The provision of waste and recycling services has never been equal. For as long as residents have been expected to separate recycling from residual waste at home, some types of households have had access to better services than others, leaving some sections of society less able to participate. This exclusion isn’t just unfair; it also impacts recycling performance across the board. That makes tackling this inequality one of the keys to reaching the higher recycling targets, for packaging and for municipal waste in general, that UK governments are trying to reach.
This problem isn’t unique to the UK, but it is striking the degree to which British highrise and dense urban properties suffer significantly from fewer source separation opportunities, less availability of food waste collections, and generally less convenient services compared to more straightforward street level properties.
Limited capacity for change
One of the best evidenced and intuitive ways of increasing recycling rates in street level properties is to make recycling as easy and convenient as possible while reducing the effective capacity of residual waste containment available to residents, whether by making bins smaller or collecting them less often. Its impact was seen as councils introduced fortnightly residual waste collections, and again with the rise of three- and four-weekly collections.
In theory, the same is true for houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), highrise and other communal bin properties, but putting it into practice has proved harder to achieve and more costly. It also affects a smaller proportion of society, and one whose members are harder to engage in recycling. While this might not excuse authorities offering worse services to residents in these kinds of properties, it perhaps makes it understandable. However, the balance of costs and benefits may now be about to change.
A hard act to follow
The Environment Act is now law, and significant change is on its way to UK waste and recycling. One of its less widely recognised implications is that in its text, and in the various consultations on measures that flow from the Act, little distinction is made between housing types. For example, the introduction of the consistency consultation is explicit that the intention is to legislate to require English councils to “collect a minimum or ‘core set’ of dry recyclable waste streams from kerbside households, including flats” and also to provide food waste collections to all households.
However, it also suggests in the section regarding exemptions to the requirement to source separate different kinds of dry recycling from one another (and food waste from garden waste) that “Type of housing stock and accessibility” might be one of the reasons an authority might give for determining that it is not technically or economically practicable to separate materials, and highlights flats and HMOs as two types of housing stock that might give rise to practicability issues. That said, because the only alternative to providing separate food waste collections to flats is to instead offer them mixed food and garden waste services – and they are unlikely to produce much garden waste, leaving no clear way to decline to provide flats with a food waste service.
While we await the details of how the practicability tests might work, it appears not to be a given that exemptions to implementation will automatically be applied to flats or other forms of high-density accommodation.
And rightly so!
There’s no reason why flats should miss out on improved services because new funding will be available. EPR will cover local authorities’ costs of providing better packaging waste collections – and producers will need the material from flats in order to hit increasingly challenging packaging waste recovery targets. For new food waste services, financial support is expected from Defra under the “new burdens” doctrine.
As a result, local authorities now have an opportunity to think creatively about how to improve services to communal bin properties. This will mean applying the principles that have been found to improve recycling rates for street level properties to properties with communal bins, with less of a focus on costs.
Solutions to the problem of collecting waste from properties with little space to store it may include:
- more frequent recycling collections, or
- door to door recycling collections for flatted developments.
Neither of these solutions is cheap and councils would be likely to dismiss them out of hand in current circumstances. In the future, they may become viable.
Technology might have a role to play too. A “smart” communal bin has the potential to restrict the residual waste capacity available to residents, at least in flats that have bin stores. Imagine being limited to accessing a bin only once a day, or even once a week, could this have a behavioural change impact? Or would it result in more fly tipping and contamination of recycling bins? A form of this system seems to work in Ljulbljana, where residents in some parts of the city use a smart card to access residual waste containers and have to pay extra if they exceed their allotted number of visits to the bin, and where food waste communal bins also have limited access. However, we must be mindful that not all prospective “solutions” work in all contexts.
There is no one size fits all answer. There might not even be just one answer that works across a whole local authority area, or for all housing of a certain type. Most excitingly though, there are new options on the table. There are also new requirements to provide services and new demands from producers to increase recycling. Whereas the price tag might previously have been prohibitive, financial support should soon be available that will be instrumental in implementing the services necessary to hit future recycling rate targets. And most importantly for those living in flats, the need to reach higher targets points towards a future where service provision is equal for all.