Taking the waste debate to our doorsteps

Waste collection is a perennial key topic for citizens, with a majority of individuals polled in a 2013 YouGov survey citing it as the most important service delivered by local councils. A vigorous debate is taking place on how aspects of the service should be delivered – how often should collections take place, and how many bins should residents be given to divide their waste into?
   
For some, the issue boils down to the extent to which communities prioritise recycling and the level of resources available to meet targets. There is widespread support for recycling – a poll carried out this summer indicates that 94 per cent of people view it as important – but how are councils to act on this commitment? We take a look at the current situation and at proposals from the government and the European Union to address the issue and highlight some of the innovative practices that councils are adopting to improve their efforts in this area.

Going weekly – is it achievable?
In January of this year the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)  issued its recommendations for weekly waste collections, arguing that the practice should be rolled out across the country and tackling a number of ‘myths’ surrounding the impact going weekly would have on recycling rates. The DCLG’s report refutes claims that fortnightly collections lead to a reduction in overall waste generation. It cites statistics from Defra showing that the ten local authorities which produce the lowest amounts of waste, including Crawley Borough Council and the London Borough of Ealing, all have weekly collections.
   
Another ‘myth’ that the DCLG report aims to address has to do with public sentiment, namely the idea that “people don’t want their bins emptied every week.” The authors mention that a survey “found that two-thirds of the public thought government should mandate weekly collections of residual waste and that weekly collections were better.” Dartford is given as an example of public support for going weekly – 95.3 per cent of those who voted in a local referendum agreed with the council’s plan to maintain a weekly collection service for residual waste. The report also lists a number of problems it claims go hand in hand with fortnightly waste collections, including unpleasant odours and a rise in rat infestations.
   
This push from Government to double the rate of waste collection has been met with resistance in some quarters. There has been controversy in recent months over the refusal of some councils to introduce the weekly collection service recommended by Government, effectively rejecting hundreds of millions of pounds offered to help them roll this out. However, this situation could change if the Tories are re-elected next May, as Local Government secretary Eric Pickles has said the party may introduce a ‘minimum service standard’ which would require all councils to go weekly. Pickles told the Telegraph earlier this year: “The UK Government will continue to stand up for hard working people who deserve a decent bin service.
   
“One option being considered by the Conservatives is the introduction of a minimum service standard, which would reinstate the previous legal requirement for councils to collect rubbish weekly.”

EU rules
New EU regulations are to be introduced in January legislating for an increase in recycling rates to 70 per cent for municipal waste and 80 per cent for packaging waste by 2020, as well as for landfills to be banned by 2025. In addition, a revised version of the EU’s Waste Framework Directive calls for recycling waste, commonly managed as a single collection on the resident’s end in UK Local Authorities, to be divided into separate collections for glass, paper waste, metal and plastic wherever this is ‘Technologically, Environmentally and Economically Practicable’ (TEEP).
   
It is hoped that a greater emphasis on recycling will benefit the economy. The European Commission claim that 580,000 new jobs will be created by the new waste objectives by way of tapping into the possibilities of a ‘circular economy’, replacing a model of extracting resources for a single use before discarding them with one where they continue to be productive after initial use.

When the recycling target proposals were adopted in Brussels this summer, European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potonik called for member nations to reflect the complexity of waste management processes in their policy: “We are living with linear economic systems inherited from the 19th Century in the 21st Century world of emerging economies, millions of new middle class consumers, and inter‑connected markets. If we want to compete we have to get the most out of our resources, and that means recycling them back into productive use, not burying them in landfills.”

Innovative councils
Although a report issued this year by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee found that only a quarter of households are recycling their waste correctly, Local Authorities throughout the country are deploying interesting new strategies to improve the situation. Denbighshire County Council in Wales, for example, has turned its service provision around since being ranked as one of the lowest-performing councils in recycling in 2009. Since the introduction of measures like recycling wheelie bins and a greater recycling range of plastics, household waste in the area is of such a high grade that waste contractors pay the council for it. Household waste is rejected if it is contaminated by food or if waste paper is wet (this presents a fire hazard to contractors), and the council gets in touch with offenders to advise them of their obligations.
   
Rochford District Council presents another successful example. Council leaders have tried to emphasise the importance of recycling over general waste disposal by providing residents with largers bins for the former – 240 litres compared to 180 litre ‘residual bins’. Bins for garden and kitchen waste are collected weekly to avoid unpleasant odours while others are collected once a fortnight. Rochford’s head of environmental services, Richard Evans, told the Guardian: “In 2008, we were one of the lowest in Essex, at 29 per cent, but as soon as we launched this scheme it was almost immediately 60 per cent. Odd months we were going over 70 per cent.”

Meanwhile, the DLG report cited above offers case studies of councils that claim to have seen benefits from making waste collections once a week. For example, Lewes District Council accepted £2 million from the government’s Weekly Collection Support Scheme to introduce weekly food waste collection services and to promote the recycling message through social media and recycling competitions in the community. The reduction in landfill waste has been significant, and projections for the future look promising; Lewes is expected to have 47 per cent of all household waste composted or recycled by 2015-16, up from 23 per cent in 2011-12. The new service model has also proved to be advantageous for the council purse, with the average cost per household collection dropping from £47 per household in 2011-12 to £45.33 under the current system.
   
It remains to be seen how councils will respond to new EU directives on waste disposal, and to the Tories’ stated policy of making weekly collections compulsory for all local authorities. While, for many local authorities, these targets represent a daunting shift from current practises, innovative councils like the ones described here can point out a way for people throughout the UK to follow.

Read the DCLG report

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