Eric Pickles is making something of a habit of conjuring up pots of money to promote his pet policy proposals. Undeterred by the experience of the £250m Weekly Collection Support Scheme (WCSS), which proved quite an expensive way to persuade one authority to revert to weekly collections, he has now established a £5m Recycling Reward Scheme (RRS) fund that gives councils the chance to bid for resources to set up local recycling incentive schemes.
In the case of the WCSS, quite a few authorities decided that the business case for weekly collections didn’t stack up, even with an injection of cash from DCLG – and it may well be that an underspend on the WCSS has provided the resources for the RRS. So is this new fund any different? Is it worth councils’ while to bid before the closing date of 7th November? And if so, what kind of incentive scheme does the evidence suggest they should put forward?
Although the independent evidence for the effectiveness of recycling incentive schemes remains at best equivocal, despite a good deal of research and analysis, the government has high expectations for the RRS. It is expecting the resulting schemes to deliver “increased recycling rates, higher quality recycling and reduced contamination, waste minimisation and less recycling going to landfill; and residents feeling more ‘engaged’ with recycling”.
The fund has courted controversy from the outset through being available only to local authorities that offer weekly collections – although some deviation from bin bible orthodoxy is allowed, as a weekly residual, food or garden waste service will all allow a council to qualify. Nevertheless, the restriction prompted CIWM to comment that:
“government money should not be used to force councils into changing the frequency of their residual waste collection services…. However, most of England’s top performing councils have been running alternate week collections for a number of years with good resident satisfaction ratings and significant improvements in recycling and landfill diversion. Publicly vilifying these councils and jeopardising the householder participation and recycling rates they have achieved is inappropriate.”
Whilst DCLG acknowledges that “some recycling rewards schemes have not led to significant change” its prospectus claims that the fund has “set criteria” to ensure schemes are “well thought through”. At the same time, Greenredeem has been publicising research it has carried out, which found that on dry recycling, “local authorities that adopted rewards in 2012/13 securing a rate of just over 19 per cent, compared with an 11.91 per cent rate for compulsory schemes”. The news articles about the research draw on the press release and I’ve not yet been able to find and review the report’s methodology – or to establish what it means by ‘compulsory recycling’ schemes.
The fund prospectus points to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM) as an example of the success of incentives, stating that the borough “has seen recycling improvements year on year – from 34 per cent in 2009/10 to 48 per cent in 2012/13, in large part due to its borough-wide recycling rewards programme.” Whilst this impact appears to be impressive, the figures do not reveal the whole story.
The well-publicised launch of the recycling incentive scheme in RBWM has been accompanied by changes to the recycling collection system. A switch from twin-stream collection to co-mingled completed its roll out in 2010, and expanded the range of materials collected to include plastic containers and tetra pak. Another likely contribution to RBWM’s rising recycling rate is the introduction of separate food waste collection in 2012. Like other authorities, RBWM seems to have stimulated higher participation it least in part by implementing and publicising a new and expanded recycling scheme. Now the council’s waste data flow results indicate that performance has reached a plateau at a level that is by no means world-beating, suggesting that the addition of incentives has not led to extraordinary results.
Mechanisms and monitoring
It is disappointing – if not wholly surprising – that DCLG is investing in recycling incentive schemes when the value for money case is so questionable. Earlier this year I was part of a team researching the effectiveness of recycling incentive schemes. Despite thoroughly examining the evidence available on a number of incentive schemes, our report could find no conclusive indication that incentives were in themselves effective, as James Fulford and I explained on Isonomia. It is particularly difficult to separate out the effect of the incentive from the effect of factors such as service change accompanying the launch of the scheme, or the publicity surrounding the launch of the scheme. Other mechanisms such as residual squeeze policies, have much more reliably shown positive outcomes.
Another disappointing aspect of the RRS is the lack of emphasis on monitoring and evaluation. The scheme requests that local authorities monitor and evaluate the performance of their project and volunteer to make that information publicly available. The recent Defra-Brook Lyndhurst study into incentive schemes indicated that good quality monitoring can contribute significantly to the running cost of the scheme, which could explain why the government do not want to specify or co-ordinate data gathering. However, in the absence of a centrally defined approach to reporting or any external sense-check on the data collected, its reliability, comparability and the ability to separate the influence of incentives from other factors (service changes, publicity, and demographic change) will be limited.
Fishing for hooks
With so little evidence of the effectiveness of incentives, and little prospect that this latest experiment will generate more, is it worth authorities bidding into the fund? In my view, it could be, provided that schemes are designed with the real evidence in mind. The Eunomia-Serco research into recycling incentive schemes indicated that incentives can be effective as a ‘hook’ on which to hang recycling promotion work. In other words, the recycling incentive scheme provides local authorities with an opportunity to engage with residents and present the recycling collection scheme in a new and exciting way to encourage further participation.
With that in mind, an RRS bid is most likely to achieve beneficial outcomes for authorities that design schemes to:
- focus on promotion, using the incentive scheme as a way to get residents to improve their understanding of the local recycling system;
- coincide with other changes that need to be communicated, such as service improvements, so as to maximise the chances that together these deliver increased recycling (although the impact on recycling rates should not then be attributed to the incentive scheme alone!); and
- minimise expenditures on the actual reward part of the scheme (especially the overheads of administering rewards) down to a minimum.
As a researcher, I’d also want to encourage authorities to give careful thought to how they aim to monitor the effectiveness of their reward scheme, while recognising that doing so will be far from straightforward. In the absence of a firm central requirement to monitor by a specific method, it may be difficult to justify going beyond quite basic measures, but the implementation of the scheme could provide opportunities (e.g. rolling out on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis to monitor whether change is associated with the implementation of incentives).
Achieving the best results, therefore, won’t be straightforward. As with the WCSS, councils may find that in order to design effective schemes in the short time available, they need external help. If DCLG’s RRS is to achieve value for money, the benefit will come from councils maximising communication with residents, resulting in householders being better informed about what and how they can recycle. It will not be driven by the overall size of the reward fund or the value of the vouchers on offer to residents.
Minimising the emphasis on the reward element of a scheme will also help to make it sustainable. CIWM has expressed concerns that whilst the RRS could “help with the upfront investment” in reward schemes, it was important for councils to “consider the year-on-year operational costs of incentives schemes” in making the decision regarding whether to implement rewards.
Pickles’ latest financial conjuring trick, then, is perhaps more promising in its potential to achieve beneficial results than the WCSS. Recycling incentive schemes can be a useful promotional tool to employ alongside other waste policies, although it’s hard to escape the thought that – Greenredeem’s study aside – other, less Daily Mail friendly policies and measures have been shown to be considerably more effective. So long as incentives are recognised for what they are – perhaps, questionably, a part of the solution, but at best a small part – there is no reason not to take up the money that DCLG has made available and use it in the ways that will be the most effective.