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Spending cuts mean councils must make the most of recycling

Nicola Peake

Local authorities are bracing themselves for the spending cuts that will follow the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October.

While Government departments are preparing for cuts of at least 25%, some local authorities are predicting that they will have to find budget savings of up to 40%.

This presents councils with a significant challenge as they look to maintain service levels and ensure that council taxes payers do not see steep rises in their bills.

The challenge facing local authorities has led to some radical new approaches to designing and commissioning public services. We are now hearing phrases such as ‘the commissioning council’ being used to describe a new approach to service delivery which sees the council setting the strategy and managing service procurement while virtually all service delivery is outsourced to private and third sector contractors.

For many local authorities the ‘commissioning council’ model is still a radical step but there are other ways that locals authorities can work with the private sector to cut costs while also improving service levels. One of the most successful methods remains to be recycling.

Currently, recycling legislation requires local authorities to recycle or compost 50% of household waste by 2020 but for many, aiming for these targets is a missed opportunity.

These targets are a minimum standard and those local authorities, which look at new ways to achieve even higher recycling targets can gain huge benefits. The reality is that targets of recycling will continue to rise in the future, so early investment ahead of time will pay off in the long-term. It essentially avoids having to redesign recycling and refuse collections twice.

It is also widely recognised that mining the waste stream can provide a significant source of revenue to help offset the cost of running recycling and refuse collections.

Today it is entirely possible for around 85% of residential waste to be recycled. For local authorities facing spending cuts, the more that is recycled and the better the quality of the material captured, the greater the revenue that can be generated.

Food waste collections offer one of the most interesting opportunities for local authorities. The majority of councils still do not offer this form of recycling and WRAP figures show that the UK throws away around 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink each year.

May Gurney’s own experience is that when households are offered food waste recycling the amount of food they throw away drops by 25% (around one kg per week) as they realise just how much they waste.

But despite the reduction in the volume of waste that food recycling brings, we still throw away significant amounts each week and this provides a strong revenue generator for local authorities.

The UK now has a network of anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities being developed. Their roll-out is still at an early stage but significant growth is expected to meet demands from local authorites as they commission food waste recycling services.  Using AD to transform waste food into gas - which can be fed back to the national grid - and into solid residue - which can be used as a soil improver by farms and horticulturists -  is a highly effective form of recycling and a duel revenue generation opportunity.

Other waste streams also offer equally lucrative revenue streams for local authorities. Recycling clothing and foot wear can generate around £300 a tonne, and glass, metal and plastics recycling also opens up valuable new sources of income.

Key to maximising the revenue opportunities from waste is to protect it and ensure the waste is clean, high grade and uncontaminated and in my opinion, kerbside collection is the only reliable way to ensure this.

While the 50% by 2020 recycling target is the benchmark for local authorities, I would encourage them to be braver - strive for 70%. It is possible and in a period of Government spending cuts, can deliver significant savings.

A kerbside recycling and waste collection service we have recently established for Torbay Council has, in its first two weeks of operation, seen recycling rates increase by 81% to 670 tonnes and will see the amount of waste sent to landfill slashed, saving up to 27 million in fines and landfill taxes by 2020.  It actually costs less to collect and recycle household waste than to pay the landfill tax on it.

A similar recycling and waste scheme developed for Bridgend County Borough Council has seen recycling rates increase from 31 per cent in July 2009 to around 60% per cent today, with a 57% reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfill. This is the best recycling rate for any local authority not collecting garden waste.

This clearly demonstrates there is an appetite for recycling among UK residents, the more local authorities tap into this, the more they can benefit from new ways to generate precious new revenue streams and avoid unnecessary landfill fines.

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