Is Eric Pickles right to link the incentivisation of recycling to continued weekly collections of residual waste? Wardell Armstrong’s Luke Prazsky argues that by separating out food waste the periods between black bag collections could actually extend. CIWM Journal Online Exclusive
When Communities Secretary of State Eric Pickles recently offered a £5m fund for WCAs to incentivise recycling schemes, there was an obvious catch. Only those committed to continuing with weekly residual waste collections could apply. But why? After all, there’s plenty of evidence that switching to fortnightly residual collections has contributed to actually improving kerbside recycling rates because people become more careful about what they throw away, and how. Some WCAs are starting to roll out three-weekly collection services. And the jury’s still out on whether waste incentive schemes actually work or give value for money. So would it be possible, as some are suggesting, to go one step further and move to monthly collection services to save ratepayers’ money and take advantage of recent reductions in residual household waste?
The obvious challenge to successfully implementing longer periods between black bag collections is food waste. Rotting plate scrapings or food thrown away because it’s past its use-by date (although dates are widely recognised as being overly conservative) can cause unwelcome smells and health risks from pests and vermin.
So to remove these risks and allay public concerns, it’s crucial to remove the food from the residual stream. But this is where it gets tricky. WCAs could use the savings from longer periods between residual waste collections to offset the cost of a weekly collection of food waste. But how do we persuade householders and businesses to stop chucking their food waste in the bin? The evidence from Wales is that even with funding for dedicated food waste collection schemes, the participation rates are not yet high enough. Nor is all food waste finding its way into the food caddies.
Staying positive, there’s a clear connection between separating food waste and providing much-needed feedstocks for all of the existing and proposed AD facilities across the UK – including authorisations for new plants that can quickly come on line should food wastes be freely available. So no food waste mountains. Just a valuable source of renewable energy, less reliance on specially produced crops, better AD financial viability and a useful digestate as a by-product.
For a monthly residual waste scheme to be successful, WCAs will also need to reduce volumes so that black bins don’t spill over. One answer would be to increase the range of plastics they accept for recycling in (ideally) weekly kerbside collections – especially all food packaging as we know this too can start to smell after a couple of days in the average bin.
I’d even suggest that WCAs could consider trialling monthly collection schemes only in those socio-demographic areas where success is more likely. Pick your battles to win the war!
The real key is educating householders and getting them on board from day one before any change of scheme. This may be a generational issue rather than solely one of socio-demographics. But the information provided by WCAs needs to do a better job of spelling out exactly what can and can’t go in kerbside recycling. At the moment, uncertainty reigns.
Yet even education alone may not be enough, even in combination with incentives. Some carrots might work but can be ambivalent and won’t get everyone recycling their food waste. Sticks in the form of regulatory drivers such as enforced separation of food waste might be needed in the long run.
So – will monthly collections of residual waste ever actually happen? Maybe not, given the challenges of changing behaviour, the inevitable screaming tabloid headlines and the political desire for the popular vote. And any WCA thinking about going three weekly or monthly will have to think through the challenges very carefully. Getting it wrong will scare people off and force the pressure back on to weekly collections with an unwelcome knock-on effect to other parts of council budgets. And there may also be other unintended consequences – for example the potential change in the composition, calorific value and volumes of residual waste going to EfW facilities.
But a good start would be to decouple Eric Pickles’ £5m fund from the constraints of weekly collections. That would allow more WCAs to experiment with imaginative recycling schemes that reflect their varying demographics. And removing food from the residual waste stream for recovery via AD would surely pave the way to greater public acceptance of longer periods between black bag collections.
Luke Prazsky is a waste resource management specialist at Wardell Armstrong.