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Feature: Tall order in Tower Hamlets

Providing a recycling infrastructure for 80,000 people living in blocks of flats is a mission in itself. But when these are drawn from a plethora of ethnic origins and the Government puts action off until the last minute, instead of facing the difficulties involved, then the challenge is a huge one.

While most London authorities had a number of years from 1995 to build up their doorstep recycling schemes, the unique logistics of Tower Hamlets in east London meant that the area was left until last and given just one year to implement its scheme.

Tower Hamlets Recycling Consortium (THRC) managing director Worku Lakew says: “Because we only had one year, we were caught out by the 10% rule. It made it impossible to achieve that figure in such a short space of time, even with the best will in the world. Despite our unique problems and limited time, we achieved 7%, which is not bad.”

In an area Lakew labels ‘gateway to the UK’ due to high intakes of Jewish, Irish, Polish, Bengali and eastern European immigrants at various stages of the last century, the not-for-profit organisation believes that engaging people is the key to recycling. “It is not about moving goods, but about moving people,” he says. “We must move them from not recycling to recycling, linking the process into their concerns for the environment.”

This mindset has seen every tool available used to reach out to people in the area, incorporating com-munity discussions, door-knocking, events, school assemblies and workshops. Various incentives are offered, including a £500 prize to the block of flats with the best recycling record. These awards are presented by the Mayor and feature in the local newspaper.

The venture is a community-based effort in every sense of the word, with employees reflecting the make-up of the area. In total, 95% have been recruited from local estates, comprising of Lithuanian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Somalian, Bengali, Caribbean and white.

“People like to see themselves represented in the workforce, which makes the ethnic mix very important,” says Lakew. “This in some way helps counter other cultural issues, such as access problems — with estates, blocks and even floors sometimes completely separated and that of certain residents not agreeing for us to enter their areas.”

But the work is potentially monotonous, with the organisation conscious of problems that may arise.

Lakew says: “I liken working for us to working in the scaffolding industry because you’re constantly going up and down tall buildings. Employees get good money, but don’t want to go to work as it’s quite boring. Scaffolding has the highest rate of absences, so we have to make sure that we offer incentives to motivate employees. We have to be a special company and make everyone feel part of it.”

Incentives include an internet café and regular bonuses. But with staff receiving annual increases double that of managers and nobody paid more than twice as much as the lowest, a family environment is created.

“The staff feel totally responsible — they make the business decisions. Lots of waste management com-panies avoid high rise buildings as it’s a huge task, but we have to make ourselves fit for the challenge,” he said. “Of 80,000 collections, we average 40 missed, which is a brilliant record. We have one of the lowest absence rates in London, no acci

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