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Government lags behind industry views on future of resource efficiency

Our time and effort must be directed forwards to the recycling and resource efficiency challenges of the future, not backwards to a time when we unthinkingly consigned valuable resources to the black bag and the landfill

It appeared quietly, barely raising a murmur or a tweet, but the Standard Note that entered the House of Commons Library on 4 February should, in my opinion, be roundly welcomed. Focusing on bin collection, and specifically Alternate Weekly Collection (AWC), it provides an overview of policy developments and approaches with regard to collection frequency, and a summary of a range of views on this subject.

The Note tracks the development of Government policy on AWC in recent years and draws conclusions from the recent completion of the bidding process under Eric Pickles’ Weekly Collection Support Scheme. In short, it concludes that the scheme will not lead to a return to weekly collections and could potentially have resulted in reduced recycling and increased costs in the region of £500m over the period of the English Spending Review if it had.

Quite rightly, the Note does not promote AWC as the only option, reporting that currently it has only been introduced by 59% of councils, many of whom don’t use it across their whole area. However, it reports that 10 out of the 10 top performing councils in recycling do use AWC and eight of the 10 worst performing councils don’t. It also acknowledges that some residents are concerned about flies and odour nuisance, but reinforces the common sense solutions to these concerns – good planning and communication, simple bin care, and the advisability of separate food waste collection where possible.

The timing was interesting, coinciding with Pickles’ statement in The Telegraph that he has done his bit to halt the spread of AWC and it is now up to local communities to carry on the fight against them. If this truly marks the end of the Secretary of State’s unedifying crusade against AWC, it comes not a moment too soon. Nobody would claim that councils get it right every time when it comes to waste collection and recycling. However, we have seen over a decade of progress on recycling, coupled with evidence that, in the main, residents are satisfied with the collection service they receive, whether weekly or alternate weekly. This suggests that local councils have, by and large, successfully stimulated and managed a significant shift in our behaviour and adapted their services to support this change.

Now, there are new and potentially much tougher battles to face and fighting a rearguard action to counteract the damaging impact on public opinion of Pickles’ tirades should not be one of them. Faced with more ambitious targets, albeit less ambitious in England than elsewhere in the UK, councils now have to wrestle with stalling recycling rates, biting budget cuts, and uncertainty over the outcome of another contentious issue – collection quality and the Judicial Review. In short, in the future they will have to work harder with less money to maintain and increase recycling and to play their part in the next challenge, which will be waste prevention.

At the time, CIWM urged caution over the Weekly Collection Support Scheme questioning whether spending the money would deliver environmental improvement or drive services backwards. We said we would rather see investment to support more recycling, more food waste collections and more waste prevention. Interestingly, a quote from CIWM’s president John Skidmore has the last word in the Note: “The response shows most local authorities do not believe a mass return to weekly collection of residual waste is a positive move……for me, it underlines that the government’s thinking on this front is out of line and out of date”.

He is right; our time and effort must be directed forwards to the recycling and resource efficiency challenges of the future, not backwards to a time when we unthinkingly consigned valuable resources to the black bag and the landfill. And I would say that this Note should be required reading for all elected members and officers who design and deliver waste collection services – lest they forget how much has been achieved and how much more important their efforts are now.

Steve Lee, chief executive, Chartered Institution of Wastes Management

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