Mission impossible?

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

The UK has just four years to comply with an EU target to recycle 50% of household waste. With time running out, David Burrows assesses the options available for cash-strapped councils

Recycling rates in England have fallen for the first time in five years, from 45% to 44.3%. The 0.7% slip in the 12 months to June 2015 also came with a sucker punch: black bag waste increased by 0.6% to 12.3m tonnes. Few in the waste industry were surprised though. “We are standing still and have been for ages,” says Eunomia director Joe Papineschi.

The reasons are fairly well understood. Expensive garden waste collections have been cut back while levels of dry mixed recyclables (DMR) have remained pretty static. Contamination levels are an issue and the shift in the composition of household recyclables hasn’t helped: there has been a migration from glass to plastics, while cardboard is now more ubiquitous than paper (as a consequence of more online shopping).

The average box or bin of DMR is therefore lighter – that might be better in terms of carbon, but performance is based on weight. “The worst thing we’ve ever had is weight-based recycling targets,” says LARAC chair Andrew Bird. “If you pull the figures apart, I think we are probably doing more [recycling] than ever, but [the rates] are being knocked back through lightweighting and changes to the make-up [of household waste].”

Budget restrictions have been the biggest blow, however. Austerity has kicked many councils in the balls: as the third-largest area of budget spend, ‘waste and recycling’ has been feeling the pain.

A survey of council waste officers last year showed that 69% have less money to play with due to austerity measures.

That research – part of a report by Ricardo in February 2015 – showed those responsible for waste have remained resilient and committed to keeping services on track. But there were also signs that the strain was beginning to show, says the consultancy’s director Adam Read. And they have only intensified since. “There aren’t many local authorities coming to us saying that they want to set 70% recycling targets,” he explains. “With 30% cuts they are asking us what they can get away with when they go to market – and it’s often in a panicked call at the last minute.”

Seventy per cent isn’t (yet) the target for the UK of course – it’s 50% by 2020, as per the EU’s Waste Framework Directive. But Brexit aside, is there any chance of meeting that marker?

“I think we’ll be lucky to get there,” says LARAC’s Bird. He isn’t the lone doubter, and what’s more he isn’t the only one who believes that the key to 2020 is food waste. That’s the material that sticks out, Bird says.

Moving on up

Indeed, considerable improvements in plastics could help nudge up rates overall by 1%, according to LARAC. On the other hand, mandatory separate food waste collections combined with fortnightly residual waste collections could add 6% to local authority recycling rates, according to calculations by Suez. “In the short term we need to roll out more food waste collections and squeeze the residual waste containment capacity,” says Eunomia’s Papineschi. Doing both at the same time produces the “maximum benefit”, adds Biffa Municipal commercial director Pete Dickson. It’s nothing revolutionary and it’s not a blueprint for every council, he continues, but it’s working for a number of them.

Ashford Borough Council is often the pin-up to prove this, but there are plenty of others out there. Gwynedd County Council, meanwhile, has attributed annual savings of £350,000 to its switch to three-weekly residual waste collections in 2015. Falkirk Council is saving £400,000 a year, even with increased collection and processing costs – and it’s now examining how to make four-weekly residual waste collections a reality.

In England, Bury was the first to adopt a three-weekly scheme, and in under a year it has seen an 8% increase in dry recycling, says Read. Its projections for this financial year suggest an overall increase in its recycling and composting rate from 43% to a shade under 60% (which will place it within the top 20 collection authorities for household recycling in England). The savings? Some £860,000 on disposal costs every year.

“The numbers just don’t lie,” Read says. And this summer, Ricardo, in association with the Local Government Association, will publish “compelling evidence” for councils to switch to three-weekly black bag collections and weekly ones for food waste.

Rochdale has made similar changes, saving £800,000 a year in the process. It is actually one of 22 councils in north west England that are enjoying collective savings of £20m a year thanks to changes to kerbside collection frequencies, as well as route optimisation, streamlined services and joint procurement. However, as council advisory body Local Partnerships noted in a report published last month, half the councils are yet to hit 40% recycling. They aren’t taking action to generate percentage points for recycling, but to generate value for money within a limited budget.

