The Local Government Association (LGA) states that waste collection and disposal is the third-biggest local government cost, so it is no surprise that municipal waste services are being dissected and analysed for their cost-saving potential. We’ve certainly felt it.
Virtually all Biffa’s 40 municipal clients have cut something in their recycling, refuse or cleansing services. Most cuts have been ‘around the edges’ and have not directly affected collection methods or schedules - yet. But one council has signalled it will slash ‘many hundreds of thousands of pounds’ from its waste budget, directly affecting at least one waste-related service and more than likely to cost jobs.
Slashing waste services
We are not alone. I know of many councils, both with outsourced and in-house waste services, that are taking a red pen to waste service budgets. So there will be more changes to the way recycling and refuse is handled. My experience is that saving money in refuse and recycling services could and should result in higher recycling rates.
In big picture terms, there is much to be gained by waste collection authorities (district and borough councils) and waste disposal authorities (county councils) working more closely together. A holistic view, whether for joint procurement or for cross-boundary services, does help the public purse get best value from waste and recycling services. For example, the cost of residual waste disposal should be factored in when selecting a collection method.
Cost savings ‘no brainer’
Sending a tonne of waste to landfill can cost a council up to £170 (landfill cost plus lost potential income from recyclates). So diverting more waste from landfill via recycling is a ‘no brainer’.
My top three options for cost-led service changes are: greater use of wheeled bins for collecting refuse and commingled dry recyclables; collecting waste food; and charging for garden waste collections.
Why so? There is plenty solid evidence that using wheeled bins for alternate week collections of commingled dry recyclables and of refuse, together with weekly food waste collections, really drives down waste volumes by expanding the recycling opportunity. Efficiency and productivity gains also reduce operational costs.
When Biffa-serviced authorities such as Tandridge and Melton changed from kerbside-sorted dry recycling collections to commingling and wheeled bins, recycling volumes soared. Tandridge nearly doubled its rate from 34% to 63%, collects over 50 tonnes of waste food each week, and could save nearly £1 million annually in the process.
Melton’s changes upped its recycling by 20% and should trim around five per cent from its waste budget, not least because the council replaced previously-free garden waste collections with Biffa’s Green Waste Club service which has now over 7,000 paying customers.
Charging for green waste collections may feel like a tough political decision but it is one that makes absolute sense. A universal garden service funded by council tax penalises those residents with very small or no gardens. A paid-for service is fairer as no-one has to join and therefore pay, and the modest membership cost can often be shared between neighbours.
Finally, what of collection frequency? Alternate weekly collections are widely used and are here to stay. Weekly food waste collections mean that the driver for residual frequency is solely volume. Logically, the next step has to be a four weekly collection cycle.
I don’t think this need be controversial or treated as ‘the elephant in the room’. In Biffa’s experience, there is often little residual waste left when fortnightly refuse collections are bundled with weekly waste food collections and supported by a dry recycling policy that maximises diversion. That combination can make monthly refuse collection viable.
I do believe that someone will take the plunge before long. It will probably be a top-performing council. It will probably start with a pilot. It will certainly provoke debate and no doubt be criticised. But we have to look forward, and extending collection frequency has to be on the table.
Municipal waste management has evolved rapidly in the last few decades, and some (r)evolutionary steps remain. Councils must seriously consider taking one or more steps into the future if their waste services are to be both efficient and cost-acceptable.
Pete Dickson, development director of municipal contractor Biffa