With an enforced “minimum service standard” for local authority waste and recycling services being mooted, Eric Bridgwater of Resources Futures ponders what a world with only weekly collections would look like…
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has recently suggested that, if re-elected, a Tory government might impose a minimum standard for waste and recycling services provided by local authorities. It is fairly clear that the main purpose of this would be to legally compel English local authorities to collect kerbside refuse weekly.
Unfortunately, previous policy statements from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) on such issues have selectively quoted or simply ignored evidence, as has been extensively commented on in the trade press (in response to the “Bin Bible” published earlier this year, for example). This is a huge shame, as the UK has one of the richest evidence bases in the world upon which to draw, with a wealth of research, operational data and experienced practitioners who have developed a clear understanding of the effects of different waste collection policies.
Ever the optimists and keen to promote evidence-based policy, Resource Futures has examined the best available evidence with regards the likely effects of implementing the Secretary of State’s suggestion. Currently, almost half of England’s 22.3m households have their kerbside refuse collected fortnightly. What would be the impact if roughly 11m households in England were forced to switch from fortnightly to weekly refuse collections?
Whammy 1: Kerbside Recycling Down
The positive impact on kerbside recycling associated with fortnightly refuse collections has been widely documented and the evidence continues to mount. For example, Figure 1 shows kerbside residual and recycling/composting yields per household, comparing all UK authorities providing weekly and fortnightly refuse collections. The data in Figure 1 shows kerbside recycling/composting yields about 100 kg/hh/yr higher in areas with fortnightly refuse. This is misleading, as there are a number of other factors that affect recycling yields including socio-demographics, which materials are targeted for recycling and containers provided for recycling. The best available evidence (see the following box) indicates that only about a quarter of this difference is attributable to refuse collection frequency. Even so, this is still a huge effect and we estimate that switching to weekly collections throughout England would result in approximately 270,000 tonnes per annum being diverted from kerbside recycling/composting to disposal.
The evidence: WRAP Separate Food Waste Collection Trials (Resource Futures, 2009), WRAP Kerbside Dry Recycling Benchmarking (Resource Futures, 2010), multiple regression model using 2011/12 WasteDataFlow kerbside tonnages for all UK authorities (referred to in December 2013 CIWM Journal article “Are some collection systems more equal than others?”).
Whammy 2: HWRC Recycling Down
A further highly significant effect was recently discovered by Resource Futures whilst analysing the impact of fortnightly refuse collections on household waste recycling centre (HWRC) tonnages. It has been observed by HWRC site operators that greater quantities of black bag waste occur at sites where refuse is collected fortnightly. We found some evidence that this is the case, ie some residents take their “excess” kerbside waste to HWRCs. We would always encourage local authorities and site operators to work together to communicate with householders and, where possible, implement policies to discourage this and WRAP’s HWRC Guide provides advice on this issue.
However, our analysis showed that the “black bag”: phenomenon is dwarfed by another effect: much higher HWRC recycling yields in areas with fortnightly collections – see Figure 1. As with kerbside recycling, a simple comparison is misleading. The data in Figure 1 suggests that HWRC recycling is on average about 35 kg/hh/yr higher in areas with fortnightly refuse collections. In fact, multiple regression analysis shows that only about 20 kg/hh/yr is attributable to refuse collection frequency. This does, though, indicate that there is a genuine link between kerbside fortnightly refuse collections and higher levels of recycling at HWRCs. This could be due to residents who take their “excess” bin waste to the HWRC also taking more recycling. Or it could be due to higher levels of awareness in areas where the public are encouraged to improve their recycling behaviour where their kerbside refuse is collected fortnightly.
Conversely, areas with weekly refuse collections are associated with lower levels of HWRC recycling, and our best estimate is that forcing local authorities to collect kerbside refuse weekly throughout England would result in approximately 210 000 tonnes per annum being diverted from HWRC recycling/composting to disposal.
The evidence: Multiple regression model using 2012/13 WasteDataFlow HWRC tonnages for all UK authorities. In two-tier areas, the 80:20 rule was applied for defining the frequency of refuse collections – if there was a mix of refuse collection policies (between 20 and 80 percent of households served with either weekly or fortnightly collections), the authority was excluded. 10 percent of UK authorities were excluded from the analysis for this reason.
Whammy 3: Household Waste Arisings Up
A cursory glance at Figure 1 would suggest that higher arisings (for kerbside and HWRCs) are associated with fortnightly refuse collections. Once again though, first impressions are misleading. There are a wide range of factors that affect overall waste arisings, such as garden waste collection policies, socio-demographics, geography and other factors. These have the effect of obscuring the waste minimisation impacts of fortnightly refuse collections, which have been uncovered in research undertaken for Defra.
