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Aiming high

With flats making up 50% of London’s housing stock but contributing to only 10% of its recycling rate, the capital was the ideal setting for a conference looking at the challenge of recycling within multi-occupancy housing.

Last month Sita brought together international experts from Canada, the US, Italy and the Netherlands, to see what we could learn from the experiences of others and produced a document ‘Looking Up: International recycling experience for multi-occupancy households’ summarising the key learnings from each case study.

As the UK’s population continues to grow, it is likely that more and more people will live in flats, so extracting the maximum recyclates from these households will become increasingly important in order to achieve higher recycling rates.

Opening the conference, recycling minister Lord Henley commented on the “importance of localism” when dealing with flats recycling, adding that “one size does not fit all” as multi-occupancy housing varies considerably from area to area and schemes must therefore be tailored to fit the situation in question.

“Success in Salerno has been put down to the city’s decision to introduce a kerbside recycling collection, replacing its roadside bring bank recycling system”

This appears to ring true from the four examples presented: Toronto in Canada, New York City in the US, Salerno in Italy and Delft and the surrounding areas in The Netherlands. Each of these places has different populations, housing stocks and recycling systems and the multi-occupancy housing recycling rates achieved in these places also varies significantly.

In New York, the recycling rate ranges from <10-30%, in Toronto it is 16%, in Delft 21% and in Salerno a whopping 72%. However, comparisons cannot simply be made on the recycling rates they have achieved, as these are influenced by factors such as waste composition and target collection materials. One of the keys to the high recycling rate achieved in Salerno, for example, is its collection of organic waste. Whereas organic waste is not collected in New York City and in Toronto is only collected as part of a limited ‘request only’ service.

Success in Salerno has been put down to the city’s decision to introduce a kerbside recycling collection, replacing its roadside bring bank recycling system. The scheme was set up and rolled out over a two-year period and a critical factor to its success was the very detailed assessment of each building and the volume of waste arisings expected, so that the size and type of container was matched to the building accordingly. Ahead of rolling out the new scheme, the participation of apartment block owners was also gained and promotional activities were run.

The importance of buy-in from residents or block owners has been recognised by the authorities in both New York and Toronto. In late 2006, New York started running a programme called the New York City Apartment Building Recycling Initiative, open to both staff and residents (over 18) of any of the 150,000-plus apartment blocks in the city. This helps train them as recycling educators and facilitators, so creating a person on site to answer recycling queries and take ownership of recycling.

“The importance of buy-in from residents or block owners has been recognised by the authorities in both New York and Toronto”

According to New York City department of sanitation deputy director Samantha MacBride, getting this support and buy-in from building staff is critical to successful recycling rates. She adds that low-income, densely populated neighbourhoods have very low apartment recycling rates, while blocks in wealthy neighbourhoods have some of the city’s highest.

The sanitation department has ruled out educational awareness as the reason for this disparity and says it is due to the role played by building staff. In lower income areas, building staff are more likely to have stretched resources, with less time to spend on reinforcing recycling, whereas in wealthier neighbourhoods they are more able to keep check on recycling compliance.

This involvement of staff and residents also helps to create accountability. As MacBride explains, the key difference between recycling from single-occupant houses and from flats is the lack of accountability, as it is difficult to trace who has and has not recycled from a block of flats. In New York, residents can be fined for not recycling, but MacBride says that in reality it is only single-occupancy households that are fined, as it is too difficult to trace offences back to individual residents from flats. “Tenants are never fined for not recycling and the link between the [waste] generator and the collector is lost,” she says. “Why bother to strive for the collective good when others don’t?” she says.

While this programme has reached only a very small proportion of the city’s buildings so far, New York plans to develop the programme and engage more with organised janitorial labour organisations, the residential real-estate industry and tenant advocacy groups.

“Experience has shown that drop-off recycling only gets a third to half the capture rate of kerbside service, which is very convenient”

Across the border in Canada, the recycling rate from flats in Toronto is around 16% compared to the 60% achieved by single-family dwellings. According to Maria Kelleher, owner of Toronto-based consultancy Kelleher Environmental, one of the critical reasons it has identified for this marked difference is the convenience of the recycling programmes available.

In Toronto, residents of multi-occupant buildings must take their recycling to the ground floor or basement to drop it off in containers. She says that “experience has shown that drop-off recycling only gets a third to half the capture rate of kerbside service, which is very convenient”.

