Recycling hits the Streets

Most people now recycle at home, but there’s still a way to go when it comes to recycling on the go. Will Simpson reports

Ten years ago they hardly existed in this country. If you bought a soft drink while you were out, you’d invariably be faced with the dismal choice of either chucking the empty container in a residual waste bin or taking it back in your bag to recycle at home. Those of us that took the latter option were often regarded by our companions as being slightly odd.

Now, at least in most major cities, those baffled looks are (largely) a thing of the past. On-street recycling facilities have grown from virtually nothing in the early part of the last decade to a point where plastics recycling organisation Recoup estimates that 50 per cent of local authorities now offer them in their main population centres.

On-street would also appear to be an area of UK recycling where there is considerable potential for growth. A study released by the incentive scheme Greenredeem in 2014 found that whilst only a quarter of people recycle on the go, 59 per cent would recycle more if there were better access to facilities in ‘convenient’ locations. Meanwhile, the 2014 Recoup survey found that 83 per cent of people have plastics drinks bottles to recycle outside the home ‘very often’, ‘fairly often’ or ‘occasionally’, but only 17 per cent of them use a recycling bin when they’re out and about (though at least 24 per cent took them home and recycled). 

All of this begs the question: why are only half of UK councils offering on-street recycling? Well, money is one obvious answer. In an era when local authority budgets are under immense pressure, councils would prefer to maintain or enhance existing kerbside collections rather than invest heavily in on-street. When Stafford Borough Council’s 50-bin-strong on-street system was installed in 2012, it cost £25,000. That’s £500 per bin, which would make many local authorities think twice. “There’s no doubt that austerity has slowed the uptake of on-street recycling”, suggests Andy Newton, Business Development Manager of Wybone, a Barnsley-based firm that manufactures on-street bins. “Budgets have been cut year-on-year for the last five or six years and many are prioritising other areas.”

Newton also suggests that local collection methods also play a role. “Not every local authority has access to a MRF, so certain materials get collected within a borough but then get transported to another borough for onward sorting. But that MRF might not want to be collecting glass or various other material streams. The overall infrastructure for recyclate handling is still not evolved enough, and if you have a back-of-house barrier, well, that’s going to preclude what you’d like to do up front.”

Indeed, having effective infrastructure in place before embarking on an on-street system would appear to be a prerequisite – as is choosing the right materials. In its 2012 ‘Recycle On The Go’ guidance report, WRAP suggested on-street schemes should cover paper, plastic containers, drink cans and glass containers and warned: ‘If you do not provide facilities for the disposal of all these materials, users may deposit them anyway, to the contamination of your collection.’

With that in mind signage and location choice are crucial. “The most important element is communicating to people that it’s there and ready to use”, says Mark Street, Environmental Health Manager of Stafford Borough Council. “Choosing the right sites for the bins is also important – it’s no use putting one where there is a low footfall – and reviewing this from time to time. Takeaways might have opened in places where they weren’t before; and the shopping centre might have also changed.” 

Yet even well-labelled on-street systems are hampered by endemically-high contamination levels. “People just see a hole and put their litter in it”, shrugs Street. In a study waste consultancy M.E.L conducted of an on-street system in the London area, 37 per cent of waste placed in the residual bins was found to be material that could have been recycled. 

Changing ingrained behaviour is obviously difficult, but there are some things local councils can do in the short term, suggests Darren Coss, Waste Consultant from M.E.L: “Making sure they are emptied frequently, that rubbish isn’t stored around them. If it’s not source separated, you need lots of different vehicles. There are also issues if a bin for residual waste and recycling look too similar and are too close together.”

Sometimes, there is nothing key decision makers can do about this. “Often you’re at the mercy of town planners and architects”, says Newton, who cites the example of Peterborough. “There, they have aesthetically redesigned their main pedestrian thoroughfare but have ripped out their source-segregated recycling and put in a single container that says ‘recycling’, which is identical to the single container beside it which says ‘litter’.

“Here you have a team of architects and designers who have mapped out what the city centre is going to look like and ordered all of the street furniture including waste collection on the basis that ‘it looks beautiful’. And, yes, it does look very smart indeed. But it simply doesn’t work.”

Design of the actual bins is a factor too – and has developed significantly over the last decade. “Design has become more obvious and more accessible”, says Newton. “On-street dual aperture, triple aperture containers have emerged whereas 10 years ago that was all pie in the sky. Now it feels almost commonplace.”

Newton believes there is much more that could be done. “I’d like to see a uniform type of container everywhere in the UK, so it doesn’t matter where you go, you’d instantly recognise that this is for collecting this material as a recyclate. If there was a joined-up approach across local authorities, then there would be a significant increase in the quality – not quantity – of recyclates.”

This article was taken from Issue 81

Quantity is a different story. Every local authority we spoke to declared that the effect of on-street facilities on their total recycling rate has been minimal. In Cherwell in North Oxfordshire, the council installed an on-street system in 2008 but last year collected just 24 tonnes of recyclates – a minute fraction of the 11,000-tonne total for plastics, glass and tins from kerbside. “It’s tiny”, Deborah Pickford, Lead Member for Clean and Green in Cherwell admits. “But that’s 24 tonnes that doesn’t go to landfill and saves us money.” 

Street is adamant that most councils see on-street facilities’ greatest value as encouraging household collections. “The point of putting them in is really a communications issue. It’s to show that the council is committed to recycling. People get the recycling message through the letterbox, on the website and now when they go out and shop in the town centre. They can’t get away from it.”

But if they make such a small difference in real terms and suffer such high contamination are they really worth persisting with? “Certainly, as long that, as systems, they are designed correctly”, says Coss. “I think local authorities need to get together and team up and see what works best. Not just what works best across the board but within specific environments such as student accommodation and parks. A lot of this is the size of the bins, how often they are collected, what materials they take. For example, if the bins are too small and collected too infrequently, then it’s not going to work.

“Ultimately, though, they are worthwhile because they hammer home the recycling message. When people see them, they inevitably think about their own household recycling and realise that the council is trying to extend that into more areas. In this case, it’s about being seen to be doing the right thing.”