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Recycling and behavioural change

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In July communities secretary Eric Pickles announced he would write to the Audit Commission and ordering it to revise its advice to councils on alternative weekly collections (AWC). The decision led to headlines predicting a return to traditional weekly refuse collections and away from collecting recycling one week and residual refuse the next, which has become increasingly common and is associated with higher recycling rates.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given that AWC tends to polarise opinion: you either believe in weekly collections or you back recycling and AWC. But both arguments are too dogmatic and fail to address the real issue: how do you get people to recycle more?

Service design needs to focus on the outcomes we seek to achieve, including quality of service, environmental benefits of recycling and lower costs. In our experience the choice isn’t simply weekly refuse collections or AWC, a third option exists which delivers a combination of both at a lower cost.

The greatest costs for any waste management scheme lie in residual treatment and disposal so minimising residual waste and maximising recycling whilst ensuring best value from the material recovered is key

A weekly collection of food waste combined with a weekly kerbside sort collection of plastics, glass, paper, cardboard, cans and textiles targets around 85% of the contents of the average bin. In this situation there is no need for weekly residual waste collections and residents don’t object to a reduction in frequency.

Why? Because they get weekly collections for the perishable waste they don’t want hanging around. Because recycling is now easier than wasting, the tonnage and value of dry recyclables collected is also maximised.

The greatest costs for any waste management scheme lie in residual treatment and disposal so minimising residual waste and maximising recycling whilst ensuring best value from the material recovered is key.

This means collecting recyclable material so almost all of it is used in closed loop recycling where it has the highest value, and collecting segregated food waste so it can be processed by anaerobic digestion or in-vessel composting. We also need to separate garden waste so it can be processed cheaply through windrow composting.

To deliver this requires a kerbside sort system. In Somerset this has allowed us to achieve recycling rates in excess of 65% and cut costs because the tonnage of residual waste and its treatment or disposal costs are greatly reduced.

And this brings us to whether you need to incentivise people to use and support recycling schemes. We have proved that a service which makes it easy to recycle and includes food waste will secure high participation and capture rates without artificial incentives. It also has a marked waste minimisation effect.

In our experience the act of introducing food waste collection delivers a reduction of up to 25% in the amount of this waste being generated, as people realise how much they are wasting and cut the amount they throw away, thereby saving themselves money as well.

This is why I strongly believe that incentives schemes are an unnecessary cost and complication. Our experience demonstrates the way the service is designed has the biggest impact and can easily achieve government targets of 50% recycling at a lower whole system cost than traditional alternatives.

We really can transform waste management services and achieve more with less.

Stephen Sears, director of policy and strategy, local government services, May Gurney

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