The city faces the added impact of cold, dark winters, which impact on the willingness of residents to trudge down to basements or outside recycling areas in harsh weather. It has also found a particular challenge in buildings which have rubbish chutes on each floor, which make the convenience of disposing of all waste much easier than taking your recyclables to a dedicated area for recycling. It is therefore trying to make recycling more convenient, but creating recycling rooms in buildings, for example.

Like New York, Toronto has set up a scheme called the the 3Rs Ambassadors programme to recruit volunteers to become recycling ambassadors for their blocks. It also runs an outreach programme that includes best practice seminars.

But the Canadian city also decided to go down the taxation route. It introduced a waste levy in July 2008, which was meant to provide the financial incentive for building owners to reduce their waste and provide the authorities with the finances to establish the infrastructure required.

The programme was designed to force residential blocks to recycle because, in order to receive residual waste collections from the local authority, they also had to also participate in its recycling scheme. But this backfired somewhat when apartment buildings realised they were going to have to pay a lot more money for their waste collections, and the private sector stepped into the market, under-cutting the local authority.

So Toronto council had to go back to the drawing board and introduced a new, simpler levy system in July 2010. This has helped to claw back the number of buildings signed up to its scheme, but currently this still falls short of the number the city budgeted for, meaning a loss of income to the local authority.

In The Netherlands, in the Hague, publicly-owned waste collection company Avalex handles the waste and recycling for six municipalities. Around 29% of the residents it provides a service for live in multi-occupancy housing, although this varies dependant on area, with 38% of Delft residents living in flats.

Avalex director Peter Floor explains that most residents from flats are provided with underground recycling systems for the key recyclable materials, as well as organics and residual waste. But, as he explains: “The volume of household waste in the Netherlands has not grown since 2004 but nor has the recycling rate, despite running various [awareness] programmes.”

“Avalex will be piloting a project where residents can bring plastics, paper, glass, textiles and aluminium to ‘recycling shops’ in shopping centres and receive payment for it”

The country is currently recycling 51% of its household waste but has a target of 60% to be met by 2015. Floor is concerned about the ability to achieve this: “In my opinion the level of convenience [for waste disposal] is too high. You have to walk or ride several kilometres to deposit your recycling but have a waste container in your back yard.”

Regulations dictate that residual and organics receptacles must be located near housing, whereas containers for paper and glass tend to be located in shopping areas and car parks. So it involves more effort on the part of residents to recycle. Floor feels that there are no real incentives in place to get residents to change their behaviour and that the authorities and waste companies need to shift their focus from the logistics of waste collection to the value of the recyclable materials that can be generated from households.

In order to incentivise residents to separate their recyclables, Avalex will be running a pilot project in the Hague area during early 2011, where residents can bring plastics, paper, glass, textiles and aluminium to ‘recycling shops’ in shopping centres, and receive payment for it. Floor says families could earn back the equivalent of their local tax on waste disposal if they fully recycle.

He is hoping the scheme will appeal to children aged 8-15, who would be willing to separate out the materials in return for some pocket money, while also tapping into the ‘pester power’ children have to educate their parents.

Assessing the key learnings from the four international case studies, Resource Futures research and technical director Dr Julian Parfitt says the examples show that high recycling from flats is possible and sounds a positive note for the future: “Based on the evidence provided by the highest performing areas detailed in these case studies, there is no reason why the gap between ‘high rise’ and ‘low rise’ recycling rates in the UK’s cities shouldn’t be narrowed significantly in the future.”

Influences on recycling rates

Drawing conclusions from the four case studies, Resource Futures research and technical director Dr Julian Parfitt notes that all four cities are operating on significant scale and, with the exception of Salerno, have recycling schemes operating in multi-cultural, transient and lower income communities, which makes it challenging.

He highlights the following factors that influence recycling rates from flats:

  • Adequate recycling capacity that is easy to access
  • Convenience – fiscal policies and enforcement cannot be used effectively if the scheme is inconvenient to use
  • The lack of direct link between individual waste producers and their waste
  • Limited potential to influence tenants through property owners
  • Clustering of recycling bins and residual waste bins helps maximise convenience
  • Clear labelling of recycling areas and containers
  • Importance of communications and active engagement with residents, owners and building staff
  • Tailoring container capacity and provision to each block rather than a one size fits all approach

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