Dr Adam Read is external affairs director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK. Here he reflects on local authority issues and the recent LARAC recycling officers conference in Nottingham.
‘We live in interesting times’, a phrase often used by Terry Pratchett in his disc world novels and certainly a phrase that has summed up municipal waste management in the UK for the last decade or so. And although things never stop changing, and the issues that officers and members face may evolve over time, the level of interest and uncertainty in the municipal waste management space today is in my opinion at an all-time high!
As a waste and resource management contractor we see first-hand the pressure that officers and their services are under, and our job is to work with them to identify better systems, better solutions, and new approaches that could reduce costs, improve quality and ultimately enhance the customer experience at the kerbside, at the HWRC or whilst ‘on the go’. We will always look to share best practice, alter the service where appropriate, and support new campaigns to target contamination, litter or residual waste etc. And just as we, and other contractors, can provide insights and perspectives that may be different from one location to another, so local authorities can share their experiences of what worked (and what didn’t), their insights about the sector and its evolving nature and of course they can share their successes and sometimes their ‘scars’ and that is what LARAC does so well.
Getting together to share pain and experiences for the greater good
I was fortunate to spend 2 days the other week with over 300 local authority representatives, plus other contractors, consultants and officials from government departments, and the likes of WRAP and the trade associations to hear about the big issues in local authority waste management. With over 450 delegates in total and some 500 people at the gala dinner in the evening to celebrate municipal best practice it really is the ideal melting pot to hear about new initiatives, trial services, innovative campaigns, and difficult situations that need a 3rd party perspective. This is always one of the highlights in my calendar, because no matter how bleak the outlook (or the weather) the positivity, the camaraderie and the drive to improve is there for all to see, it really is infectious!
It was great that Dr Therese Coffey, Resource Minister at DEFRA was available to open up events and provide a whistle stop tour of all things facing the sector whilst highlighting the willingness of the Government to listen to the sector before committing itself to any particular suite of policies and interventions. She wants pragmatism to rule in terms of collection harmonisation, bin colours and target materials, and she is acutely aware of the threat from international market closures on our existing and planned recycling system.
It was refreshing to hear the breadth of issues that DEFRA are having to deal with, and she was quite open in saying we will be consulting on many issues in the coming weeks and months.
As I said earlier, we live in interesting times, and for the local authority officers present the challenges of ongoing austerity, uncertainty about end markets for the recyclables being collected, more uncertainty about post BREXIT regulatory regimes, and the launch of a consultation on deposit return schemes and litter might be pushing things a little too far for a workforce that have been hit hard in recent years with budget cuts, scope creep, and moving goalposts on so many fronts. Now I may like a good challenge, and see the possibilities that these issues and their interconnections might have for the sector, but even I am feeling a little weighed down by the sheer volume of stuff that is ‘up in the air right now’.
Local Authority Best Practice?
But there was light at the end of the tunnel as we heard from a plethora of excellent speakers showing what can be done in these changing, difficult and uncertain times. Ricardo provided an update on their survey and best practice guide on austerity and innovation, highlighting a number of new approaches to meeting budget cuts whilst delivering front line services, including charging for some non-core services and challenging existing systems to meet the benchmark performance of neighbouring authorities. Veolia, Eunomia and WRAP all offered their own insights on changing services, contracts and partnership opportunities, whilst one of our clients East Devon shared how they had achieved a 69% increase in recyclables and a 26% increase in food waste collected year on year since the successful introduction of their 3 weekly collection service. They are now achieving a very credible 57% recycling rate.
The Dorset Waste Partnership also showcased how they had saved £4 million in the last 2 years whilst improving their countywide recycling rate to 59%, whilst Rochdale Borough had increased their recycling rate 33% in 2014 to 53% in 2017 following a 3 weekly collection switch and a high profile engagement and communication programme. Commingled contamination had also been reduced to only 6% (down from 20%), whilst their residual waste volumes had fallen by 27%, and their food waste collections had increased by 400%, resulting in disposal costs being cut by over £1.3 million.
So as I said there is plenty of great innovation happening in our sector, with local authorities at the heart of the action. We have seen successful new schemes, innovative new procurements, seamless joint working, and excellent campaigning coming to the fore. Which is why I was really proud to not only be a corporate sponsor of the LARAC event, with the opportunity to meet clients, target clients and the friends old and new, but was also delighted to sponsor the Best New Idea award, which went to Bolton Council for its guide bins for the blind – another example of a small bit of innovation that could now be replicated across the UK.
Day 2 was just as informative, engaging and passionate with a series of workshops enabling delegates to dig down a little deeper into some of this big themes. I ran a workshop on contamination and communication, and over the course of 90 minutes had some 60 delegates working through real issues and possible solutions.
We covered social media and targeting specific groups of residents (students, those in areas with highest levels of contamination etc.), we looked at the role of the crews in enforcing quality, and the level of information needed to not only change residential behaviour but to make it habit. I was particularly taken by a couple of delegates who had been set the impossible of sorting out their contamination rates (in excess of 20%) with a budget of £10k or under! So for all the positivity and good news, the start realities are still there for officers across the country who are trying to make miracles happen, sometimes in isolation, sometimes in partnership with their contractor, and sometimes with neighbouring authorities. It is this variation that helps keep life so interesting…..
Now I am back at my desk, reflecting on some of these good news stories, and some of the ongoing pain, and some of this expected pain and potential opportunity that comes as things change. Times are a changing, and we do live in increasingly interesting times, but that doesn’t mean it is all doom and gloom. We should continue to celebrate our successes, share our best practice and offer up advice on what we tried and worked and what we tried and failed. It is only through true collaboration and the sharing of these experiences that we can hope to address austerity head on.
As such, I intend to work with consultants at Ricardo on developing a guide to some of the big operational, procurement and policy issues facing local authority waste and recycling officers (and members), which we will kick off in January, with a number of webinars, case studies and checklists to help you stop reinventing the wheel. So watch this space, and if you are interested in showcasing your examples then please get in touch directly.
I wish you well with your journeys, with your consultations, and with your future service planning. And I look forward to hearing about your successes (and the odd failure because they will help us learn as a sector!), so don’t be shy!
As with all my ‘comments’ they are mine and mine alone. If you would like to get in touch or share your opinions, then please email me firstname.lastname@example.org