The report also noted that many local authorities understand that the only way to improve recycling rates is to add a separate food waste service, but the appetite to make the move “varies widely”. Capital and revenue costs are particular issues, as is participation. Speaking at March’s Resources conference in Holyrood, Edinburgh, South Ayrshire Council’s service co-ordinator Stratton MacDonald said uptake of the service there has been “slightly disappointing”, with fewer than 40% of residents taking part.

Scrapping food waste collections

Recent reports suggest that some councils with established food waste schemes are now planning to scrap them. Yields have fallen and this has put pressure on the system.

LARAC’s Bird, who is also recycling and waste services manager at Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, admits that it can take time for new services to bed in. The council first introduced a food waste collection in 2010, but it’s only now paying dividends – and a new four-year contract with Biffa should help lift rates from 3,000 to 3,500 tonnes a year.

Newcastle-under-Lyme has been able to get ahead of the game. The trouble facing councils six years on is that there isn’t the cash available to fund new systems. The Chancellor’s decision to axe the central government grant to councils over the next four years (as part of the comprehensive spending review) hasn’t helped. “It’ll leave councils dependent on their ability to generate income from business rates – and these will vary from authority to authority,” explains CIWM deputy chief executive Chris Murphy.

English councils have generally been facing austerity measures for longer than their counterparts to the west and north. In Wales and Scotland there are ambitious policies and targets in place; local authorities have also had access to more targeted government funding to support waste services, particularly the roll-out of food waste collections.

But the money is running out. Commenting on a new charter for household recycling in Scotland, one waste services manager highlights that signing up is all well and good if there is money available to invest. “There’s no fat left in our budget,” he says. “And Zero Waste Scotland and the government have no [revenue] funding available.”

Local authorities can’t be blamed for playing the short game. They have been “hijacked” by the annual cuts regime, so the last thing that they’ll invest in is something with a payback of five years, notes Ricardo’s Read. “We’ve got clients going to market that love their 60%-plus recycling rates, but want that service delivered for between 3% and 10% less – and that seems a bit unrealistic in my opinion,” he adds.

Statutory targets could certainly help. There are none in England currently, and Read recalls his own PhD research back in the late 1990s, for which he surveyed councils in England, Wales and Scotland. “I was looking at the value of voluntary versus statutory targets and the message that came back was ‘make it statutory and we’ll react’.”

Instead, Defra has distanced itself from waste policy. “I don’t really know what the department’s thinking is,” admits LARAC’s Bird. Could England be hoping that more ambitious policies in Wales and Scotland can haul the rest of the UK over the line? If so, it’s a risky game to play because recycling rates are plateauing in those countries too.

The resources minister, Rory Stewart, is pinning his hopes on the harmonisation of collection schemes. In the summer, WRAP is expected to publish a “menu” of half a dozen options. It won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, but it will demonstrate a business case for change, says WRAP director Marcus Gover. Will that be enough?

Chris Jonas, director of business at Viridor, welcomes the move. “Historically our recycling habits are decided by local council barriers, but a more holistic approach is required. Other services such as buses and hospitals don’t adhere to these barriers, so why should recycling?” Jonas suggests providing consistency in the big urban areas could see recycling recover from the “relatively small blip” we’ve had. “There’s no need to panic just yet, but rates are stabilising,” he adds.

Further squeezes

This glass-half-full attitude is commendable. But the harsh reality is that in the next four years budgets will be squeezed further and UK councils collectively will have to find another 5.7% in recycling rates. It’s not mission impossible, but something has to give. George Osborne is unlikely to open his public purse and Defra isn’t about to push English councils to roll out food waste systems. But there was a chink of light in March’s Budget.

Years of cutting red tape has seen benchmarking data fade away, but the Chancellor announced that there will be a consultation on the new rules regarding transparency of costs for in-house services. Research just published by the Environmental Services Association and Ricardo concluded that in-sourcing isn’t actually a common theme (as some media reports have claimed), but is certainly on the table for many councils looking at cutting costs.

In the meantime, waste contractors are doing all they can to convince their customers that outsourcing is the most efficient use of taxpayers’ money. This may not be helping recycling rates, though. “Some of the big companies are offering discounts if contracts are extended and all that does is maintain the status quo in the hope that austerity will disappear,” says Ricardo’s Read.

Austerity is here to stay and, provided the UK remains in the EU, so is the 50% by 2020 recycling target. Miss it and there could be fines of up to £0.5m a day. And who is likely to foot the bill? Local authorities.

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