Reconfiguring your collection

Deciding on and rolling out a new recycling service presents a local authority with a significant challenge. Charles Newman visited West Oxfordshire, home to the Prime Minister’s constituency, to find out about the process

When it comes to public services, those in charge view change with a degree of caution. People are creatures of habit, so introducing a new recycling system requires care. As we all know, local waste management can easily become a political issue and the public don’t always share a council’s vision. Among the key questions facing our industry today, we find ourselves asking: ‘How much can we realistically ask waste producers to do?’; and ‘How often can we ask something new of them?’

These days, the typical duration of a recycling contract is seven years, often with the option to extend the term with the service provider. (It’s longer if significant investment in infrastructure is required.) Such is the pace of change in this industry that councils, or occasionally the service provider, frequently look to introduce variations during contracts. Yet, in the main, significant changes tend to track the start of new contracts.

So, when the time arises to tender for a new waste and recycling service, there’s an opportunity and a challenge. The imperative is to drive up diversion from landfill and for a local authority, it’s a case of identifying the best service reconfiguration to do this, and, most importantly, working out one that its residents will buy into.

Recently, West Oxfordshire District Council (WODC) chose to reconfigure its service to drive the recycling rate up from 34 per cent (in 2009-10). Given the growing body of evidence, it sought to shift residual waste collection onto an alternate weekly pattern and to introduce a weekly pick-up of food waste and dry recyclables.

According to Bob Lightfoot, Environment and Commercial Services Operations Manager at WODC, financial considerations were paramount for a council that prides itself for charging residents less than most of the UK: “With the landfill tax increasing, this authority was very mindful of the fact we needed to swing everything around in the other direction. Every tonne that we divert, we save the county council £100 and they give us a recycling credit back for diverting it to recycling. So all our modelling was linked into our financial arrangements and where we would like to be.”

A key consideration for the tender was to ensure as much continuity with the existing service as possible. “Our public has never seen anything different in the last nine years other than a box collection [which was predominantly commingled by the time of tender].” And public consultation found that the majority of residents wanted to retain the boxes because, in quite a rural and picturesque district, they are less visible than bins. For many houses with no access to the rear, kerbside boxes could be more easily presented and then withdrawn from the property’s front.

Despite a much more detailed specification than its existing service, WODC aimed to save money. “We were quite confident that our waste contract would come in significantly cheaper than the outgoing service provider due to greater efficiencies and higher recycling levels The new contract actually saved the authority £600,000 a year on the previous contract.”

May Gurney, the company selected on the basis of delivering an improved service at lower cost, bases its model on maximising revenue from material sales. “The reason we won this contract is because kerbside sort produces a high quality of material”, says Nicola Peake, Managing Director of May Gurney Environmental Services. “Reprocessors prefer a high quality of recycled materials, so we can command higher prices. This allows us to price competitively. So it should be a win-win for us and the client.”

Bob Lightfoot is pleased with the formula: “They don’t pay us anything back, it’s reflected in their gross price. They predicted their price on collecting clean kerbside sorted materials and selling it back to the market rather than having to pay a gate fee for transfer to a materials recycling facility.”

Once selected as the preferred bidder, during a process of competitive dialogue, May Gurney undertook the key preparation work. This is a specialised phase that, explains Peake, that requires a dedicated mobilisation team: “It is really down to meticulous planning, round planning, communications with the client and the customers, so they know what’s going to happen and when.”

Crucially, there’s a process of inheriting staff from the previous service provider under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. This requires the new service provider to take on the employment responsibilities of any staff who spent more than 50 per cent of their working time on the preceding service. It can involve redundancy, but in the case of West Oxfordshire the new service involved switching from a predominantly commingled recycling collection service to kerbside sort, so it required more employees.

Paul Jones, May Gurney’s Performance Director, believes it is vital to get to know the staff first: “When you take over you tend not to introduce service changes from day one. It’s best to take over as is, depending what access you get to the collection crews - it’s certainly much easier when you’ve got to introduce additional employees into the collection rounds.”

Furthermore, notes Jones, there’s generally a substantial amount of knowledge that needs to be gleaned from the operatives. Notably, this includes unofficial assisted collections, when operatives help residents present their waste and recycling, but it’s not formally been recorded. Failure to capture this informal knowledge may result in a rise in collections that are missed in the early stages of a contract.

May Gurney took over running the service in West Oxfordshire in September 2010, but it wasn’t until November that the first stage of the new service (weekly collection of food waste and dry recyclables, AWC for residuals) was rolled out. The process of switching from predominantly commingled collection of dry recyclables to a kerbside sort followed in February. This latter step represents a significant challenge for the new service operator and the staff on ground.

“By that stage all the rounds were planned, trucks ordered and the depot was up and running”, recalls Jones. “Then it’s a case of working with the staff and explaining the change, because they are going from just chucking it in the back of an RCV [refuse collection vehicle], to sorting it and explaining the reasons for doing that. It’s important to explain that we are not just doing this to make their lives harder.”

“It does take more thought because you are not just hooking it on the back of an RCV and pressing a button and going job done”, elaborates Craig Cutajar, the Contracts Manager. “There’s a lot more thought around ensuring that the vehicle is more evenly weighted on both sides. More