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Would you like chips with that?

Chips have now been fitted to bins in 68 English local authorities – about one in five of the total. Yet their installation has largely been a future-proofing exercise, with few schemes actively using them for weigh-and-pay or more accurately, weigh-and-receive projects.

However, General Election to one side, that looks set to change. A number of trials are being carried out and those look – post-election and regardless of political outcome – likely to be expanding as we head into summer.

A number of local authorities have come, or are intending to come, on board – notably the two RecycleBank trials at Windsor and Maidenhead and Halton and the proposed project for Bristol. All of them use incentivisation rather than payment by weight as their raison d’etre, despite the fears and somewhat bizarre campaign being led by the reactionary Daily Mail.

Windsor and Maidenhead Council

Working in partnership with Veolia Environmental Services and RecycleBank, the Council has run one of two pilot projects in the UK to trial rewards for recycling. The system works by weighing the amount of recycling materials produced by participating households, using special equipment in the collection lorries. Households are set up with a unique RecycleBank Rewards Account, with the bins identified by their RFID tag.

The pilot scheme started on 1 June 2009 when the system and equipment was tested on the green waste service. The second phase of testing began on 7 September 2009 and included general commingled materials.

The council wrote to all residents eligible to join the pilot schemes and those who decided to join were given a step-by-step guide to activating their RecycleBank account and tracking their points online or by telephone.

The trials continued until the end of March 2010, with a roll-out decision now awaiting the conclusion of the General Election. If it goes ahead it would take around nine months to reach all 60,000 properties.


The two furthest advanced schemes are in Windsor and Halton – deeply different catchments both geographically and demographically.

Paul Levett, deputy chief executive of contractor Veolia Environmental Services, says that the base situation and the response have also been quite different in each area. “In Windsor we had an area where many people already recycled but the incentive scheme has increased their diligence, if you like. Many households seem to be handing the responsibility – and the rewards – to their children and so they have become very meticulous.”

By contrast Halton in Merseyside was achieving a low recycling rate and here the incentive scheme has doubled the number of people recycling in the test area, he says.

Halton Borough Council

RecycleBank and Halton Borough Council joined forces to launch the voluntary scheme to over 10,000 households. The council currently operates a kerbside multi-material recycling collection service to 42,000 households in the borough. The RecycleBank scheme was tested in 10,000 of those homes in seven pilot areas. As an added incentive, residents who activated their account before 31 December 2009 received 300 bonus points and earned triple points for the first three months. Success in phase one of the programme will lead to a full roll out with all remaining properties in the borough, commencing in summer 2010.

Sue Igoe, UK managing director of RecycleBank, stresses that the bin identification and weighing equipment is generic and would work for any check-and-weigh system. “The proprietary technology is the back-of-house system we use to run our rewards scheme,” she says. “The rest of it is low cost and is primarily there as inventory management and measurement, which when you think of how many bins are out there is highly necessary.”

She says that applying the system in the UK has been straightforward as the company “learned most of our lessons in the US” and she stresses that the trials have not been used as a back door to pay-as-you-throw strategies in North America and will not be used in such a way in the UK either.

the trials have not been used as a back door to pay-as-you-throw strategies in North America and will not be used in such a way in the UK either

“We have a number of projects in the pipeline but of course we have to wait until after the election now,” she reflects. “However, I hope we’ll have quite a lot to announce by early summer. We are also looking at ways of expanding the business model.”

Bristol’s proposal also works on an incentives basis but has taken a different tack. Bristol Member for Environment and Community Safety and Liberal Democrats Councillor Gary Hopkins says of the city’s proposal: “The difference between this and the scheme in Windsor and Maidenhead is that [Windsor and Maidenhead] rewards people for putting out lots of recycling rather than rewarding for waste reduction. It completely ignores the people who actually reduce their waste. Whereas, this scheme encourages residents to both reduce waste and recycle.”

A new waste contract is due to begin in 2011 and the council is keen to proceed with a scheme quickly as the pilot will help it and potential contractors work out how a wider voluntary scheme could fit into the new contract.

Should it get the nod – a decision now in the hands of the next government after a “very positive” meeting with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London in March – the scheme would run as a pilot for six months, covering 2,362 properties on two refuse collection routes in Bishopston, Cothan and Redland, and householders would receive 50p for each kilo of waste reduced – compared against average waste levels.

Bristol: Incentive to reduce waste

Bristol City Council was the first authority in the country to apply for the Government’s financial waste incentive scheme and took a formal proposal to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in early March. It is seeking funding and support for a pilot scheme that would give residents the chance to receive cash incentives of up to £40 depending on how much they manage to reduce their waste.

Residents who volunteer for the trial would be issued with a chipped wheelie bin. Collection vehicles would be fitted with weighing equipment so that they can weigh the bins each week and record the weight on specialist software. The amount of waste residents need to reduce will be calculated in kilograms and worked out per person, to take into account the number of people living in a household.

A final decision is awaited and the General Election means a brief hiatus but the council said that the London meeting went well.

“Most of the technology involved in these projects is very straightforward but the model works well for local authorities, residents and the rewards partners,” says Levett. “For councils it reduces landfill, for residents they get real financial incentives and for the partners they see high redemption, which normally means they see a significant upside in extra sales too.”

He stresses that the simplicity of the technology also means that its application and the politics around the topic are aligned. “The first thing we have to get over to people is that these tags are simple, read only chips – there’s no satellite taking photos of resident’s bins from space, there’s no plans to introduce payment schemes for waste. It’s a very economic proposition.”

The technology part

Chips: Standard read-only chips are fitted to the bins. These radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags can only read data and are effectively used to simply identify the bin/resident account. They are generic so will work with any system.

On-board technology: A high or low frequency scanner identifies the bin and a weighing machine weighs the bin before and after it is emptied, with the data recorded on an on-board or hand-held PC and sent from the truck. High frequency scanners are suitable where only one bin is loaded on but low frequency is needed on dual-load trucks to ensure the scanners do not pick up the tag for the wrong bin.

Head office system: This is the bit where it gets proprietary. For example, RecycleBank has its own technology and intellectual property in how it runs its system, which works broadly like an AirMiles style account, with points redeemable online or via its call centre for a variety of consumer discounts.

Other advantages: Technology providers such as ACMS and Vishay PM Onboard can assign every bin or container GPS co-ordinates, which allows the system to track missing bins. The operator can know at any given time the location of every bin or skip. The co-ordinates of each customer’s bin can be placed on digital maps that are displayed on the on-board PC. When a bin is emptied the corresponding bin on the map changes from red to green. The system can be programmed to reject stolen bins, unrecognised containers or to generate a route.


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