Is it time for a new perspective on residual collections?
17th June 2015
Post by our guest blogger, Sarah Ottaway, Municipal Recycling Manager at SUEZ environnement
Amid a backdrop of widespread budget cuts and a growing awareness of key sustainability issues, is it time to challenge our expectations about the way recycling and refuse is collected from our homes?
Local authority recycling services have diversified significantly over the last decade but only a handful of authorities have dared tamper with refuse collections. Whether it’s the size of the bin, a cap on the number of bags, or the frequency of collections, most have opted to avoid the potential political hostility inherent in such an attempt. So why is there such a strong feeling about the need to protect refuse collections?
As a front line service, used by the majority of households on a regular basis, waste and recycling collections are a structured, tangible, display of our hard-earned council tax contributions in action. Along with local roads, refuse collections are one of the most visible displays of local authority spending and since every householder is entitled to have their refuse collected, there is a tendency to ignore the wider spectrum of services that all local authorities are required to provide.
This leads many to directly, and perhaps only, associate their council tax spend with their own refuse collection service and thus, any perceived reduction to that service, will inevitably lead some to feel that they are no longer getting value for money (if they thought they ever did get value for money in the first place?!).
This is not helped by certain national media outlets, and the former DCLG minister Eric Pickles, who have, in the past, championed the “basic human right” of a weekly refuse collection – suggesting that any shift to a less frequent service is simply an attempt to pull the wool over the tax-payers’ eyes.
However, the reality of reviewing refuse collection systems is far more positive and we are already seeing encouraging results from those who have been brave enough to make the change. For example, recent news reports show that Swansea Council has seen its residual waste reduce by a quarter in the 12 months since their ‘three black bags’ policy was introduced, alongside an increase in recycling rates. While Falkirk Council, who pioneered the three week residual collection system, has seen as much as a 75 per cent increase in food waste capture rates, alongside increases in recycling capture rates for other materials.
This isn’t just a good news story, these authorities are achieving significant disposal cost savings. For example Bury Council, the first authority to move to three weekly collections in England, is predicting an annual saving of £860,000 and Falkirk Council is expecting to hit the saving forecast of £385,000.
The notion that less frequent refuse collections are short-changing tax-payers is incorrect and, actually, the reverse is true – many households have more disposal capacity than they ever did. With recycling services expanding across the country, and a growing number of authorities collecting all the key dry recyclables specified under the recent TEEP legislation (paper, glass, metals and plastics) along with organic collections, this has led to an increase in the capacity households have for their waste.
For example, an authority that, in days gone by, simply collected a 240 litre bin of refuse every week, but has subsequently introduced alternate weekly collections along with a 240 litre bin of recyclables and another of garden waste, as well as providing a 23 litre bin for food waste collected every week, now provides 383 litres of capacity every week – a 37 per cent increase.
Communication and education remain an important tool to improve householders’ participation and trust in these services, but unfortunately, we cannot escape the fact that many households have the surplus capacity to make a choice as to where they put recyclable materials and many are not making the most sustainable one. In my role, I see numerous waste audits from around the country and more than half of those I am privy to show significant percentages of recyclable materials in residual waste bins.
However, cutting residual capacity or frequency isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and clearly, densely populated urban areas where space is at a premium, such as London, would have big challenges in reducing the frequency of their collections.
I also believe that refuse services should not be changed lightly and any reduction in frequency or capacity should be matched by capacity in other materials – like food waste and absorbent hygiene products (i.e. nappies) which are often the major concern of residents, particularly in areas with lots of young families.
Some might argue that cash-strapped councils can’t afford to implement complicated and expensive services, but many local authorities actually realise overall cost-savings by switching to more comprehensive methods of waste collection, as the collection of recyclable material offsets the disposal costs associated with residual waste. As local authorities up and down the country try to find cost savings as part of an austerity programme which looks set to stay for the moment, the silver lining may just be that we end up with infrastructure which encourages more cost efficient, sustainable practices – and household recycling collections replacing refuse as the representative of a value for money front line service.
Our guest blogger, Sarah Ottaway became SUEZ environnement’s Municipal Recycling Manager in early 2015, following over eight years working as part of the Surrey and South Gloucestershire Waste Minimisation Teams. Sarah’s main areas of expertise include public engagement, behaviour change and working with the operational teams to maximise the diversion of waste from disposal.