Could the UK go monthly?
Over the past 15 years, many local authorities have moved to fortnightly collections, but certain agitators in the public/political realm are currently arguing that the country ought to have weekly refuse collections. Resource wondered if there might be a case for moving in the opposite direction – to monthly residual waste collections. And so, we convened a panel of experts with superpowers of perception to talk about potential economic and environmental impacts and the feasibility of such a move. What follows are excerpts of their dialogue*
Resource: Does someone want to talk about the rationale for AWC as it currently stands?
Ray Georgeson: A starting point would be the logic of achieving higher recycling rates. You don’t have to be an expert mathematician to figure out that if you want to get 25, 30, 40, 50 per cent recycling, by definition you’ve got a lot less of everything else. So, where is the logic in having vehicles running round inefficiently, sub-optimally collecting shrinking amounts of residual waste?
Andy Bond: There’s no point. And if you optimise for high diversion, low residual, you’re effectively targeting 80-90 per cent of all the waste on a high frequency anyway because you can’t really collect food waste effectively less than once weekly. If you’re going to do that, you might as well collect the dry recyclables at the same frequency. And so therefore what’s left? And what’s left is not much so why bother to collect it when you know that by dropping that frequency you’re actually driving the material into the system you want it in.
Resource: Presumably there’s a significant saving in not running refuse trucks on a weekly basis?
AB: Yes, apart from the overhead in the depot, it’s half. And because residual is so expensive now, it’s cheaper to recycle more than to recycle less.
Pat Jennings: Even if you have to invest in weekly food waste collections?
AB: Even. In fact, you have to have weekly food waste to make the saving, because that’s what’s driving the fundamental reduction in the amount of residual.
Joy Blizzard: It’s only really that you’re not running a fleet of trucks once a week, that’s where the saving comes in. So it’s changing that frequency of collections that makes that difference rather then the tonnage as such, although that does have a spin-off effect. I suppose the other rise of AWC is that people are aware that where there are large wheelie bin, people just fill it to capacity.
AB: I’ve got a graph that shows Mendip versus South Somerset and Taunton Deane and the waste arisings in Mendip are 70 kilos per household per annum higher and they have 240-litre wheelie bins and the other two have 180s. And that’s the only difference.
RG: It is an amazing relationship – the capacity of a waste container and the ability to fill it.
PJ: You’ve got to understand where that waste goes if it’s not going into the bin.
AB: It’s not going somewhere else. A little bit might be being burnt and a little bit goes to a CA site, but not much. There’s behavioural change taking place that we don’t completely understand. The figures follow the same pattern – more than 50 per cent reductions in residual waste and 20 odd per cent reductions in all waste arisings. So you move a lot of material into food waste collections and dry recycling collections, but you just disappear a whole load of waste and that’s a phenomenally expensive – you’re saving a £100 a tonne for every tonne you disappear.
PJ: So, do we know what lies behind that behaviour change, apart from the food waste, given that there is a fair amount of evidence now that the more aware people are of food waste, the more they reduce it. But what are they not buying?
JB: Your largest chunk of residual waste traditionally is edible food. If you’re tackling that, you are also tackling packaging that goes with it, and also you’re tackling the more difficult to recycle food films, yoghurt tubs, etc. But I am more amazed that AWC has worked incredibly well in areas where you haven’t got the sop if you like of weekly food waste collections.
AB: There is a reduction in all wastes when you go to AWC regardless, it just doesn’t perform as well as putting it with a combination of other things.
Matthew Thomson: And is that including the possible increase at CA sites?
AB: In some places you get a little blip at the start and then it flattens off and the underlying level is just a marginal tad higher, but the overall effects are so significant, the pushing down on the totality of waste, that it’s really not worth worrying about the tiny bit extra at CA sites.
Resource: What about the political opposition to AWC, the sub section of the media making it difficult?
RG: Well, there wasn’t any opposition to it in the early days 10, 15 years ago.
JB: The media furore started as a silly season in August 2006 and then it’s continued since then.
PJ: I think it was an unfortunate convergence. The Daily Mail picked up on it and then there were a couple of very problematic new scheme rollouts where it wasn’t handled particularly well, where a core of strong and vocal opposition developed. That then fed the debate and so it sort of created its own momentum over the course of 12 months.
MT: And the reason why it went wild in summer 2006 is the perception that seats had been lost, councils had been lost because of that position.
JB: There were some that jumped on the bandwagon and said if we get in, we’ll go back to weekly. They got in, looked at the bill, then said: “Sorry, we can’t afford it.” Oh, dear, I could have told them that.
PJ: Can we assume then that 15 years ago, when the first AWCs came in, waste was just not as politicised?
RG: Well, it wasn’t and I think largely, things like AWC were introduced by waste managers as a sensible alternative. You wouldn’t say it was introduced in consultation with residents necessarily or with any deep philosophical thought about the route forward. It was pragmatic, logistic and cost effective and boosted recycling. It turned into a political issue in a few places; Eric Pickles and others spotted this had political legs.
