It’s no coincidence that rejection rates at material recycling facilities (MRF’s) are increasing as the switch to commingling gains momentum. And where’s the sense in that? Are we seriously prepared to negate all those years of painstaking education, in which we preached the value-added virtues of separate waste streams, for the sake of a minority of operators who are able to sort it at the MRF? Are we seriously embracing this apparent ‘volte-face’ and now opting for quantity over quality?
Single stream may well be the answer in some (rare) circumstances, though realistically, it’s unlikely to help the quality – for which read price – of recyclate and may even result in thousands of tonnes being rejected as we fail to recognise that in landfilling, we are effectively throwing away precious raw materials that have a secondary value.
At a time when UK recycling rates are plateauing, if not decreasing, local councils are faced with having to come up with ever-inventive ways of re-engaging with householders to encourage better participation.
For many local authorities the default route seems to be reducing the size of the residual waste bin and/or shifting to three-weekly collections. Aberdeen, for example, is replacing its 240 litre black wheeled bins with 180 litre containers for the collection of residual waste. Existing residual waste bins will instead be used for the collection of commingled recyclables, including glass bottles and jars; plastic bottles and containers; food and drink cartons; paper, card and cardboard; and metal cans.
The new scheme replaces a bag and box system, which saw paper and cardboard collected separately from glass bottles and jars, plastic bottles and metal, with residual and recyclable waste collections operating on an alternate weekly collection basis.
This rush to downsize containers in a bid to force householders to recycle more and reduce the amount of waste to landfill seems to have found a particular toehold in Scotland, where West Lothian Council has replaced 240 litre grey bins for a slimmer 140 litre version and Edinburgh and Kinross councils have similarly opted for smaller alternatives.
As a self-professed bag man I have, of course, an axe to grind, though I’d like to think it’s a fairly objective one. For example, I would no more propose the use of bags as a suitable receptacle for glass bottles and jars than suggest commingling newspapers and magazines with food waste, where the risk of contamination is high.
And that lies at the heart of my container portfolio strategy, in which a carefully conceived bag and bin system provides the optimum solution for most collection situations, as a number of councils have discovered – not least the imaginative recycling team at Rochdale Council. Rochdale’s food waste initiative, in which our own five-litre caddy liners played a key role, led to a dramatic 70 per cent increase in bio-waste collections during the first three months of the new service.
A combined fortnightly garden and food waste service for those properties with gardens was already established when the council switched to three-weekly residual waste collections, along with a weekly food waste service. By widening the gap between refuse and food waste collections, it reversed the emphasis from waste to recycling.
An imaginative educational and promotional campaign supported the switch, featuring personal appearances by BBC TV’s ‘Great British Bake Off’ winner Nadiya Hussain, who also appeared on the council’s ‘Recycling Pledge’ video on a dedicated school campaign website. A separate video, which targeted the local ethnic community, featured a Muslim woman demonstrating how to recycle, with a voice-over from a leading local Imam. Mosques, women’s groups and schools were all encouraged to view the video.
This imaginative strategy, combining bins and bags, continues to deliver impressive results for the council, with a year-on-year increase of 58 per cent in combined food and garden waste collections. During December 2015 to February 2016, when some 95 per cent of bio waste collections came from food waste, the council recorded an increase of more than 2,118 tonnes, up 289 per cent. No surprise that Rochdale’s achievements were publicly acclaimed in last year’s National Recycling Awards.
I would lack any sort of credibility if I preached a bags only mantra. And while there are applications where the bag is pre-eminent – think flats and tenements, for example – the plastic bag has an equally important role to play in on-street recycling schemes, if only by allowing collectors to bring full bags of waste to the kerbside ahead of the refuse carts, so that rounds are completed more quickly.
My message is simply to remind those who devise these new schemes not to forget the not-so-humble plastic sack. No other container comes close in terms of initial cost, ease of implementation and the fact that no special equipment is required – local authorities can use existing vehicles equipped with bin lifts, using ‘slave’ bins to do the lifting and tipping work.
Like so many things that we take for granted, bags have a lot to offer in most waste management schemes. Let’s be sure we don’t throw away the source-separated baby with the commingled bathwater.