Urban councils slow to invest in recycling

Shire councils are achieving roughly double the recycling rates of urban councils, according to unpublished data from a Department of the Environment (DoE) survey. The news comes alongside a high-profile Audit Commission attack on local authorities' poor recycling performance and proposals that councils should be given powers to charge directly for waste collection.1

The new DoE data - the most reliable to date - show that councils in England and Wales recycled 6.5% of household waste on average in 1995/96, well short of the Government's 25% target for 2000. The survey has yet to be published but was sent for consultation to local authorities in June.

Recycling rates ranged from around 4% in metropolitan areas to more than 8% in shire districts and 10% in Wales. London boroughs achieved only 5% on average - a figure buoyed by a handful of authorities which have invested heavily in recycling services. Sutton reported that it had achieved its 25% recycling target last year.

Including landfill tax, local authorities spend roughly £1 billion a year on waste management services - around £20 per capita. Investing in recycling usually means diverting funds from other budgets.

A wide range in recycling costs was revealed by a recent study which tested a standardised costing model developed by Coopers & Lybrand.2 In the five councils studied, the costs of operating "bring" schemes ranged from £123 per tonne to a net surplus of £5 per tonne. Kerbside collection schemes had net costs ranging from £13 to £69 per tonne.

The costing model will be issued by the Audit Commission later this year in a waste management handbook. It will permit comparisons between different recycling schemes, and comes alongside forthcoming DoE guidance on assessing the performance of recycling projects. The aim is to help councils identify value-for-money options when drawing up tender specifications or assessing proposals from waste management companies.

The new Audit Commission report says that "local government is typified by a few leading authorities with a rump of authorities yet to take effective action" on recycling. "Immediate objectives" for councils should include: investing in kerbside collection of newspapers; establishing one "bring" site per thousand population; promoting home composting; and limiting further introduction of large wheeled bins, which are thought to increase waste arisings.

The Commission adds that powers for local authorities to charge directly for waste collection, and to compensate people who recycle, would help "improve economic incentives to reduce waste".

The idea of charging for refuse collection is also discussed in a new report on recycling incentives for householders prepared by Babtie and Cleanaway for Berkshire County Council. The report, which claims that pay-by-weight schemes can reduce household waste disposal by 50%, recommends the establishment of a pilot scheme in Newbury. The scheme would involve a rebate on council tax since authorities have no power to charge directly.

As expected, the DoE survey has confirmed that roughly a third more household waste is generated than was previously believed (ENDS Report 267, p 12 ). The survey was conducted by consultants MEL, who sent questionnaires directly to local authorities and achieved a 90% response.

Household waste arisings in England and Wales totalled 23.8 million tonnes in 1995/96, of which 16.2 million was from refuse collection rounds and 4.25 from civic amenity sites. The remainder consists of recycling collections and other collection services and street sweepings.

Councils collected a further two million tonnes of commercial waste, giving a total of 25.8 million tonnes of "municipal waste" in England and Wales. 12% of the total was "recovered" by recycling or energy recovery, compared with the Government's target of 40% by 2005.

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