Sandwell council has emphasised its continued focus on education and communication with residents to drive up recycling rates and target contamination.
Speaking to letsrecycle.com, Andrea Morris, customer engagement manager at the council, and Sofia Antoniou, regional campaigns manager at the council’s waste partner Serco, explained some of the challenges to increasing recycling for an urban authority.
These include the demographics of Sandwell, which Ms Antoniou described as diverse and in some areas transient, with some unemployment.
Because of these factors, Ms Antoniou feels the council’s recycling performance is “really positive”, which comes from “religiously” communicating with residents through a variety of channels.
Sandwell is a metropolitan borough in the West Midlands, with a population over 300,000. The borough comprises the six towns of Oldbury, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Tipton, Wednesbury, and West Bromwich.
The council achieved a household recycling rate of 39.9% for 2017/18. In comparison, the neighbouring authority of Dudley achieved a rate of 35.5% for the same period.
The council currently offers weekly collections of three containers: residual waste in a 180-litre grey bin; a 240-litre blue lidded recycling bin for commingled recycling; and a food waste caddy. Green garden waste is collected for free fortnightly for 9 months of the year. The service is provided by Serco under a 25-year contract which started in 2010.
Ms Antoniou explains: “We do have a very easy-to-use recycling system here, so everything goes into the one bin, commingled. From a resident point of view that’s quite a simple message.”
The council has recently reported a decline in food waste collection rates since the implementation of the service in 2012. Collected domestic food waste tonnages have declined by 39% since 2012.
The council said that it is estimated the removal of the food waste service equates to a saving of around £640,000 per annum.
Sandwell Council had approached WRAP for assistance on a food waste interventions project. However, an application to work with the resources charity was turned down because the council’s service includes weekly residual waste collections.
Ms Antoniou reiterated that the waste team would be keen to work with WRAP in the future, although she suggested the council currently has no plans to explore reduced frequency of waste collections.
Ms Antoniou said the current weekly service was popular with residents, with “very good customer satisfaction levels”.
To increase recycling rates the local authority has run a number of communications campaigns over recent years and incentive schemes with “mixed results”.
One current social media campaign focuses on the “obscure and unbelievable things” that residents put in their recycling bins, Ms Antoniou explains.
“We’re trying to do it in a light-hearted type of way where we source photos taken of bins that our crews have taken that our crews have been out and collecting. It might be an obscure item that we find in there and we post the picture of that bin online.”
And, one of the council’s biggest investments, and one which Ms Morris feels has been particularly successful is its ‘Eco Bus’ project with schools, jointly-funded with local charity Litter Watch.
“They deliver recycling games, recycling quizzes, workshops around the environment, that type of thing. That scheme has been running for eight years and we’ve whole-heatedly got behind it.”
In recent years Ms Antoniou reveals that the recycling rate has dropped, along with many local authorities in England. She puts this down, in part, to contamination and lighter weight packaging.
In terms of contamination, Ms Antoniou explains: “We do try to engage with residents on the doorstep if we do find their bins to be repeatedly contaminated.”
And, Ms Antoniou acknowledged a “gradual tail off” in food waste recycling in Sandwell. She said: “We probably attribute that to the fact people are seeing how much food they’re wasting, they’re shopping smarter perhaps, that type of thing.”
“I think with food waste you’re either the type of customer who engages with it or you’re not, there’s no grey area.” Ms Antoniou identified this as “the biggest challenge” to increasing recycling rates for the material.
However, she explained that the council’s main focus has been on reduction and redistribution.
In order to drive up recycling across the country, Ms Antoniou pointed to changes to guidance on packaging, consistency in collection systems and a national recycling campaign which the government could get behind. She noted that TV adverts around recycling have been produced in the past.
Another barrier which Ms Morris identified is planning regulation, with bins often “an afterthought” for developers in planning new residential developments.
“What you don’t want is a situation where loads of residents are having to pull their bins through their homes for collection. We do have those situations.”