Eunomia was in the news again this week as the results of a trial of a new weekly recycling collection in Mid Devon District Council were announced. The three month study aimed to test Eunomia’s recommendations in a WRAP-funded study, that Mid Devon should pick up an increased range of materials weekly at the kerbside, and replace its free garden waste collection with a charged one. Disappointed with the results of the trial, the council has decided not to roll out this approach. So what went wrong?
Participation – recycling and garden waste
The council has highlighted two main issues emerging from the trial. The recycling rates achieved were lower than those predicted by Eunomia, and the idea of a charged garden waste scheme was unpopular. Material income and garden waste charges were important factors in making the service stack up financially, so lower performance and poor uptake projections were bound to have an impact: a point highlighted in Eunomia’s report.
So was Eunomia just over-optimistic in its assumptions? I would argue we were actually quite conservative. Eunomia anticipated higher costs and lower productivity than neighbouring Somerset authorities are actually achieving in similar territory – the predicted kerbside recycling rate of just over 33% is hardly heroic. And the assumed 33% participation rate for charged garden waste is consistent with the extensive data we have collected from schemes across the UK where a charged service replaces a free scheme.
Models vs Trials
So if Eunomia stands by its findings, what about the results of the trial? It is intuitive to think that a “practical” trial is preferable to a model – as Mid Devon councillor Mel Lucas put it:
“The obvious plan of action was for Mid Devon district council to test the theory with a practical exercise in order to evaluate the real costs and benefits. It proved that practice is better than theory.”
But in reality a pilot is every bit as theoretical as a model – and I would be very cautious about extrapolating from a three month, 800 household trial, when:
- It is much harder to raise awareness for a trial than for a major service change. Councils invest heavily in publicity when they change services, but could not justify doing this for a trial.
- The first three months of a new service always produce the most complaints as people get used to it. Satisfaction would be expected to be much higher after a year.
- Presented with the choice of a continued free service or a charged one, it is not surprising that clients preferred the idea of the former. However, this does not necessarily reflect the result that would be achieved if a service were to be implemented – as the experience from elsewhere across the UK shows.
While the results from Mid Devon pilot are interesting, and it is for the council to decide what service best suits its residents, despite the findings I would be very likely to make similar recommendations again.