Return to weekly collections to slash recycling rate

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Government's own research shows that scrapping fortnightly collections will increase costs and English recycling could be cut by five percentage points

Roadside waste collections (courtesy of Recycle Now)The coalition’s intention to reintroduce weekly waste collections could lead to over one million more tonnes of recyclables being dumped in landfill each year, according to the government’s own analysis.

This would drop England’s recycling rate by several percentage points, and put into question its ability to meet EU recycling and landfill diversion targets.

The change would cost councils £530 million over the next four years, the analysis says. Councils would have to run more bin lorries and pay higher disposal costs.

This extra cost, at a time of budgetary pressure, could prevent councils rolling out food waste collections, according to one council body ENDS spoke to.

In 2008/09, some 170 English waste collection authorities (48% of the total) had fortnightly collections of residual, “black bag” waste. The figure has since increased. The shift has increased local recycling rates; less frequent residual waste collections encourage households to recycle more so as to avoid over-filling their bins.

Before the election the Conservative party latched onto press campaigning against fortnightly waste collection, embracing the mantle of Middle England, as voiced especially by the Daily Mail.

Since the election, environment secretary Caroline Spelman and communities secretary Eric Pickles have been pushing for a return to weekly collections. The terms of DEFRA’s waste policy review says it wants to increase collection frequency (ENDS Report, August 2010).

In August, local government minister Bob Neill urged councils to hold referenda on returning to weekly waste collections, saying that fortnightly collections “cause problems with fly-tipping, odour and vermin.” Under the Localism Bill, due in November, residents will be given powers to hold referenda “on any local issue”.

In September, shadow environment secretary Hilary Benn MP asked a parliamentary question about the cost of this change. Environment minister Richard Benyon replied that it would cost “£140m in the first year, and £530m over the four year period of the Spending Review”.

ENDS has been given details of the analysis behind these figures conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) for DEFRA.

The analysis says that the amount of dry recyclables put out for collection would drop by 30-46 kilograms per household per year and the amount of garden and kitchen waste by 10-100kg. This analysis simply assumes that the pro-recycling behaviour change caused by the introduction of fortnightly collections is gradually reversed.

The amount will vary depending on the type of collections people have. WRAP admits that these falls may not occur. “It’s very hard to say [what will happen] because there is no direct evidence from authorities making such a change,” it said.

ENDS found that if the figures are extrapolated across 48% of English households, this leads to between 430,000 and 1.57 million more tonnes of recyclables being dumped in landfill. WRAP did not calculate the impact this would have on the national recycling rate, but ENDS estimates England’s 2008/09 rate of 37.6% would drop to as low as 32%.

Under the EU’s revised waste framework Directive, member states have to recycle 50% of waste from households by 2020. The increase in garden and kitchen waste going to landfill would also make it harder for the UK to meet EU targets to divert biodegradable waste from landfill.

A representative of one council body, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “There’s a general feeling among councils that [going weekly] is a stupid idea; these figures just show why. Fortnightly collections have been accepted as good practice for two years and that’s why more than half English councils have made the move.

“DCLG’s pressure to change is absolutely against the government’s own localism agenda, and its desire to increase recycling. It will also mitigate against its desire to deliver a huge increase in anaerobic digestion as council won’t be able to afford to return to weekly collections and also collect food waste.”

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