The best available evidence suggests that the impact of fortnightly refuse collections on household waste arisings is highly variable, but that across a wide range of authorities the average effect is a one-off reduction of approximately two percent in household waste arisings. In view of the fact that half of English households are served with fortnightly refuse collections, we estimate that enforcing weekly refuse collections across England would result in a one percent increase in household waste and recycling arisings, amounting to – approximately – an additional 220 000 tonnes per annum (120 000 tonnes disposal and 100 000 tonnes recycling).
The evidence: “Defra Understanding Waste Growth at the Local Authority Level”, Resource Futures, 2009. “Analysis of Defra Municipal Waste Management Survey Statistics 2006/07 to 2012/13”, cross-referenced with data on refuse collection frequency for all England local authorities.
Whammy 4: Waste Collection Costs Up
Moving 11m households from fortnightly to weekly refuse will involve a significant cost. Assessing the financial implications of changing collection systems is a complex area, but we can provide some rough estimates. Applying the assumptions in the box below, the additional operational costs would be around £110m per annum. There would also be material costs associated with the diversion of recycling to disposal (see the assumptions in the box opposite). These are difficult to predict, but are estimated to be around £60m per annum.
Therefore, the total additional cost would be approximately £170m. This is a conservative figure as neither the costs (or savings) of lower tonnages for recycling haulage and income (or gate fees) nor the operational overheads and procurement costs (or the costs of re-negotiating existing contracts) have been accounted for. In view of this, we suggest that the additional cost is likely to be around £200m per annum.
Assumptions – Operational Costs
- Cost per refuse collection vehicle and crew: £120,000 pa
- Average pass rate per vehicle per five day week: 6,000 households
- Number of additional passes required across England per week: 5.5m households
- Number of additional vehicles and crew required nationally: approximately 920 vehicles
Assumptions: Material Costs
- Loss of recycling: £0 per tonne (very hard to estimate, as income received for some materials but gate fees incurred for others)
- Additional disposal: £100 per tonne (majority of waste to landfill at £80/t tax and £30/t haulage and gate fee, the remainder to other treatments costing less, so an aggregate £100/t used)
- Tonnes additional disposal per annum: kerbside 270 000t + HWRC 210 000t + 120 000t increase in household waste arisings = 600 000 tonnes
The Quadruple Whammy
When we consider the four whammies together, the impact (on the basis of the best available evidence) is predicted as:
- additional disposal of 600 000 tonnes per annum
- loss of recycling of 380 000 tonnes per annum
- reduction in England’s household recycling rate of 2.1 percent
- one-off increase in England’s household waste and recycling arisings of one percent
- additional costs of approximately £200m per annum
On reflection, imposing weekly refuse collection on English local authorities would make it more difficult to meet the 2020 target of 50 percent household recycling. On the other hand, encouraging two-thirds of the English local authorities that collect refuse weekly to switch to fortnightly would add an estimated 1.4 percent to England’s household recycling rate.
And all for what? Recent reports in the trade press quoted the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 415 councils in England and Wales, as saying the “vast majority” of householders in England are happy with the way their waste is collected, regardless of whether it is a weekly or fortnightly system. It is a view shared by the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), which has claimed that the change over the years for many councils towards a fortnightly or less frequent collection service has been a technical one backed up by evidence and a desire to increase recycling levels.
“Moving residual waste away from weekly collections has been shown to contribute to higher recycling levels and when combined with weekly food waste collections will not give rise to any problems. As the LGA points out, satisfaction levels with recycling and waste collection services are generally high regardless of frequency and local authorities should be left to implement and run services that best fit their areas and priorities, in line with the Localism thinking.”
In view of this, we are left wondering if there is any evidence at all that could support a rational argument for imposing weekly refuse collections on England local authorities.
Eric Bridgwater is a principal consultant at Resource Futures and a Chartered Waste Manager. He is a leading expert on analysing and interpreting municipal waste data. He has been the lead author of several sector defining reports, including the previously referenced “WRAP Separate Food Waste Collection Trials” and “WRAP Kerbside Dry Recycling Benchmarking”.
In this article, when it appeared in the CIWM Journal in the September issue, the residual and recycling key was transposed, and Eric Bridgwater was wrongly credited as the lead author of the “Defra Understanding of Waste Growth at the Local Authority Level” report. This was in fact Dr Julian Parfitt. Apologies for any confusion caused.