In January, Defra resources minister Therese Coffey named “tackling urban recycling” as her second priority behind air quality. Inner-city areas generally lag behind suburban zones in recycling league tables so it was welcome to see Coffey address this at a Westminster Hall debate.
And she was unequivocal: “I challenge the view that recycling in densely packed urban areas is difficult or that local authorities cannot do more to improve recycling rates. We know that they can, and that many are delivering high levels of recycling and are actively exploring what can be done to extend services, even in challenging circumstances.”
But is she right? Is it really possible for local authorities that cover densely populated urban areas to compete with the likes of Oxfordshire or Pembrokeshire in the recycling league table?
First is the issue of how data is collected and measured. Many industry commentators, and some politicians, have long suggested that the current weight-based targets are not an accurate representation of true recycling achievement.
The ability of garden waste to influence the statistics disproportionately due to its weight is a problem, with Defra citing a lack of the material as the reason why recycling rates fell overall in 2015. Urban areas are particularly disadvantage because they are likely to produce much more than leafy suburbs.
Feryal Demirci, neighbourhoods cabinet member for Hackney Council in east London, which has a 25% recycling rate, said garden waste plays a big part.
“When you look at some of the boroughs across the country which are performing really well, a huge proportion of the recycling is green waste. We have very few houses with gardens within our borough and the ones we do have are quite small.”
She added that areas within Hackney without a food or garden waste service, due to it being impractical to introduce one, struggled to compete with those estates recycling such materials. But the west London borough of Ealing, which has a relatively high recycling rate of 51% and charges residents for their garden waste collections, achieves this despite low levels of garden waste.
Ealing’s waste and street services manager Catherina Pack said: “Some of our neighbours such as Hillingdon have a much higher garden waste element of the recycling rate than we would in a slightly more built-up borough.”
So while green waste is an influencing element, there are clearly other factors at play that are holding back some urban areas from improving their levels of recycling.
For residents to be able to recycle, they need a bin or a sack for the materials and a collection vehicle has to pick it up, both of which can be difficult in urban areas.
In Belfast, there are about 120,000 households, with 55,000 in the inner city and 28,000 apartments. Due to the typical close proximity of households in the inner city, communal bins have been provided for all residents. For terraced houses, source-segregated recycling points were introduced in 2015.
These separate boxes for paper, card and plastics are stacked in a steel stand which residents from many houses use as their recycling point. Next to the multi-box stand is often a food waste and residual bin. Residents are also given a heavy-duty reusable sack to carry their materials to the recycling point. For inner-city apartments, one commingled recycling bin is provided for each block.
Project officer Marcus Campbell said that contamination can be a problem and, due to the communal nature of the bins, it was impossible for crews to recognise who was responsible.
“To get people to segregate their waste to begin with is a bit of an ask, especially where they are using communal bins – they have the difficulty of actually segregating it in their apartment then bringing it down to separate bins. It is inconvenient for them.”
Contamination was so frequent, he said, that extra staff were on standby to clear up any mess the collection crews “cannot realistically cope with”.
He said: “It is a very involved service that can easily get backed up and blocked up, [which means] customers can very quickly become disengaged from it. We are constantly fighting that.
“To increase recycling facilities, invariably we have that dichotomy of taking away parking provision. So that switches off a few people, as you can imagine.”
“We [realistically] need to be running 100% squeaky clean and efficiently to make it work, and that is just impossible to keep up.”
In Edinburgh, around 100,000 properties are served by shared bins, and council waste and cleansing manager Gareth Barwell said that contamination was rife in some areas: “When you’ve got 10 or 15 properties sharing a bin, you find that correlation around misuse and contamination increases quite significantly.”
He added that a lack of space made it difficult for the council to introduce additional containers. “To increase recycling facilities, invariably we have that dichotomy of taking away parking provision. So that switches off a few people, as you can imagine.”
Under changes to Scottish waste regulations introduced last year, all businesses are required to separate their waste for recycling. This, Barwell said, had been difficult to enforce and led to some companies dumping their waste in residential communal recycling bins.
Back in Hackney, the majority of households are flats, many with limited space for recycling infrastructure. Demirci said: “We have buildings that were constructed in the 1950s at a time when the amount of waste people were generating was tiny and the amount of packaging that came with food was almost non-existent.”
A big feature of the older flats are waste chutes, which allow residents living in buildings up to 13 floors high to dispose of their residual waste without having to make the trip downstairs. But there are no chutes for recyclable waste, so this convenience means residents are much less likely to bother separating waste at all.
The chutes also frequently get blocked, costing the council £70,000 a year to clear, so the authority is subsequently working to remove them.
