The art of three weekly
As Wales leads the way in extending residual waste collections, Kate Dickinson learns how Powys went about introducing three weekly collections back in 2015 and how the council has fared.
With budgets cuts and ever higher targets to contend with, local authorities across the UK are looking for ways to save money and drive up recycling rates. Reducing the frequency of residual waste collections is one such method being adopted by more and more councils, and Wales has been at the forefront of three- and four-weekly collections, largely due to the ambitious recycling targets set out in the Welsh Government’s Zero Waste Strategy: 64 per cent by 2019/20 and 70 per cent by 2024/25. Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn even suggested that Wales could be set to target 80 per cent by 2035 at the CIWM Resource Conference Cymru in March.
Powys County Council was one of the first adopters of a three-weekly scheme, rolled out in November 2015. The council maintained its weekly collections of food waste and dry recyclables, and the results speak for themselves: in the first 12 months following the roll-out of three-weekly collections, Powys saw a reduction in kerbside residual waste of 2,410 tonnes, a 13.8 per cent drop. In the same period, kerbside dry recycling went up by 6.5 per cent, and food waste by almost 20 per cent. As Wales’ most sprawling constituency, with a small population (around 65,000) spread over a large area, Powys has managed to improve its recycling drastically, coming first in Resource magazine’s 2016/17 local authority recycling league table.
Ashley Collins, Senior Manager, Waste and Recycling Strategy for Powys, acknowledges that just before Christmas was perhaps a risky time to start the venture, but admits they were forced into the move in order to make some “quite significant savings”, predicted at £480,000 a year. Collins now describes this as “a conservative estimate... If you look at the collection costs for 2015/16 to 2016/17, we went down a significant £360,000 on collection alone and, purely on the disposal, it was probably around £230,000 in terms of saved landfill costs.”
Collins does acknowledge that not all of these savings can be attributed to just the three-weekly scheme: “We’ve done various things at the same time, trying to maximise the income from the materials that we collected.” One of the biggest changes to come along with the three-weekly change was around six months
later, when Powys stopped collecting plastic film at the kerbside. “The quality of the recycling we collected was so much better,” Collins says, “so we actually got a lot more income from that.”
He is quick to also stress the importance of having a weekly collection of food waste alongside the reduced residual collections. Fortunately, Powys already had a weekly food waste scheme in place, alongside its threebox kerbside sort, with a red box for plastic and cans, a dark blue box for paper and card and an aqua box for glass bottles and jars.
“One of the biggest arguments for pushing [the three-weekly scheme] through was that we had a compositional analysis commissioned by the Welsh Government which showed that at least a third of what was going into the residual bin could be recycled, so there wasn’t much of an argument really. If you take out that third you can easily go another week.” Collins says there was a predictable press response to the scheme, with claims that “there’ll be rubbish piling up because we’re not collecting every three weeks, but it hasn’t materialised.” And with a lockable food waste caddy collected weekly, and people advised to double bag their nappies and absorbent hygiene product (AHP) waste, there is very little chance of residents experiencing pest
or odour problems.
Despite often stirring controversy, the press did help get the message out there, alongside the council’s own communications work. After a consultation to ask the public what would help them with the changes, Powys focused on showing people how to improve their recycling rather than telling them they had to drastically cut down their waste. Written reminders of what can and can’t be recycled were sent out by a team of dedicated waste advisors, who visit households that request a bigger bin to help streamline their recycling: “Often it’s because they’re not recycling as much as they should, and as soon as they’re told what can be recycled and do that they don’t need a bigger bin.”
Indeed, Powys was able to bring in three-weekly collections with very little logistical change. The council continued to use its 180-litre bins, and provides three 60-litre purple sacks per three-week period for houses in more rural areas that can’t be reached by bin lorries. Reduced collections also meant that two 26-tonne vehicles and one 15-tonne could be taken off the road, cutting the cost of three agency crews rather than making any redundancies. Since implementing the scheme, Powys has topped Eunomia’s Local Authority Recycling Carbon Index for 2015/16, saving more greenhouse gas emissions through recycling than any other UK authority.
Flexibility is key to ensuring the scheme remains a success. The council may collect side waste at busy periods, and will provide additional capacity in the form of a bigger 240-litre bin or extra purple bags for families with two or more children or those who need extra support disposing of AHP, particularly incontinence waste, which Collins says is the source of most of the complaints from householders.
CIWM recently recommended that a separate collection for AHP should come alongside reduced residual collections, but the cost of introducing this in Powys – estimated by Collins at around £170,000 – would have negated the savings created by three-weekly collections. The council is “not averse” to introducing AHP collections in the future, Collins says, but this may require a higher contribution from producers: “It’s fine for these companies to sell cheap nappies, but we do have to find a disposal route for them. So if we could get some money from the industry, we would certainly like to roll it out.”
Whether the council will roll out a four-weekly collection is another matter, and something not always seen as politically viable. Many in Wales are watching Conwy Borough Council closely as it fights towards four-weekly residual collections, though progress seems to be two steps forward, one step back at the moment as cabinet deals with reluctant councillors. A recent £7.5-million injection of funding from the Welsh Government to help councils boost recycling rates could potentially ease fears if spent on targeted communications and engagement campaigns.
Regardless of future plans or potential further savings, Collins states, the most important thing is to “keep on the pressure in terms of recycling… The big selling point is that we do this weekly collection, so it’s only what’s left that’s collected every three weeks.” If people are able to view the recycling system as the main destination for their waste, and the residual bin as more of an afterthought, the three-weekly system can produce some significant results