I remember, as a young lad in the mid-1980s, going with my dad to a small local site that could only be described as a ‘dump’. There, you could discard any quantity and mixture of rubbish in what looked like a naturally embanked enclosure. It seemed largely devoid of regulation and was open to anyone, householder or business. With hindsight, its strangest feature was its location, about a mile from one of the most picturesque areas of the North Norfolk coast, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It seems so improbable that I looked it up on the Environment Agency’s Historic Landfill Sites map to check I hadn’t imagined the whole episode.
It’s astonishing how far things have come in the intervening years. Today, waste disposal authorities (WDAs) are required to provide facilities, generally known as household waste recycling centres (HWRCs), where people can drop off all manner of materials for recycling. The sophistication of these facilities makes the dump I remember from my childhood seem positively archaic. In this blog, I look back through a rather personal lens on the stages by which this transformation – much of which I’ve lived during my career in waste – has been achieved, and what’s next for the humble tip.
By the late 1990s the ‘dump’ or ‘tip’ was coming to be known as the ‘civic amenity site’ (or ‘CA site’). The then Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions produced the UK’s first waste national strategy, imaginatively named Waste Strategy 2000. This helped popularise the ‘CA site’ terminology, which dated back at least to the 1960s. It wasn’t a term I warmed to; it seemed to be dressing up the tip as something it hadn’t yet become.
That said, waste management at CA sites was taking some faltering steps forward. By 1998/99 the England and Wales municipal recycling rate had reached a heady 8.8%. In the absence of widespread kerbside recycling collections, CA sites were doing much of the heavy lifting.
However, my memories of trips to CA sites in this period are of something still far removed from today’s facilities: rusty, sharp-edged 40 cubic yard skips haphazardly distributed around an uneven-floored site, with little signage and no discernable traffic system. Health and safety didn’t yet seem to be a consideration.
By the time the Waste Strategy for England 2007 came along there had been a step change in how local authorities collected household waste, driven by the Household Waste Recycling Act 2003. With the birth of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the CA site became the HWRC. It’s a bit of a mouthful, which is perhaps why these sites seem destined to remain commonly known as the ‘tip’ or ‘dump’.
By 2006/07, England’s household recycling rate was nearly 31%. HWRCs continued to contribute more than their share, with 48% of the waste deposited at them being recycled, according to WasteDataFlow. This period was one of rapid recycling progress, driven by:
- The local authority targets set in Waste Strategy 2000;
- An obligation to collect at least two kinds of recycling at the kerbside;
- Financial incentives, such as the Landfill Tax escalator and the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme; and
- Substantial investment supported by grants and PFI credits.
The influence of the research and advice produced by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), founded in 2000, also began to felt.
Of further consequence for the role of HWRCs was the transposition of the 2002 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, through regulations introduced in 2006 in the UK. HWRCs became Designated Collection Facilities for these items, and by 2016 the annual amount collected through them had reached 262,486 tonnes, which represented 45% of the total household WEEE collected that year. HWRCs still remain an important part of the national infrastructure for household WEEE collection.
The centre cannot hold
The increased expectations on HWRCs, with more materials needing to be separately collected for recycling, led to pressure on some older sites. At the London Borough of Haringey, where I used to work, the council was able to build a new HWRC in 2005 on a vacant site it owned thanks to substantial capital funding from WRAP.
But not all local authorities were in a position to increase HWRC capacity. Space limitations and increased disposal costs led to tighter restrictions on commercial waste entering sites. Whilst measures had previously been taken to discourage commercial waste, such as vehicle height restrictions, these morphed into outright bans for certain vehicle types, such as vans, and the use of vehicle registration scanning equipment to bar entry to those trying to disguise commercial waste by arriving in cars.
In 2006/07, 248,315 tonnes of non-household waste weres delivered to English HWRCs. By 2019/20 this had fallen to 66,499 tonnes, with most authorities that still receive commercial waste at HWRCs now charging for it. Some WDAs have gone even further by requiring all people wanting to access HWRCs to pre-register their vehicles. This allows them to place restrictions on people from outside their area using their HWRCs, whether by barring admission or charging for entry. Hampshire introduced cross border charges of £5 this year, and other authorities are following suit.
Leading the charge
Charges and restrictions have also increasingly been applied to materials that represent a significant cost to the WDA and which it is not obliged to dispose of free of charge. For example, the London Borough of Haringey currently does not accept asbestos, gas bottles, tyres, paint, or household and garden chemicals. Many others charge for at least some of these materials, while my local HWRC in the London Borough of Brent charges for “the types of items you wouldn’t take with you when moving house”.
These charges, driven by local authority budget cuts, have been sufficiently controversial to attract the ire of the government. Regulations passed in 2015 banned admission charges and charging for deposits of household waste, although the rules only took effect from 2020. However, the regulations do not appear to have stopped authorities from imposing entry charges, and did not affect charges for DIY waste (which is classed as industrial, not household).
The reasons for the government acting were the unpopularity of the charges and a perceived risk of increased fly-tipping. Whatever one may think of the former point, previous WRAP research has found little evidence of a link between charges and fly-tipping. However, the government indicated in the Resources & Waste Strategy (RWS) that it would revisit the question of whether councils should be allowed to charge for DIY waste; it is to be hoped that, if it follows up on this, it will be on the back of stronger evidence that there is a problem.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to enable social distancing at HWRCs led many WDAs to introduce HWRC booking systems. These appear to have had a mixed response: some have welcomed reduced queuing times at busy sites, but as is often the case with booking systems for a free service, appointments will often be missed, leading to sites being under-utilised. Wiltshire County Council reported over 500 missed booking slots in a week in April 2021. The future of appointment systems is not yet clear: while some authorities are scrapping their appointment systems, in many other cases they seem to be here to stay. If they help to reduce waste arisings, the temptation to keep them may be strong.
While access restrictions and charges may have been a recent theme, HWRCs importance within the waste system seems likely to grow. HWRCs received several mentions in the RWS, which suggested that by 2025 they would have an expanded role in collecting textiles and hazardous household waste. That made it surprising that they weren’t commented on in the recent consistency consultation. The closest was a suggestion that bring arrangements for commercial waste might be expanded.
One of the impacts of EPR is likely to be a desire on the part of producers to see some smaller waste streams collected for recycling. Some of these, such as expanded polystyrene, may be impractical to collect at the kerbside, but could be separated at HWRCs. HWRCs could also have a role within the proposed deposit return scheme as locations where people can reclaim their beverage container deposits. Space at HWRCs will be in still greater demand.
And while access to traditional HWRCs may not be getting any easier, new ways of providing HWRC services are appearing. In rural areas, like North Yorkshire and Conwy, where residents may live far from their nearest HWRC, mobile HWRCs, a long-established service in France, have been introduced. They’re also being piloted in urban areas like Birmingham, where residents are less likely to have cars.
Whatever name they may go by, HWRCs are here to stay.
Thanks to my colleague Sarah Kemp at Eunomia for helping to pull out the waste data in this article from WasteDataFlow.