Simon Anthony at Buckinghamshire Council discusses the legacy coronavirus will leave for local authorities’ waste services.
Buckinghamshire Council, the UK’s newest council, came into being on 1 April 2020 at around the time most local authority waste services were seeing their biggest disruption resulting from the pandemic. Fortunately, the components of the new council had existing excellent waste services, both in-house and out-sourced and have managed the coronavirus pandemic much like any other council. At the time management of waste services became ‘daily’, or even ‘hourly’ with services seemingly in state of flux, crews being diagnosed with Covid-19 mid-round and communications to residents, members and other stakeholders becoming a primary focus, as much as operations. This article takes a long view on challenges and opportunities which may arise from the situation.
Initially it appeared outsourced councils were in a privileged position; subject to force majeure clauses they could rely on their service provider to supply necessary replacement staff and continue services with default mechanisms etc without significant disruption. Following the governments’ publication of ‘PPN 02/20 supplier relief due to COVID-19’ document, which instructed councils to maintain current payment levels to contractors to ensure business continuity and not to use default mechanisms where Covid-19 illness was the underlying cause. It became important for all local authorities to engage in partnership working with their contractor to find a way through, and out of, the crisis.
Coronavirus will pass, offices will begin to bustle again and waste service stakeholders will have decisions to make on how to address and overcome the coronavirus legacy issues to ensure the robust services are maintained. Survey results (published jointly by ADEPT, LARAC, NAWD, & CIWM) suggest that the services most affected are bulky, garden and food collections (65%, 38% and 9% withdrawn respectively), and household waste recycling centres (HWRCs), with almost all HWRC services being disrupted in some way and over half closed completely.
A further understandable result of residents changed behaviours is significantly more material, of all types, presented at kerbside. The result being that despite certain services being suspended overall tonnage may remain constant as some waste significantly increases, particularly cardboard as residents increasingly favour home delivery.
Operations and Contracts
As waste services emerge from this unprecedented situation local authorities will have to decide whether an ‘early but risky’ approach should be taken, for example bringing back suspended waste services as soon as staffing allows. This is likely to be preferential to politicians only, client teams and service providers alike may struggle to maintain a lean service, indeed residents are likely to have good will towards was services, this will quickly dissipate if services are promised but not delivered. A preferred approach would be one that provides a considered route and ensures staffing levels are very healthy so a stable service can be maintained. Waste service providers are well advised to create a ‘pool’ of trained agency staff that could be brought in to supplement services as needed.
Demand for paid for garden waste and bulky services particularly can be controlled, if necessary, by restricting new customers. One largely un-controllable area is HWRC opening, unless some sort of voucher scheme is introduced, that itself has its own dangers. If demand for HWRC usage is challenging to restrict at the front end a better option could be to reduce the offering of materials which can be accepted. The difficulty with this option is that providing that refuse is accepted then residents are likely to bag up anything and claim it as refuse.
Contract management in the short term is a positive as those services which are running are likely to be overstaffed. This will lead to fewer missed bins, rounds completing promptly and crucially a happy and motivated workforce.
Medium to long term
Those with contracted out services are paying full price for a restricted service (as per PPN 02/20). In commercial terms this provides an interesting arrangement as budget managers are achieving budget forecasts, service providers (whether in-house or contracted out) will be generating underspend/profits. From this perspective it’s almost as if residents have just stopped using a service. Anyway, those forward-thinking contractors will be offering opportunities down the line for these accrued profits or savings. For example, any excess profits currently realised can be put towards overtime or catch-up activities, or communications campaigns. PPN 02/20 requires contractors to operate on an ‘open book’ arrangement and be transparent on profits and underspends, it will be interesting to see if the desired transparency is forthcoming from contractors.
With contract management the first, best, approach is partnership working on both sides which achieves a ‘win-win’ scenario. Any downtime on the client side can be effectively spent reviewing KPI performance challenging areas and to address solutions and fixes for enduring problems.
Depending on contract structure, councils may also need to wrestle with what to do with loss of income from charged for garden and bulky waste services, garden waste charges are likely to comprise a significant income for non-urban authorities. A refund, or similar, to subscribers may be an attractive option, however is there logic to this? Councils have had to pay for delivery of the service (under PPN 02/20) and it’s very unlikely that subscriber levels will drop after the coronavirus pandemic as, oftentimes, T&Cs of paid-for garden waste services do not allow for refunds following non-delivery of the service. Ultimately most councils are likely to offer some form of refunds to customers of garden and bulky services which have been paid for, but not delivered. This will have clear budget impacts in financial year 2020/21.
Council officers heavily involved with waste communications have seen many of the longer-term strategic communications activity go by the way-side in favour of immediate daily service updates, and providing responses to disgruntled garden waste customers for example. Maintaining this clear communication is fundamental to a successful service, even if this is around what service isn’t being delivered, similarly raising expectations of potential return dates of services may have negative reactions if these are not achieved. A single point of contact, webpage for example, which can be regularly updated should be used as the main communications vehicle.
Medium to Long Term
Waste communications in the medium to long term will be crucial in un-doing the negative legacy issues of Covid-19. It is true to say that garden and bulky demand is likely to remain at or above pre-Covid-19 levels due to the amount of home working; these services will be needed by residents going forward. Waste communications should instead focus on food waste promotion. Typically, food waste is the least participated in waste collection service. However, residents that do use a food waste service will use recycling collections, and where possible garden waste service, and are generally excellent recyclers. Food waste in any situation should be seen as a ‘lead dog’ and promoted heavily, council’s which have restricted their food waste service during the coronavirus pandemic (part of Buckinghamshire Council being one) will have a significant communications burden to attract back food waste recyclers who may have got comfortable with putting food in refuse bins. This change in disposal route for food waste will have a budgetary, as well as recycling rate impact. When food waste collections are re-started and tonnage achieve pre-Coronavirus levels then all is well. However, if food waste tonnage is below the level expected an ‘invest to save’ approach should yield benefits if extra disposal costs are diverted in communication campaigns to improve food waste capture rates.
On disposal generally, there has been, and will continue to be a shift from commercial tonnage to domestic. There should be a net zero change in tonnage nationally; what is lost commercially is gained domestically, this follows from more homeworking. However, those reprocesses handling domestic tonnage will see capacity and processing challenges in the short term as simple supply and demand economics come in to play and gate fee processing costs increase. There will be a delay as demand for processed materials increases and prices should eventually stabilise.
The highest priority for council waste services in the coming months is two-fold; working with contractors to realise any savings or excess profits and how this might be administered. Longer term, communications with residents to suitably recover services, which may have been withdrawn during this time, will be crucial to avoid excess disposal costs. It is very difficult to identify any ‘silver lining’ to this situation as ultimately Covid-19 will have negative impacts on recycling rates, budgets, client/contractor relationships and residents’ behaviours. What this situation will show is that the waste industry can be resilient and continue with its vital service is the most challenging of times, that can only be achieved through the dedication of crews, supervisors, managers and client teams involved in delivering this essential service.