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When the going gets tougher...

What do you do once you’ve boosted recycling rates dramatically? Sit on your laurels? No. You work harder, writes Matt Prosser, strategic director of South Oxfordshire & Vale of White Horse District Councils

Taking over the environmental services team in 2007, I was impressed by the enthusiasm and professionalism of the team and how complex the world of waste and recycling was. So I set about developing my knowledge of the industry.

The first thing that struck me was how much better our near Europeans in Belgium were doing, with reports that they were nearing 70% recycling rates. And I wondered whether we could achieve that. 

Six years on I am pleased to say we are getting close to the ‘holy grail’ but the last bit of the journey is becoming an increasing challenge. The last few percentage points are taking as much, if not more, effort than the preceding 68%. As of May this year South Oxfordshire had hit a recycling rate of 68% while the Vale of White Horse had reached 61%.

It is also important to note that in this period of time we have let a shared waste contract, and created a single waste team to oversee this contract with 50% less resources while still increasing customer satisfaction to over 90%.

Some of these challenges are not of our making. For example, changes in legislation in the usual vein of a ‘one size fits all’ approach, means we can no longer recycle autumn leaf collection due to possible contaminants. Despite having rigorously tested our leaf fall, passing all tests declaring it fit for recycling, we have a national policy that says ‘no’. So we lose around 2.5% of our recycling collection – worse still, this recyclable material goes to landfill.

Other more positive changes are technology developments in the food packaging industry, as we increasingly find ‘light-weighting’ taking place, where packaging manufacturers are finding ways to make wrappings lighter, using less material, but still protecting the goods in transit. While not immediately obvious to the consumer, we believe this is starting to have an impact on the tonnages collected at the doorstep. This is fantastic for the planet, but perversely it is starting to have an impact on our recycling figures.

So how will we ever reach the 70% recycling collection figure? There are other local authorities that are also getting close, although in the main they are offering a free garden service. While they have a higher figure, the service costs are much higher. Both South and Vale felt that as an opt-in service, garden waste collections should not be subsidised by those not using the service. That said, we have over 36,000 households signed up across the two districts which represents about 47% of households eligible. This is based on 30% of properties not needing the service due to having very small gardens or flats not having gardens.

Our strategy has always been based on our customer (residents) needs: keeping it simple and making it as easy as possible for people to recycle as much as possible, while also encouraging behaviour change with regards to waste minimisation. 

We have a straightforward policy, which we rigorously stick to, to help nudge behaviour change. You can give us as much recycling as you want, either in the 240 litre wheeled bin or in clear sacks next to it. You can only give us 180 litres of residual waste, if you have any more we will not take it. 

All of these messages were shared in a fantastic, award-winning, communications campaign, light in tone, but reinforcing both the waste minimisation hierarchy and our collection policy.

In the first three years of the joint contract we saw recycling rates rise from the mid-30s to over 68% – almost overnight. Now we are beginning to see the exponential growth slowing and in some areas plateau, which is a worrying trend for us and one we need to understand if we are to get to 70%. 

Our focus is on the positive messages. We recognise that behavioural change does not take place over night, we need to continue to reinforce positive behaviours - this takes time and investment.

Top tips:

Good communication - We’re investing in real-time communication mechanisms with residents, such as Binfo our smart phone app, or i-spy, an app for reporting fly-tipping. These products allow us to update residents, remind them of service changes or enhancements and generally push our message to users. 

Developing the policy – This is not about one decision taken at the start of the contract, this is about an on-going dialogue with our partners Biffa and our residents to maintain the best service possible. We have already amended our collection policy and enhanced the service offered.

Monitoring Performance – “If you can’t measure it how can you manage it”, we take this very seriously, producing a monthly board report that includes key service statistics. This allows us to make sure we are on track to meet goals, but also helps as we compare service delivery across the two councils, leading to questions about why service levels might be different. This internal benchmarking keeps our focus on issues sharp and delivers real results.

Established partnerships - Currently we are going door to door with our partner Biffa, working in communities where the recycling rates are not so high, so we can find out what are the barriers to recycling more. I will cover these results in detail in my talk at the RWM in partnership with CIWM conference.

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