‘Just like the old days’… ‘The solution to your bin problem’. Some unusual advertisements have started to appear from waste firms aimed at households, not their usual commercial customers.
As councils have switched to two- or three-weekly collections of residual waste – even occasionally four-weekly – so companies have spotted a market gap for households that want their bins emptied more often and are prepared to pay for the privilege.
While contractors and households may be happy, councils and lawyers are scratching their heads over issues raised. Who does waste put in bins belong to? What effect will these services have on council recycling rates were they to become widespread, since residual waste bins are seldom entirely free of recyclable materials?
Where there was a single service, there will now be two in some areas.
For example, as waste firm Mick George described its service in parts of Cambridge, Northampton and Peterborough: “The service will not affect traditional council collections but will most definitely complement it. The aim is to mirror existing collection schedules so that, in effect, any household that requires additional collections receives it at a convenient interval.”
With only one bin type involved, “in effect, Mick George will take the hassle of segregating your waste for you, just like the ‘good-old-days’, ensuring landfill diversion for the majority”.
Busy Bins, which started its service after Bury Metropolitan Borough Council went from two to three-weekly collections, said: “We offer a hassle-free, cost-effective and reliable service that combats overflowing bins and regular, unnecessary trips to the local tip.”
Other examples include W&S Recycling, which offers services in Poole, and Wirral-based B&M Waste, whose director David Curtis told MRW in February: “Residents are becoming increasingly frustrated by infrequent bin collections from our councils. We are always striving to improve our offering and we work hard to listen to our community.”
W&S Recycling’s operations manager Andy Tyers said: “We started last year in response to the local authority cutting collections from weekly to fortnightly. We use our own bins so there is no legal issue about using council bins.
“Take-up has been quite small because we found residents do not really want to pay again for a service they already pay for through council tax. But what we have found is that rental properties use it.
“Landlords want the service, so we have targeted areas with high numbers of rental properties and have about 100 who use the service in Poole.”
Mick George’s head of commercial waste Abigail Johnson explained: “The idea grew as a result of feedback from numerous customers querying availability of the service, knowing about our commercial recycling offering.
“This seemed to amount to frustrations with the council service, most notably collection frequency, bin size availability and overflowing bins on a fortnightly collection schedule, with discussions about the possibility of three-week collections taking place.
“We recognised the lengths people were going to in order to overcome these issues and knew that we had a suitable alternative. The service launched relatively quickly thereafter.”
Johnson said the service “is about adding to and complementing the council services for householders who require additional collections”.
She added: “The waste is collected by our fleet and taken back to the nearest depot, where we segregate waste for recycling or recovery, to be used as fuel in energy-from-waste plants. We provide a zero to landfill service for our customers.”
There are likely to be other companies offering similar services, all of which causes some concern about the potential impact on a recycling regime based on the assumption that only local authorities collect municipal waste.
Peter Jones, principal consultant at Eunomia Research and Consulting, said: “All the indications are that this idea has been growing. It started when councils moved to fortnightly collections, and has increased now they are looking to collect every three weeks. We have seen it in particular in some areas of Greater Manchester.
“If you assume that pressures on council finances will continue and that they will be under more pressure to meet recycling targets, then it is going to be more likely that waste businesses will see this as an opportunity.”
Jones said that some councils may be relaxed about it because such services take residual waste out of their statistics. But he warned: “I would be surprised if we don’t get some action [from councils] on this because it is an impediment to higher recycling rates. What goes into residual waste is seldom only residual waste and contains all kinds of things including food that could be recycled.
“If, say, 10% of waste is going to these collectors, then councils must meet recycling targets only from the other 90%.”
But local authorities have a couple of routes open to them to challenge these new services. According to Jones: “Waste collectors must comply with the waste hierarchy. I don’t see how someone who collects only residual waste could be compliant with that. It is for the Environment Agency to enforce, but it would be very interesting to see if any local authority made a complaint.
“The other possibility is that under the Environmental Protection Act, councils have a duty to collect waste unless adequate alternative arrangements have been made by the owner of the waste. If a service is unlawful for not being compliant with the waste hierarchy I don’t see how it could be judged ‘adequate’.”
Councils’ attitudes vary. Poole said it had “not received any issues or complaints” about W&S Recycling’s service.
“Take-up has been quite small because we found residents do not really want to pay again for a service they already pay for through council tax. But what we have found is that rental properties use it.”
A Bury spokesman said: “If residents wish to pay a private company to collect their waste and dispose of it at their cost, then we have no issue with that. We do, though, feel that households should not have a need for such a service if they recycle all that they can.
“If Busy Bins damages one of our bins which they empty, then residents will have to pay £30 to replace it.”
Organisations involved in council waste services are starting to see problems with these new rivals. Lee Marshall, chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, said: “There are some concerns about this type of activity. The main one is it works against the recycling efforts that the councils who are reducing residual frequency are trying to make.
“Studies show that reduced frequency of residual collection helps to increase the recycling that households undertake. If those households then have extra residual collections, it takes away their incentive to use the recycling containers more effectively.”
Marshall was also concerned by reports of private firms using council-owned bins and by the likelihood that illegal operators would join this market, leading to an increase in fly-tipping.
Mo Baines, head of communications at the Association for Public Service Excellence, which advises councils on service performance, said: “The two, three or even four-weekly collections that are coming have been done to encourage people to recycle more. If that is circumvented by waste companies, it becomes extremely problematic and there have been legal questions raised about it.
“There is a grey area about who owns the bin and where it is placed: on a resident’s property or public land. If it is a bin provided by the local authority, then a contractor may have no right to empty it. There is also an issue of liability if a local authority-owned bin is damaged.”
Simple economics means that if someone wants a service not otherwise provided, someone will step forward to make money from filling that gap.
Commercial collection of municipal residual waste may remain an oddity responding only to local circumstances – or it could become prevalent, causing problems for how local authority recycling performance is judged.
‘Fraught with potential problems’
The humble dustbin may rarely be the subject of legal proceedings, but commercial residual municipal waste collections open all manner of issues to keep the people in wigs busy.
Sam Boileau, a partner in law firm Dentons, said: “The practise appears fraught with potential legal and regulatory problems.
He explained: “Having third party contractors ‘intervene’ and collect additional waste from households could adversely impact on [councils’] statutory functions, duties and targets at both a local and national level.
“Local collection authorities may have entered into contractual arrangements with appointed waste collection contractors, which could be adversely affected or breached by third parties collecting residual waste.”
Boileau also thinks that private collections could fall foul of the Environmental Protection Act: “For example, the offence of interfering with waste bins put out for collection, or the authority may regard the arrangement as a littering offence, especially if the waste is left out in bags and/or not properly secured.”
Eleanor Reeves, counsel at law firm Ashurst, agreed that there could be legal problems.
“Householders are not obliged to use local authority collection services exclusively, but they are under a statutory duty of care in respect of waste presented for collection.
“If contractors are not authorised to collect waste or they do so in breach of their registrations/licences, this could lead to increased fly-tipping and more incidents of householders being in breach of their duty of care.”