Ealing, meanwhile, has narrow access routes so sacks are used instead of bins because vehicles with bin lifts cannot fit down the streets. But Pack estimates these routes account for only one in every 15.
Densely populated areas bring their own communications challenges for councils trying to engage residents with recycling. For Ealing, Pack said: “There are some areas we need to re-engage with more frequently because they are blocks of flats or have a high turnover of people.
“We are doing a bit of work now with landlords and housing associations because they are really important. We are working with our house of multiple occupancy team as well. In an urban environment, a lot of people look at what their neighbours do and follow the herd.”
In Belfast, Campbell said the council assesses the resident profile of an area, including language differences and levels of anti-social behaviour, before starting a communications campaign. The council does not hire interpreters but uses an outsourced service as and when it needs it, which can be expensive.
“But sometimes we find the effort we are putting in is not getting us anywhere,” Campbell added. “Either it is a resistance or people not engaging. That can happen a lot.”
In Edinburgh, Barwell admitted that the council was currently “quite weak” on communications strategies to promote its recycling systems, but said it was trying to engage with low-performing areas.
“We have got such a transient population in some of our high-density housing stock that it is hard to engage residents. We have had a lot of trade press coverage and media coverage because we are in the middle of a waste and cleansing improvement plan.”
The council produces a lot of its material in different languages due to its diverse population, which includes a high number of students.
“We are doing a lot of work with the university and student associations to increase participation because there is actually a lot of willingness around student associations to become good neighbours and do a bit more,” said Barwell.
And there is the annual Edinburgh Festival, which dominates the city centre in late summer as more than a million tourists visit each year: “That is a huge influx of people we need to try to engage with on arrival to help them blend in and use our system.”
For Demirci, communications campaigns alone have not delivered improvements, and she argues that councils need to be able to use stick as well as carrot.
Hackney is a diverse area, including substantial Turkish, Kurdish, Vietnamese and Hasidic Jewish communities, and the council is working with synagogues and community leaders.
Demirci said: “We have set up a focus group with some of the local women to look at their needs and try to understand what they need to recycle more.”
The council sends out a fortnightly newsletter to each household and uses community media and Turkish language newspapers. But Demirci said the removal of the power for London boroughs to penalise resident for persistent failure to recycle has made the council’s job difficult.
After introducing a compulsory recycling scheme in 2006, whereby it threatened to issue £110 fines, Hackney reported a 20% rise in recycling tonnages in some low-performing areas. But the Deregulation Act 2015 reduced the fixed penalty notice amount that councils were able to enforce on non-compliant residents to £60.
When the Bill, promoted by then communities secretary Eric Pickles, was being discussed in the House of Lords in 2015, policy group London Councils called the lower charge “too lenient”.
Demirci said: “Where you have residents that are persistently not recycling, you have no powers… so it’s all about the carrot, not the stick. Local authorities need to be given the powers to enforce in areas where landlords or residents are refusing to recycle.”
With the costs and resources associated with boosting recycling in inner city areas, does it still make sense for councils to invest in such schemes?
“Absolutely,” said Demirci. “Reducing our communications around recycling is only going to increase our cost down the line because we have to pay for the tonnage we actually dispose of. It is in our financial interest to encourage recycling and we see it as invest to save.”
Hackney brought its collection service back in-house in 2013 and saved money doing so, as well as extending its recycling service to flats above shops.
Whether or not Coffey fully appreciated the size of the challenge to boost recycling in urban areas, she can be reassured to know that councils are eager to act, given the right support.
Ambitions for London
Excerpt from Liz Goodwin’s foreword in the London Waste and Recycling Board’s annual Business Plan
The mayor of London has set out exciting and ambitious challenges for London:
l Reinvigorate London’s recycling efforts so that by 2030 it achieves a 65% recycling rate for the waste from residents and businesses
l Realise the economic value that reuse, repair, remanufacturing and materials innovation can bring to London, creating jobs and making the transition to a circular economy
l Put London on track to be a zero carbon city by 2050
I fully believe these goals can be met through the combined efforts of London businesses, the public sector and residents. The mayor’s London Environment Strategy [due to be published for consultation later this year] and London Plan which will follow it, will set out his vision for achieving these aims.
Tackling recycling in London is challenging, but Lwarb has developed a programme to provide intensive help to boroughs [so they can] increase recycling from residents who live in blocks of flats. This Flats Taskforce will be launched with £1m of Lwarb funding, and we will be looking to increase funding by talking to the public and private sector to look for contributions.
Resource London will be reviewing its priorities shortly, and will continue to offer support to all London’s waste authorities to help them increase recycling and save money.