Councils criticised for 'paucity' of data on recycling incentive schemes

Local authorities have been criticised in a study commissioned by the Environment Department (DEFRA) for failing to evaluate the success of household waste incentive schemes.1 The Department has awarded £7.5 million to councils in an attempt to rectify this situation - although it will not fund any "compulsory recycling" schemes.

DEFRA commissioned the study, by AEA Technology, after criticism from the House of Commons Environment Committee in April (ENDS Report 363, p 36 ). The study aimed to evaluate incentive schemes designed to increase recycling.

Such schemes, which include those offering cash to regular recyclers, have come under increased scrutiny since the revelation that four out of ten local authorities are failing to meet their statutory recycling and composting targets (ENDS Report 360, pp 15-16 ).

A second study, by Eunomia, looked in depth at ten schemes.2According to AEA, 95% of local authorities in England have run or want to run such schemes. The study is based on a survey of 211 of England's 388 local authorities.

"Financial/carrot" schemes have proved the most popular. These are being run by 89% of local authorities -

92% of these in the form of discounted compost bins, although 23% also run prize draws.

Of the other types of scheme, "voluntary/carrot" ones - where recycling funds charity and community projects - are run by 57% of local authorities. However, "these are set to decline in favour of financial-based incentives, which are perceived as offering greater and faster success."

"Financial/stick" schemes are also "very much on the increase", 17% of local authorities saying they intend to run them. Such schemes involve either charging for waste collection or making recycling compulsory.

Although there is much data on the number of schemes, the study finds precious little to go on to evaluate their success.

"A key finding of this study is the paucity of monitoring and evaluation data for all but a handful of schemes," it says. "This represents a significant gap in the information required to design an effective future programme."

There are two reasons for this dearth of information, the study says - a "lack of any clear plan and reason for introducing schemes" and a "lack of resources (both financial and staff hours) to warrant any evaluation or monitoring".

Schemes are "often run ad hoc as and when spare funds are available," it adds, a view backed up by face-to-face interviews with local authority officers. There is also "little evidence" that the schemes are being integrated with long-term waste strategies.

Because of this, the report is reduced to talking about the "perceived" success of schemes. Financial/stick schemes are the only ones with data available to evaluate their success and the only ones obviously tied in with long-term waste strategies. It highlights Barnet and Blaby councils' schemes, although these are discussed in more detail by Eunomia (see below).

The Eunomia study generally backs up AEA's findings, pointing out the large gaps in current knowledge.

It looks at a scheme in the London Borough of Brent, for example, where 1,240 households were provided with new bar-coded recycling bins. Over six months, residents were encouraged to recycle by being offered £10 if they put their box out 50% of the time.

As a result of the trial, the amount of material collected rose by 37.6% - to 2,196kg. Participation also increased from 15.1% to 22.3%. In total 274 households qualified for the incentive. In a similar trial without the £10 incentive, recycling rose by 21.4%.

The report concludes that the trial is "replicable in many areas". However, it warns that if this is to occur attention should be paid to "how to make sure any incentive does not simply reward people who are already participating effectively."

A similar trial in Gloucestershire, where cash prizes of up to £150 were awarded, raises further questions - for how long can such schemes maintain interest and what level of prize is necessary?

Again, it is the financial/stick schemes that raise fewer questions. Blaby's variable charging scheme - whereby residents are restricted to a 140 litre wheeled bin each week, having to pay for a larger bin or black bags (ENDS Report 332, pp 15-16 ) - is called an "effective way of constraining refuse without moving to a fortnightly collection", while Barnet's compulsory recycling scheme (ENDS Report 351, p 22 ) is mentioned for having achieved "a measurable increase" in the amount of waste collected.

Barnet's recycling rate has increased from 19.7% in April 2004 to 25% now. The council said in July it was preparing to prosecute a household that was refusing to recycle, but the action has now been dropped.

However, in spite of both studies appearing to shed positive light on financial/stick schemes, DEFRA is not promoting them.

In March, it invited local authorities to apply for part of a £5 million fund to pilot household waste incentive schemes. "Around 100" local authorities did so, according to a DEFRA spokesperson. This has led to £7.5 million of work being funded, although none of it features financial/stick schemes. Details of the schemes will be announced in late August.

"Compulsory recycling won't be suitable for all local authorities, but we are watching those that try such scheme and their impact with interest," said DEFRA. "In Government we are looking at positive incentives to help authorities encourage householders to reduce, re-use and recycle their waste."