorries were provided with information about how and why the cameras were being used, as well as how best to respond to any public complaints.

In fact, the scheme has at times proved vital during interactions between refuse collectors and the public. An example of abuse towards workers was caught on their lorry’s CCTV cameras: a man who hid hypodermic needles in his bin was filmed threatening the workers who refused to collect the dangerous waste. This footage was successfully used against the perpetrator in court, something which shows the cameras’ utility in ensuring a safe working environment for refuse collectors.

Currently, 166 councils have CCTV in place on their bin lorries, and while fleets of crime-fighting refuse trucks on the nation’s streets are, unfortunately, an unlikely reality, the apparent multi-purpose nature of the cameras could well see more and more councils follow Boston’s example.