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Collections are a careful balancing act

Last month, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) published a report, Delivering Sustainable Growth, which set out a number of recommendations designed to help the waste industry reach its full potential and achieve the ambitions of a circular economy model.

The ESA believes that a more joined-up approach to waste management between local authorities is key to improving efficiency, and it also suggests the harmonisation of collection systems on a wider level to help manage waste streams more effectively across the supply chain.

The report states that “transferring responsibility and funding of collection systems from local authorities to product supply chains would create incentives for producers to be involved in the design of collection systems which deliver materials that meet their own requirements, while reducing the financial burden on local authorities”.

This echoes resources minister Rory Stewart who, commenting earlier this year on WRAP’s plan to bring greater consistency to household waste and recycling collections in England, said: “This is not just about what local authorities do, though – all parts of the value chainhave a role to play in achieving greater consistency and improving recycling.”

He had previously expressed a desire to see councils move towards five or six types of collection system during the next five to 10 years, criticising the “madness” of the status quo. This has seen a significant variety of collection methods employed across the country, largely dictated at a local level by district, borough or unitary councils. But discussions have outlined the potential for as few as three recommended systems likely to emerge.

While there is undoubtedly a need to reducefinancial burdens on local authorities, any transition will need to be managed carefully and sensitively to ensure that a practical and workable solution is achieved.

There needs to be a clear business case for change. A good starting point would be a thorough assessment of current practices to identify the benefits of existing schemes and pinpoint the most effective ways to deliver economies of scale within the industry. However, there also needs to be far greater input from the private sector, resulting in a more co-ordinated effort to improve efficiency across the wider supply chain.

It is unlikely that monetary incentives will be offered to encourage councils to adopt a change of collection scheme, so any solutions designed to standardise existing practices must be financially viable, while allowing authorities sufficient time to adapt. As Stewart points out, “a lot of these

people have signed contracts that are 20 to 25 years long”.

But he also believes that it is “perfectly realistic” that, during the next 10 years, 70% of councils will use just three or four types of collections, providing they show “leadership, energy and a bit of team”.

There simply is no one-size-fits-all approach, and it is important to consider that there are often a number of factors behind regional variations in refuse collection methods. These include the nature of the terrain in which collection takes place, local waste disposal methods and public demand in relation to frequency of collection. As such, standardisation on a national scale, and even in many cases at a regional level, is simply not practical.

However, despite this, there are some instances where synergies between regional authorities are delivering greater value and efficiency through the formation of strong partnership arrangements with suppliers. For example in Nottinghamshire, the county council and seven district councils entered into a 26-year private finance initiative contract with Veolia. This is certainly an approach that could be replicated on a wider scale, although it will be necessary to look beyond geographical boundaries to identify suitable opportunities for standardisation.

There needs to be a trade-off between providing cost efficiencies and delivering the right solutions to the market. But if this balance is achieved, it will enable the whole sector to operate as sustainably and effectively as possible, achieving long-term value through economies of scale and resulting in a harmonised approach to waste collection.

Lee Rowland is sales and marketing manager at Dennis Eagle


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