Local authorities are under continuous pressure to cut costs, reduce the amount of waste to landfill and increase recycling levels.
For many, the simple answer to these pressures is to reduce the frequency of the residual waste collections.
This is aimed at getting residents to take more direct responsibility for their wastes by encouraging them to segregate at source as their residual bin becomes full early in their revised collection cycle.
But such a service change is nearly always confronted with public, political and media disquiet. Only recently, residents in Blaenau Gwent were fuming, allegedly threatening to revolt as a result of the planned change to how often their refuse would be collected.
Politically, changing collection frequency has been a hot topic, with some politicians seeing their objections to change as a potential vote winner. As regards the media, the Daily Mail has been at the forefront of the attack on what it sees as “the abolition of weekly bin collections” which, among other things, it claims is to blame for the rising numbers of rats.
It is a wonder that any local authority bothers to put itself in the firing line. If any have done so, it is important to understand what is driving these pioneering waste managers and their elected members, who are often disparagingly described as ‘bin barons’ or ‘trash czars’.
Understanding the drivers, considering the decisions taken and the lessons learned from the councils at the forefront of the move towards three- and four-weekly residual waste collections is the theme of a research project funded by the Local Government Association (LGA) and being undertaken by Bexley Council and Ricardo Energy & Environment. Its findings will be available at the LGA conference in the summer.
Those of us working in the sector know that almost all this negative commentary is little more than political rhetoric and local point-scoring because the reality of alternate weekly collections during the past decade has been one of widespread success. Recycling rates are commonly above 50%, significant budget savings enable weekly food waste collections to be introduced and so reduce the nuisance of rotting food residues, and there are high levels of customer satisfaction and engagement.
So the evolution to three- and four-weekly residual waste collections is founded on strong evidence, established best practice and a period of learning and reflection. We should not be surprised to see so many authorities considering trials and implementing even more extended collection frequencies as a means of meeting local budget cuts.
We know that legislation requires a reduction in the amount of waste going to landfill and an increase in recycling. We also know that, apart from a duty to collect and dispose of household waste, there is nothing in any Act or regulation that imposes a particular frequency of collection on authorities. If the arguments can be made, then why not do it?
A number of councils have now weighed up the benefits and introduced or trialled three-weekly refuse collections. Interestingly, they provide a combination of collection frequencies of dry recyclables. But all have included weekly food waste collections, either separately or with garden waste.
Various containers and vehicles are used, and often depend on what was previously used. Few councils procure new equipment. This is reminiscent of the early days of alternative weekly collections, with pioneers like Daventry District Council taking a year or two to establish a blueprint of what works best.
The LGA-sponsored report will detail the decision-making processes in each case, consider the benchmarking, options modelling and business case development, plus the lessons learned from the roll-out processes. Here, we will focus on a cornerstone of the success for each council: communication.
There is no shying away from it, but communicating with all stakeholders about why the change is being planned and how it will operate is key. We have seen a raft of local protests against such decisions, from petitions and Facebook pages to a councillor dragging a wheelie bin 12 miles as a protest.
Communicating the need for the change in frequency and what it means for householders is an important component of the successful introduction of new services. A communications strategy is an essential tool in reaching the target audience with messages that engage them, increase awareness and lead to positive behaviour change when the new service starts.
This may seem obvious, but with authorities struggling to keep services operational, many will have given up any communications budget early on in their annual budgeting negotiations. But this short-term (and small) gain will simply undermine any planned longer-term (and larger value) gains attributed to successful extended frequency collection services.
So what are the positive messages to promote during any planned change? One is certainly the potential savings identified.
Gwynedd County Council has attributed annual savings of £350,000 to the change, a welcome boost to the savings it has had to make. Falkirk Council’s reduction in landfill costs, although offset by additional costs in collecting and processing extra food waste, are expected to result in a net saving of just under £400,000 a year.
Apart from cost, there is the increase in recycling levels, which takes on even more importance in the light of the provisional figures released by Defra in March, which show that the recycling rate for England has fallen in the past 12 months. The implications of this will make it difficult for the UK to recycle 50% of its residual waste by 2020 as required by the European Commission.
It is also worth noting that the UK will face financial penalties from the EU for failing to meet the recycling targets, the cost of which would ultimately be borne by residents. This provides further ammunition for councils considering a change.
Bury Council, the first in England to adopt a three-week scheme, reported an 8% increase in dry recycling within a few months.
The council’s overall recycling and composting rate reached 57.5% in May 2015, up from around 47% a year earlier, placing it within the top 20 collection authorities in England for household recycling. Bury is also expected to save £860,000 on disposal costs a year from introducing the system, with residual waste down by almost 4,000 tonnes.
Elsewhere, Falkirk’s waste strategy co-ordinator Robin Baird, who has been at the forefront of the change, said: “The move to three-weekly will take us to 60% recycling or just below.”
Importantly, the service has not only increased recycling rates in Falkirk but, according to the Accounts Commission, which carried out an audit, the council has maintained “a high level of user satisfaction”.
Falkirk is now moving from three-weekly to four-weekly collections to increase recycling further and reduce expenditure.
Fellow Scottish authority Fife Council was the first in the UK to fully realise a four-weekly plan. It estimates a cost saving of £350,000 a year in the short term, rising to £900,000 after 2021 when the ban on landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste comes into force in Scotland.
In Wales a number of councils have or are considering four-weekly collections, including Cardiff, Conwy, Blaenau Gwent and Bridgend. A council report for Conwy said it faces a £14m reduction in its budget for 2016-17, and collecting residual waste every four weeks presents an opportunity to save £558,000 a year.
In Northern Ireland, Bainbridge District Council near Belfast started collecting refuse every four weeks in January 2014, with recycling taken on a weekly basis. The trial was stopped in April 2016 when the council merged into a much larger one.
Figures released by the council showed that moving the collection rate to four-weekly led to an increase of 36% on the year before in the pilot areas. The report also showed that the tonnage of dry recyclables placed in green bins as a proportion of the total green and black bin tonnage rose by 82.5%. Organic waste recycling also rose by 59.6%.
If the early evidence from these authorities is accurate, then one way councils can ensure they increase the levels of recycling and reduce their costs is to plan to switch their residual waste collections from weekly to every three or four weeks.
Doing so will require detailed service option modelling, good dialogue with service users in the design and roll-out phases, and a focused and supportive communications campaign to help with the transition.
Of course, weekly food waste collections is a must, to help address the perceived negatives of flies, rodents and smells. But a well-planned extended frequency collection, with a supportive local population, is not only deliverable but desirable in our modern society. This should be the starting point for any standardisation of collection services. Defra, are you listening?
Councils currently involved
The councils undertaking extended residual waste collection services and part of the ongoing Ricardo study include:
Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council
East Ayrshire Council
Cyngor Sir Powys County Council
Rochdale Borough Council
East Devon District Council
Salford City Council
Somerset Waste Partnership
Adam Read is Ricardo Energy & Environment’s global practice director for waste management and resource efficiency. Brian Mayne is Ricardo Energy’s director in Wales