Are three weekly collections a good idea?

Written by: Dr Adam Read and Brian Mayne | Published:
Ricardo discuss three weekly collections in its latest webinar

Three weekly collections were first introduced by Falkirk Council over two years ago, and now over 18 local authorities have followed suit and are providing similar extended frequency collections. As a result, there is mounting interest about what a council needs to consider prior to changing their service.

In response to the demand from our clients and the media attention on the issue in recent months Ricardo Energy & Environment delivered an interactive webinar on the practicalities of ‘extending the frequency of residual waste collections’. This reflected on our own independent research from earlier in the year and gleaned insights from more than 150 delegates from all parts of the waste management sector who registered for the session.

The audience

The webinar included a variety of interactive sessions enabling the audience to challenge presenters Brian Mayne and Gareth Morton through Q&A sessions and a number of audience polls. The first poll identified that 72% of those attending with responsibility for collections already provided a fortnightly service, with only 20% offering a weekly service, whilst a further 10% were already delivering a three weekly service. Of those that were not providing a three weekly service some 26% were considering changing to one in the next year or so. The makeup of the audience enabled those thinking about change to ask questions on the issues that need to be taken into account, while those already offering the service were able to provide valuable insight and experience of what worked and what hadn’t from their perspective.

The issues

To understand better why more authorities have not changed or are considering change the audience were asked to identify the main issues they believed would need to be overcome when implementing an extended collection service, the following responses (only 1 could be selected) were received:

  • Internal inertia / resistance to change: 10%
  • Local politics: 18%
  • Perspectives of local members: 35%
  • Public attitudes: 37%

Public attitudes and often those of elected members are often formed through unfounded news coverage of alarmist issues such as over-spilling bins, uncontrollable fly tipping and exploding populations of rats. Jon Eastwood, Conwy Council, at the recent LARAC Cymru conference informed delegates that the press had told residents that the result of extending their refuse collection would result in ‘Rats the size of cars!’ or even an ‘increase in suicide rates’. But sector evidence suggests this is far from reality Conwy Council who are now trialling three and four weekly refuse collection services, who commented that they had not seen a significant increase in household waste type fly tipping, litter bin usage or street litter. They are not alone, Bury MBC the first council in England to go three weekly, have also reported that they have not identified an increase in fly tipping. What has been identified, however, are a number of positive environmental and economic benefits that they believe other local councils should be embracing in these times of austerity.

The benefits from moving to 3 weekly collections of residual waste

From our own research we were able to identify the benefits as outlined in the table below:



Increases in recycling rates

+10% in Bury

+9% in Gwynedd

Decreases in the volume of residual waste collected

-9% in Powys

-17% in Bury

Increases in the amount of food waste collected

+3% in Gwynedd

+45% in Somerset

Significant cost savings

£400,000 per annum in Gwynedd

£482,000 per annum in Powys

The successes outlined in the table are increasingly important when they are set against the backdrop of austerity measures, and the increasing public demand for better environmental performance. Economic benefits were identified by delegates attending the webinar as the main driver for Councils to extend the collection frequency of residual waste (42% stating financial savings as the prime reason), whilst increasing recycling (30%) and reducing residual waste (23%) were also considered as important.

The practicalities?

The issues that Councils need to consider, as well as the practicalities, when delivering an extended residual waste collection service. It is important to remember that extending the collection frequency for residual waste is only one element of a sustainable waste management service, and that what really needs to be considered is the service as a whole: dry recyclables, organics and refuse collection. In addition, officers should be mindful of any potential unintended consequences on other elements of the service such as HWRC or bring bank use. Conwy Council identified an increase in visitors to their HWRCs of 5% resulting in more refuse being disposed of at the sites. It is therefore important that the service is considered as a whole as making local, short term or piecemeal changes will only hinder future decision-making.

There have been a number of successful approaches adopted to mobilising a new service, and surprisingly some have not had any form of trial beforehand, relying on staged-rollouts to test the concept and learn lessons or simply by adopting a ‘big bang’ approach to implementation.

Digging deeper into the practicalities the audience were informed that wheeled bins are favoured by most Councils for the collection of residual waste in three weekly cycles, however there are a number using a combination of wheeled bins and bags. Whatever approach is used it should be based on an options appraisal of the various possibilities to deliver the service as part of the creation of an overall business case. It should be highlighted that there are a number of issues that need to be taken into account from the outset, such as the state of the present fleet, the number of collection rounds and the existing treatment contracts as well as the type and number of properties as there are likely to be budget implications with upfront costs needing to be considered. Somerset Waste Partnership, for example, forecasted the costs of bins to introduce an extended weekly collection service at £2.2 million, nevertheless payback was estimated as only 18 months. This level of detail is needed in the business plan, to give senior officials and elected members comfort that this is the right approach to adopt. The plan should also address the main questions that elected members and the public might want to know, such as, ‘Can large families receive more bins?’, ‘Can they get additional recycling containers? ‘Where does the recycling go?’.

There are other practical issues that need to be considered when planning for a new collection scheme, such as the timing of new service rollouts, reviewing the collections policy for households of multiple occupancy, healthcare waste, nappies and adult hygiene products. All things that if poorly planned, or if ignored in the rush to implement could undermine the performance of the new service and ultimately confidence of the politicians.

The barriers?

The audience were asked what they thought were the main technical or operational barriers to extending the frequency of residual waste collection. The following were suggested:

  • The amount of work involved: 37%
  • The cost of implementing changes: 35%
  • Workforce/union/working practices issues: 12%
  • Other: 5%

Housing Stock: 10%

It was interesting and sobering to see that delegates recognised that the amount of work involved is not to be underestimated, but the benefits (as seen through those that have introduced the changes both environmentally and economically) are substantial and more importantly replicable.

The communication challenge

Communicating the need for changing the service and what it means for householders is an essential component of the successful amendment of any service. Often opposers to these services cite the issue that Councils are taking away a service rather than improving it. Conwy Council combatted this by promoting the theme that it was not about cuts, it was about recycling – namely doing the right thing. To overcome the barriers both internally and externally the need for a structured and well thought out communications plan is an essential element that sits alongside the business case.

Final thoughts….

A new approach is needed if local authorities are to deliver efficient and sustainable services now and tomorrow, recognising that austerity bites long and hard. They agreed that a more ‘revolutionary’ approach to service design & delivery, which is more innovative, more commercial and importantly more strategic is what is required.

The role of extended collections, and why stop at three weekly but go straight to four weekly, should be seen as one element of a sustainable waste management solution that can provide the potential for financial savings and increased recycling performance. Conwy have already identified that the four weekly service is delivering a 17% increase in recycling and a 30% drop in refuse, outperforming the three weekly service (which achieved a 6% increase in recycling and a 20% drop in refuse). However, any change must be supported by a robust business case and an appropriate and strong communications strategy. Perhaps the final word should go to one of the delegates who suggested ‘we must learn from the councils that are in the forefront of this change’ and we couldn’t agree more.

To listen to the webinar register at:

To find out more about introducing extended refuse collections come and see us at RWM from 12th to 14 September 2017 at the NEC Birmingham where we will be running a series of masterclasses and drop in surgeries for those thinking about changing their collection frequencies. For more information, contact Brian Mayne ( +44 (0)7968 707999 .

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