In the face of diminishing council budgets and stagnating recycling rates, it would be easy to despair and wonder how on earth local authorities can influence recycling capture without being able to afford significant service changes.
In my experience, a spike in communications activity associated with major service change always coincides with a spike in recycling capture. But this can quickly return to ‘normal’ without regular repetition of the message – supported by a large communication budget and team of enthusiastic officers pounding the streets.
While little can directly replace these longed-for resources, there are still ways to deliver improvements with a meagre budget. The key is to understand what data or information is available to you and how it can be used to deliver improvements.
Collection crews, for example, are often an under-utilised resource when it comes to information. Suez recently reviewed the recorded reasons why certain households’ recycling had not been collected by the crews working under one of our municipal contracts. The research showed that 50% of the incidents were due to bags that were intended for source-segregated recycling being filled with commingled recyclables including glass and metals.
Sorting out the bags and separating the material dramatically slows down the crews, exposes them to potential health and safety issues and, ultimately, disengages residents who have tried to recycle but not quite got it right.
In response to this, we developed a ‘toolbox talk’ (see box) to ensure the correct information was given to householders and that a consistent, objective, approach was applied by our crews when dealing with these circumstances. This meant that minor offences were always sorted and collected and that, in the case of significant commingling, it was clearly explained to residents why we could not collect the material.
This relatively inexpensive action resulted in a 42% reduction in incidents where recycling could not be collected and a 71% reduction in the number of bags being reported by frustrated residents as ‘missed collections’ – both of which were observed and monitored on the ground as well as by crew reports and statistical analysis.
This benefited the service by increasing the capture of material from these properties rather than it being left at the kerbside and potentially entering the residual waste stream.
Even though this may not provide a benefit on the scale of a major service change or well-financed communications campaign, with careful monitoring it demonstrates a tangible positive impact which can be replicated in other areas. For example, a similar approach could also be applied to tackling contamination and overflowing bins.
So my advice to local authorities looking for quick and cheap performance gains would be to check their reporting sheets and look beneath the surface to see what story they tell.
It is essential to fully engage collection crews in the targets to boost recycling rather than simply issue instructions. Suez used an informal ‘toolbox talk’, which included:
- Explaining the purpose of the talk and how the subject affects householders, our local authority partner/client and the high service standards we expect.
- Sharing the data collected from crew information sheets and wider monitoring across the service in order to identify areas that can be improved.
- Providing photographs of acceptable and unacceptable containers as an objective measure when evaluating contamination, while encouraging discussion to gather feedback on an individual’s experiences.
- Reminding crews of their responsibilities regarding communicating with residents when containers are assessed to be unacceptable, approaching the conversation from a customer’s perspective.
- Following up so everyone can see if their efforts have achieved the result.
Sarah Ottaway is municipal recycling manager for Suez