January 6th, 2017
by Peter Jones
Three-weekly residual waste collections are on the rise, but remain highly controversial. Their introduction has been heralded by stories of over-spilling bins, growing populations of rats, and people buying “top-up” collections from opportunist private bin companies – in fact, all of the same ill-founded fears that were raised about fortnightly collections.
The Somerset Waste Partnership’s proposal to change to three-weekly bin collections (now confirmed) was big enough news that ITV’s local news made it a major story last month – which resulted in my making an unexpected appearance as an expert commentator. When waste management is top of the evening news schedule, you know that something unusual is going on.
Whys after the event
It is natural enough that the news will focus on the implications of service changes for residents and their reactions to it. However, I was surprised that none of the questions raised by ITV concerned why it was happening.
Really, any discussion of reduced residual waste frequency should start with a recognition of the scale of the budget cuts councils have experienced. Of course, Council Tax hasn’t gone down – the cuts have come from the central government revenue support grant (RSG) that councils receive, making them far less apparent to residents. Westminster has also sharply constrained councils’ powers to make up the shortfall through Council Tax rises. The cuts are set to continue as RSG is phased out, although there appears to be a little more flexibility on Council Tax under Theresa May’s watch.
Under the circumstances, councils have done a pretty extraordinary job of “doing more with less”. But when residents ask whether savings from three-weekly bin collections will result in a Council Tax cut, the answer is obviously no – the money has already been taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The real question is – if you don’t want your council to look for savings on waste collection, where would you prefer them to make them?
Serves you right
While waste collection is a substantial area of expenditure for councils, switching to three-weekly collections isn’t necessarily all about the savings. It’s also about giving residents the right amount of bin capacity over all. As recycling services have been introduced, the total amount of bin space to which households have access has typically increased. For many, the capacity available exceeds their needs considerably. Indeed, in some cases where high-recycling councils have considered three-weekly collections, Eunomia has found that the level of residual waste disposal savings might be relatively small, as few residents were filling their residual bins. Optimising residual waste capacity, and saving money on unnecessary collection vehicles, should really be no more controversial than making sure the council funds the right number of school places.
Nevertheless, one of the concerns frequently expressed by residents is that their bins are full despite them already recycling everything they can. While this may be true in some particular cases, it remains the case that, despite advances in recycling, the majority of the material that people put in the residual waste bin could have been recycled. Often – as in the case of Somerset – the change in residual frequency comes alongside improvements in the recycling service; in their case, the inclusion of plastic pots, tubs and trays, household batteries and small WEEE at the kerbside. So, even people who already make full use of the current service may be able to recycle more once three-weekly collections are introduced.
For the few who do produce large amounts of residual waste, councils that go three-weekly will typically put in place some special arrangements. Additional residual capacity is often available for households that, due to the number of people or their particular needs, produce a lot of non-recyclable waste. Provision of larger bins is often subject to some kind of assessment of need (which may be reviewed at intervals), and the council may make a one-off charge for providing the bigger bin.
Parents of young children are often concerned about the implications of having disposable nappies sitting in the bin for several weeks. Again, councils often look to respond to this concern – some by providing extra collections while others offer support for people to switch to cloth nappies. Similarly, for users of adult hygiene products, some councils make extra waste collections available.
Bury good news
Few councillors are recycling rate zealots, committed to driving up the numbers come what may. They want public services to perform well, but also to be popular: unpopular changes can harm your chances of getting re-elected, no matter how green their effects. But they also want to avoid the council going bust. While less frequent residual waste services may not simply be about achieving savings or boosting recycling, they do appear likely to achieve both. Savings will be greatest where the starting point is a moderate or low level of recycling, or a big difference between the cost of dealing with residual waste and recycling.
Bury is the first English authority to report on a full year of the new collection model. Its household recycling rate was 39% in 2014/15; following the introduction of three-weekly collections, this has shot up to 49% in 2015/16, bucking the plateauing national trend. Many more authorities will need to achieve similar levels of increase if the UK is to reach its 2020 recycling target of 50%.
The prospect of making savings that also have beneficial side-effects will be attractive to many councils. It would therefore be unwise to bet against three-weekly collections spreading over the next couple of years. There may be the odd counter example – Epsom and Ewell’s decision to revert to weekly bin collections being the only one that comes to mind. But these will reflect very particular local circumstances and politics – in this particular case, the fact that the council had continued to provide weekly collections to its large number of flats, and took the view that it could simplify operations by going weekly across the board.
But for the majority, taking a hard look at how frequently residual waste needs to be collected within a system that achieves high levels of recycling is simply a rational response to the ongoing demands of austerity. If you’re a resident who’s unhappy about three-weekly collections, it’s important that you weigh how important this service change is compared with other cuts of similar value. In your councillor’s shoes, you’d probably be eyeing up the waste budget, too.