JB: But in the meantime, local authorities have just got on with it. And even at the height, when we asked local authorities “What’s the satisfaction rating on your AWC campaign?” they were consistently in the 80s.
MT: The thing is, frequency is not a destination in its own right.
RG: It’s a tool.
MT: It’s a tool, and it’s a milestone, but it’s not a destination. And quite often the media will use our focus on the frequency, rather than try to get into the philosophy of what we’re trying to do. If it’s all about frequency, then sometimes we’re at risk of masking our true objective. I think we are now at a pivotal moment where we recognise nationally and globally that we don’t have the right to waste. The consensus has arrived, we’ve now, therefore, got a moment whether we make it about frequency or about what the bigger picture is. I think at the moment there is that risk of the perception of: “You’re taking something away from me. I’ve had the right to waste as much as I want grounded in the duty as a consumer, and I have the right to have my waste and my recycling collected from my door whenever I want it and you’re taking those rights away from me.” So that sense of loss is something that we need to manage.
JB: We’ve got a moment now, more so than ever before, when you do have a choice, when you do get to say to people: “It’s this, or it’s X number of schools shut.” That actually puts it in quite stark terms.
Resource: That brings us to a good bridging point where we can outline the case for looking at less frequent collections.
AB: It’s really all about climate change and the environmental impacts of what we’re doing. The mission is to create a more resource-efficient society, which is more CO2 efficient. Waste management has spent most of its existence looking at the third bit of the hierarchy and that means we need to move away from one paradigm where we’re used to chucking it into the ground, into an incinerator, or MBT plant. So for me, any technique that works to reduce waste is something we should be taking advantage of.
MT: In that way, AWC should be seen as a waste prevention measure and not as a recycling measure. It sounds to me like you’re close to defining the science of that. As we know, the science of waste prevention is extremely soft and it’s been very difficult to demonstrate, to measure, to correlate outputs and inputs, investments to saving…
AB: That’s not quite fair. We’ve seen it in the numbers and the correlation is clear. What we don’t understand is the individual personal behaviours resulting in the results. Very soon we should know that.
Resource: And considering how good AWC is, would it then be twice as good to go monthly? What would the environmental and economic effects be?
AB: I’m trying to model that now to work it out, because we don’t know the answer. The thing about waste is that sometimes you get really unexpected results that you just couldn’t see coming because you did something different and suddenly, wow, magic happens. We don’t know until we try it and somebody out there needs to be brave enough to try it at some point. And they are going to be driven to do it by cost.
Resource: And what potential issues will arise?
JB: Your big issues, if you are doing food waste collection, would be nappies, medical stuff that you don’t need to collect separately and animal waste. Having those sitting in your wheelie bin for a month is going to be very hard to sell.
MT: It all comes down to poo.
RG: I live in a place where we still have monthly recyclable collections. Now, I’m a committed recycler, but there will always be a month where you’re not there on the day for the monthly collection, or for whatever good reason you forget, and that is a huge potential problem with a monthly residual collection.
PJ: You wind up with a two-month collection. Also everyone talks about food waste, but we have to bear in mind – how many local authorities run weekly food waste collections at the moment? A very small minority. So if you accept that that would have to be – for hygiene reasons – a core component of the collection service, we’re so far behind, that talking about monthly collection is almost irrelevant.
MT: In London we’ve got some boroughs where you’ve got three collections a week: Brick Lane, West End. There’s a mixture commercial and residential going on, so again, making frequency the thing to be targeting rather than volume per se is going to lose you people right from the outset.
JB: You might see a step towards it is a significant reduction in bin size. And I know that charging for waste has had the kibosh put on it, but there are other ways in which you can reduce the prominence of residual waste and put more effort in your recycling collection.
AB: Where you’ve got variable charging, then frequency tends to plummet because people take a personal choice not to have the collection done at the same frequency because it’s going to save them money.
PJ: I think one of the key issues is that the systems we have at the moment have evolved organically, local authorities have done what they thought was right and others have followed suit. The next big changes we make need to be much more scientifically informed. So, we need to look at all the aspects of container size, container design, behavioural change, what’s happening with AWCs that’s making people reduce their waste. I don’t think we can afford to carry on growing organically because I don’t think we’re going to get the results we need, or the political and public support we need, without actually having figured out the science.
Resource: Can we go over what kind of features this system would have?
AB: You’re going to have to start to think about bespoke collections for people in some circumstances for nappies or whatever, but once you start to reduce the frequency, you have scope to spend a bit of those savings on addressing what is usually a time-expired problem – after all we largely don’t carry on breeding for 30 years any more.
JB: There will be issues of contamination if people have not bought in. There will be a “Well, I’ll just get rid of this some how, some way, and I’ll either shove it into my recycling bin at the bottom, or I’ll take it and feed it into the bottle bank.”
