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Pickles calls for simpler recycling systems

Complex recycling systems are one of the reasons behind stalling recycling rates in England, the communities secretary has said in his latest plea to support weekly collections.

Speaking at RWM, Eric Pickles said that a “proliferation” of schemes and number of bins had affected public participation and hindered England’s recycling performance.

“We need a greater degree of rationalisation and to get the public on board,” he said. “We need to learn from behavioural insight. If we make it easier for families, they will recycle more.”

Pickles added that councils should not adopt a “draconian approach”, but to make recycling more accessible and maintain weekly collections.

He described the latter as “the most visible sign of public service” and said that evidence indicated they contributed to increasing recycling.

Pickles reiterated the Government commitment to “safeguard” weekly collections and listed a number of initiatives the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) had taken in the past years, including:

  • removing laws introduced by the previous government which mandated fortnightly collections
  • launching the £250m weekly collection fund 
  • supporting incentives schemes in those councils operating weekly collections with an additional £5m 
  • issuing the first guidance dispelling myths on weekly collections

Without DCLG intervention, weekly collections would have disappeared by 2015, he claimed. Wales and Scotland had already experienced the “extinction” of such service, he said.

An investigation by MRW in 2012 revealed very few local authorities had applied to the much-vaunted weekly collection fund.

Pickles also questioned the influence of European laws on recycling policies in the UK.

“In the all debate there has been an elephant in the room, and not a passive elephant,” he said. “An elephant pulling the strings and calling the shots, which is Brussels.”

Under the revised EU waste framework directive, which comes into force next year, councils will need to collect waste materials separately unless it is not technically, environmentally and economically practicable to do so.

Pickles vs the recycling industry was a highly anticipated match, and the minister arrived well prepared. He started in a jocular mood, but became fractious as the session progressed.

“I had a look at the Daily Mail this morning. There was an article about a Ukrainian politician stuffed into a waste bin…I hope it does not take off as the ice-bucket challenge. If it does, you will need a bigger bin.”

Then he avoided, skipped, or cut short questions that challenged his stance on weekly collections.

An attempt by Steve Lee, chief executive at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and chair of the session, to survey how many in the audience supported the view that weekly collection would increase recycling was abruptly stopped.

“You are abusing your position,” Pickles told Lee.

The secretary of state also fought back comments that householders could be educated to accept less frequent collections.

“We are not in the business of training the electorate,” he said. “We are in the business of giving them what they want.”

However, Pickles also paid a small tribute to the waste management industry. “[You are] the thin green line defending the border between cleanliness and chaos,” he told the gathering of waste professionals.

Read the editor’s leader on Pickles’ performance.

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