August 29th, 2014
by Peter Jones
Can there still be anyone involved in managing local authority waste collection services that hasn’t heard the phrase TEEP? The requirement to collect four recyclable materials separately, where doing so is necessary and technically, economically and environmentally practicable, is one of the rare examples of a waste story that has crossed over into the mainstream press, albeit in the garbled form of stories about Europe requiring us all to have extra bins.
Awareness of the Waste Regulations, and the new separate collection requirement that takes effect from 1st January 2015 has probably never been higher – but how is that translating into action? Small steps are certainly being taken. For example, it’s rare now to see consultancy advice being commissioned on topics such as collection efficiency or collection procurement support without TEEP being mentioned.
Indeed, at least one authority I know of has built a TEEP review into its waste and recycling collection contract procurement process: bidders are required to show that the council will meet its Waste Regulations requirements under their proposed collection system. Provided that the council is indemnified against losses arising from relying on the advice, it could be quite an ingenious way to outsource the risk.
Others appear to have been advised that so long as no bidder comes forward with an affordable proposal for separate collections, this is a de facto proof that separate collection is not viable. I’m not so sure that this approach discharges the council’s responsibilities to test whether it is necessary and practicable – although of course we’d only know in the event (I hope unlikely) of a challenge. Quite different results might be achieved in procurements if a source separation option was mandated – perhaps amongst other variants.
Some authorities have taken the more traditional route and tried to figure out the problem before launching into a procurement process. Some are tackling the task in house, making use of the Waste Regulations Route Map to guide them. Others are understandably seeking the advice of putative experts to give them extra assurance that they’re getting it right. However, from what I’ve seen of this work, local authorities risk being lulled into a false sense of security by poorly conducted compliance checks.
The three key traps I’ve seen TEEP reviews fall into are pretty fundamental:
- Evaluating whether the council’s current (or preferred) co-mingled collection system is necessary and practicable, when what the law requires is an assessment of whether separate collection meets the tests;
- Comparing which collection system is the “most practicable”, when the law says that separate collection is required so long as it is necessary and practicable, regardless of how other approaches might perform; and
- Providing highly generic advice that does not closely relate to the specific circumstances of the authority, particularly as regards material yields and MRF output quality.
One of the few sources of information regarding how to interpret the law comes from Justice Hickinbottom’s analysis in the UK Recyclate Judicial Review ( EWHC 425 (Admin)), where he wrote that:
“Whether separate collection is technically, environmentally and economically practicable depends upon a balancing exercise, that is both sophisticated and context-specific”
Any analysis that does not meet these criteria is unlikely to prove satisfactory if put to the test.
Naturally enough, authorities are keen not to be pushed into making changes to collection systems that work well for them, and which they feel residents support. There are fears over an extra “hassle factor” for residents associated with separate collection, and over negative publicity.
In those circumstances, it’s easy not to look too closely at the content of a review that gives the answer that was hoped for – the current system is fine. However, false assurance isn’t really worth the paper it’s written on and it’s a cause for concern that some are taking substandard advice.
Doing the job properly needn’t mean that separate collection is a shoo-in. For example, there is considerable room for interpretation around what the quality requirements that underlie the necessity test might mean in practice. When it is thought through, the test of economic practicability may not be met by separate collection – a lot depends on the assumptions made regarding material values, the level of market risk that a council is prepared to tolerate and the level of expenditure it can afford.
The key thing, though, is that these issues should be considered explicitly, and analysed based on specific local information.
I’ve been involved in four pieces of work so far in which I’ve reviewed councils’ readiness to review their compliance, both with the waste hierarchy and the separate collection requirements. Most of the councils have most of the necessary information readily to hand, and could quickly get hold of much of the remainder. That shouldn’t be surprising, as the necessity and TEEP tests rely on little more than the information you’d normally need to manage a service.
In all cases, the information I’ve seen so far has presented opportunities for the councils to show that separate collection fails one of the two tests – although there’s still further work to be done to see whether the numbers straightforwardly support such a conclusion. That for me is the hallmark of a real TEEP review – instead of rubber stamping current practice, it presents the evidence, and helps the council reach a sensible decision.
This article first appeared on LetsRecycle.