AB: If you’ve got a 180L wheelie bin, and you’re only putting four kilos in it a week, so you’ve got eight kilos every two weeks, it’s actually only half full, so you’ve still got fifty per cent of that space that you could still fill. So in that sense, there’s plenty of containment there already for most households. I live in London and I have a food waste collection and almost every dry recycling you can think of. And the council still insists on collecting my black sacks weekly, but I haven’t got enough to give them. So, clearly I don’ t need a weekly collection.
MT: But you are Andy Bond.
AB: But I’m not that unusual. There are a lot of households that are using that recycling scheme that don’t have any black bags to put out. And what’s in the black sack? Well, unless you’ve got kids with nappies, there are no organic matters to speak of. It’s all crisp packets..
RG: And plastic film and lots of sweet wrappers.
AB: That sort of stuff. And it weighs nothing. There’s nothing there. Because 90 per cent of everything goes out in my recycling services.
MT: I think that one of the main things is that the institutional stuff between collection and disposal – over the next five years, the rationalisation over those structures is going to be furious.
JB: The two-tier system – in waste, anyway – becomes almost unjustifiable.
AB: It’s an obstacle to us – essentially in many places the county and the districts are fighting with each other to pass the costs off to each other.
Resource: So there needs to be some sort of uniformity with local authorities?
PJ: I think you would need to make sure that every authority had reached a certain level. I mean, you couldn’t move from the collection that Ray has to a monthly residual. Otherwise, I think that the pain of going through it would be excruciating. If you create too much pain, you might actually send it backwards, which is where we’re heading now, actually. There’s been so much outcry now, whether it’s media generated or not, about alternate week collection, that is part of the reason why Pickles has found it such a successful campaign. So, you need to be careful not to create a situation in which you can create damaging backlash.
RG: How much real outcry has there been? You’re talking about a small number of local authorities that badly managed the rollout.
PJ: Yes, but it has been picked up in such a way that it could now become actual policy to reverse it. The outcry hasn’t been big, but it has gone through the right channels to become effective.
Resource: So, to unlock this, what are the steps that would be needed?
RG: One of the things you need to employ is the notion of convenience. Matthew’s talking quite rightly about the appetite to waste less, but the other side is that people still do want the convenience of knowing that the stuff that they don’t really know what to do with will be dealt with. And losing that is a risk. Retaining people’s understanding that they have a convenient and appropriate service needs to stay as part of whatever it is that needs to be done to bring people along to a position, where they’re going to rationally, logically think “Actually, we hardly have any stuff in the bin.”
MT: And some sense of cost on that.
RG: That’s right. It’s crazy, there’s vehicles coming down every week to collect our stuff.
JB: We’re at this odd time now, though – we’re going to AWC and one of the reasons we’re doing it is because it saves money and it’s better use of the vehicles. People say: “Oh, but it’s just a money-saving venture.” And you can say: “Is there a problem with that?”
MT: There was, but now there isn’t.
JB: Exactly. It was a criticism: “Oh, you’re just using it to save money.” But now it’s: “Oooh, you’re using it to save money.” So, we do have a window here.
Resource: Is there a responsibility for selling that to the public? Local authorities, WRAP, the Defra’s, the CIWMs?
PJ: I think it’s a shared responsibility, really. It can’t be done without councils because they have the closest contact with their residents. It can’t be done without the third sector, or civil society, whatever it’s called now. And it’s got to be reinforced at national government level.
Resource: To conclude: Do we believe that at some point or another the UK is going to get to this point? And if so, when?
JB: I think we’ve got to get evidence first, possibly, before we actually finally get to monthly collections. I don’t quite know what sort of shape that will take. I think it will look very different.
MT: I’ll say you’ll get more authorities collecting at lower frequency – could be monthly – than not, by 2023. It’s a bet. To explain: now is 2010. We’ve got to see this administration out and this administration’s going to be the reorganisation administration, and the next administration’s going to be recovery from the reorganisation administration, a little bit of re-reorganisation. By the end of that one, 2020ish, you’ll start to see the most durable arguments, the most evidenced arguments that survived all of that reorganistion and re-reorganisation winning through. And I think it will be reasonably swift after that. So, that’s my justification for 2023.
RG: I’d like to be able to say that I would be retired by the time monthly waste collection is popular, but I rather fear that thanks to Gordon Brown and the pensions fiasco, I will still be working.
AB: I think somebody will try it within the next five years. Within this parliament, somebody is going to try it. They might not do it across a whole area, but somebody is going to try it because they’ll feel that they have no choice – it’s the only way to make the savings they need to make. And it will only happen in a place where weekly food waste is collected.
PJ: I think we would need a more detailed evidence base, and we would need to be better at communicating on waste in a much wider way emphasising the cost of waste and personal responsibility – before you would get there. But, like the rest of the panel, I can envisage a day when it may happen.
*Any opinions expressed are those of the individual panelists, not the organisations they represent