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Recycling costs: let the people know

Daniel Long

The age of austerity has had a profound effect on the waste industry and the households that use its services. The privatisation of waste collection, recycling and disposal continues at a steady pace, which creates both opportunities and a series of new challenges. One of which is the public perception of how much our services should cost.

The age of austerity has had a profound effect on the waste industry and the households that use its services. The privatisation of waste collection, recycling and disposal continues at a steady pace, which creates both opportunities and a series of new challenges. One of which is the public perception of how much our services should cost.

With council tax bills frozen or capped across most of the UK, the ability and willingness of local authorities to dispose of bulky household item such as old fridges, washing machines and sofas is declining. End users have been shielded for so long from the true cost of proper disposal that consumer education is proving to be a long haul.

Whereas in the past a household collection would be done free of charge to the end user, many local authorities have stopped offering such services or have started to levy a surcharge to undertake the work. As much of this is now contracted out to private sector – real businesses that don’t receive taxpayer funding and need to turn a profit in order to continue trading – household customers are starting to experience the true cost of waste disposal.

Collecting and disposing of waste is a complicated process. Customers expect that the stuff they throw out is upcycled or recycled, processed and disposed of legally and in accordance with environmental legislation; we need to make sure they know that adhering to these stringent rules and processes comes at a cost.

Take regular household items such as fridges and freezers for instance. We know that refrigeration devices contain greenhouse gasses that need to be safely extracted and that the facilities that can safely process these items require huge investment to set up and operate safely. Do our customers?

More than half of what we charge to take away fridges, freezers and air conditioning devices can go on the waste processing elements alone, with the rest covering the cost of our trucks, the teams of two often needed to move these large devices and our administrative overheads.

Historically, local authorities would have footed the bill for collection and disposal so customers don’t appreciate the true cost of disposal. People have been shielded to the extent that many expect items like fridges and freezers can be scrapped for approximately the same price as a 20 minute taxi ride, while the real cost of collecting and disposing of such items in the correct manner can be up to five times higher.

With such a large discrepancy between household expectations and market reality, there can be no surprise that cowboy operators are attracted to this market. It is possible to find someone that will take away an old fridge for £15 or less, a fee that is so low it doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of the waste processing element, let alone our own running costs.

If it costs more to get rid of an item legally than someone is charging, we can only assume that items taken away by those offering bargain basement prices will end up being fly-tipped or crushed for scrap.

I believe that we also have a responsibility to help householders understand that they have a duty of care to ensure that their waste is disposed of properly. Does the man or woman in the street know that that they could be liable to criminal and civil charges if a rogue operator dumps their waste illegally? Apart from the occasional local newspaper highlighting the occasional successful prosecution there is little to tell them so.

With local authorities facing further budget challenges and the landfill tax now heading well above £80, it is likely that more and more householders will turn to the private sector to help dispose of what they no longer want or need.

We as an industry need to do more to help educate the public about the need for responsible waste processing and the true cost of waste disposal, so they are less inclined to turn to take the cheap and nasty option that tarnishes our trade and will cost us all environmentally and financially in the future.

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