In September 2006 the residents of Davy Avenue in Scunthorpe became the unlikely champions of a recycling backlash which, on a national level, continues to fester like so many rubbish bags left in the sun.
The street’s residents began a protest as a council waste truck pulled in to their road, objecting to the every-other-week collection introduced by the council. The dispute degenerated to the point where the police were called, and enraged householders ended up holding forth on the pages of the tabloids. In turn, North Lincolnshire Council wrote a stinging letter of rebuke.
Yet the issues raised in particular, people’s dislike of the alternate-week collection system now prevalent across nearly half the country have yet to be dealt with, and while there is a general consensus that the UK needs to improve its recycling rates, there seems to be much less willingness to take the drastic steps necessary to effect real change.
The fact that kerbside collections, the cornerstone of most local authority waste services provision, hit the headlines illustrates the pressure councils are under to deliver on the government’s pledges to increase overall recycling rates. This same need has also resulted in more radical schemes being tested the controversial fortnightly collection service and ‘pay-as-you-throw’ schemes.
The volume of biodegradable waste going to landfill must be reduced by a quarter of the 1995 totals by 2010 or the country faces swingeing EU fines of up to£180m a year. Levels then need to reduce further, to 50% by 2013 and 35% by 2020.
For England as a whole, 31% of household waste was recycled in the financial year 2006-07, up from 27% in 2005-06. This year the targets for even the lowest-performing councils have risen to 20%. Last month the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs also confirmed that packaging waste recovery and recycling targets for the UK will increase from 2008 onwards. The new recovery targets are 72% in 2008, 73% in 2009 and 74% in 2010.
Local authorities around the country have tried a host of different methods to improve recycling rates, and almost half have moved to alternate-week collection services, with general rubbish collected fortnightly. However, households in areas losing their weekly service have complained of rotting food waste, noxious smells, disease and an increased rodent and insect problem. Health and safety officials have also been involved after complaints from binmen about the weight of wheelie bins they have to move.
“The weekly collection was established as the norm and I think inevitably there are complaints when the collection changes to alternate weeks,” says Laura Grundy, recycling officer with top-performing authority Forest Heath DC . Ms Grundy believes an accurate waste audit is needed to ensure that the overflowing bins complained about by the residents of Davy Avenue do not become a flashpoint. “Without a good waste audit you can run into problems,” she concedes.
Mark Shelton, waste policy manager for Cambridgeshire CC , whose area includes some high-performing district councils, adds that early alternate-week pioneers have probably suffered the most complaints. South Cambridgeshire DC was the first of the district councils to bring the system in, and Mr Shelton recalls that numerous concerns were raised.
“What we’ve found since is that the same issues arose in each area as it was introduced,” he says. “So people were worried about smells, flies and overflowing bins, and you need to gear up for that, with extra staff on the switchboard to help people.”
Indeed, waste collection is likely to be a major issue in the local elections in May. Five councils not yet chosen are set to pilot a pay-as-you-throw scheme, but late last month MPs slated the plans as “a messy compromise”. In a report, the Communities & Local Government Select Committee accused the government of being too timid in its approach and said the five proposed pilot schemes would not provide the evidence needed to judge whether all local authorities should offer the service.
Instead, it called on the government to allow councils to run their own charging schemes. Committee chair Dr Phyllis Starkey added: “In our earlier report we criticised the government for making a half-hearted tilt in the direction of charging householders directly for the collection of their rubbish. It has since, in the face of highly negative media coverage, mounted a wholehearted retreat from even the limited policy outlined last May.”
The committee said that because none of the pilot schemes would begin before April 2009, it was unlikely there could be any roll-out of a national scheme before 2012-13. This was despite clear evidence in other European countries most of which do charge directly for waste collection that the system led to a cut in waste.
But tentative steps are being taken by local authorities. Last month Brent LBC voted to make recycling compulsory, following the example of other borough councils Bromley , Hackney , Harrow and trailblazer Barnet LBC , which adopted the idea back in 2005. Under such schemes households are written to and visited if they persistently fail to recycle, with the ultimate sanction of a£1,000 fine. Portsmouth City Council has just decided to adopt the same system.
However, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) estimates that 1,700 new facilities and£10bn of investment are required to deliver the UK’s waste strategy.
“New facilities are rare, and larger treatment plants have not been built or permitted,” said ICE’s annual report. “There has been little or no leadership promoting energy recovery. There are considerable hurdles to overcome if imminent targets are to be met.”
“Resistance from residents to recycling facilities extends from street-corner bottle and paper banks, through small composting facilities to even fairly small-scale plants and composting sites,” admits Kay Twitchen (Con), Essex CC councillor and board member of the Environment Agency .
“Bearing in mind that residents are voters and these facilities are provided by or on behalf of local councils, it is not difficult to see why the problem exists. What is needed is not strong-arm planning regulations but better understanding and ownership by residents of the problems and issues.”
Certainly the increase in fortnightly collections seems a one-way journey, although one or two authorities have reverted to weekly services after trialling fortnightly schemes. The simple fact is that, regardless of the angry Davy Avenue residents, collecting general waste every two weeks does encourage recycling, which is vital to avoid EU penalties. In the meantime, it will fall to councils to keep pushing forward the recycling agenda and win over the public while waiting for a firmer commitment to recycling and more investment from the government.
Recycling: who's doing what?
The issues surrounding recycling vary markedly from one authority to another according to the demographics, housing stock and the nature of the region. Consequently, there are many examples of councils tackling the issue with very individual schemes.
Worcestershire CC , Herefordshire Council and Worcestershire’s district councils have been working together to encourage residents to install food waste disposers under their kitchen sinks, with cash-back incentives of up to£80. Food waste disposers can divert up to 27% of household waste away from landfill.
When Pennine borough Calderdale MBC in West Yorkshire found itself with spare cash in its budget back in 2003, Mark Dempsey, parks and street section support services manager, led a project to use collected leaves as compost. It now processes 1,000 of the 6,000 tonnes collected annually, which are used on the council’s parks.
In South Tyneside MBC all plastic and cardboard waste not included in the accompanying kerbside collection is placed in dedicated plastic sacks, put in the domestic wheelie bins with general rubbish, and separated after collection. Over 25 tonnes of card and more than 10 tonnes of plastic bottles are collected every month.
As part of its efforts to extend to groups with traditionally low recycling rates, Bexley LBC has reached out to its 3,000-strong Sikh community, many of whom worship at the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwar temple, which runs a free kitchen, and the waste is now collected in free on-site recycling bins.
St Edmundsbury BC in Suffolk uses a brown bin for compostable materials, which are turned into soil improver and sold to individuals and organisations such as landscaping companies. “At the time of implementation we were at about 35% for recycling,” recalls Sandra Pell, head of waste management services. “Since then we have cracked the 50% rate.”