Where are all the gritters?

I was recently tagged in a LinkedIn post about gritter tracking data from Traffic Scotland. You can see the data in question here.

It’s becoming more common for local authorities and government agencies such as Traffic Scotland and Highways England to show their gritter locations online. This has often, as in this case, been accompanied by a public poll for funny names for the gritters.  It’s interesting and it’s certainly good PR, although I do now roll my eyes at the ‘funny’ names as they are as original as most of my Dad jokes.

The post reminded me that I’d spoken about this subject before, at a Highways technology seminar no less. It seems my comments at the time are still true today -tracking gritters and sharing it with the public is fun, technically easy and yet pointless and perhaps even unwise.

What’s On Offer?

There’s a very responsive map with the locations of all Traffic Scotland’s gritters and a snail trail of where they have been. It’s quite a ‘busy’ map but it becomes clearer when you home in on smaller area.

Alongside is a disclaimer.

The Trunk Road Gritter Tracker page provides live tracking of gritters on the trunk road network.  It displays the current location of gritters and a trail with an age range for where gritters have previously passed along the trunk routes across Scotland.  The Gritter Tracker does not provide road treatment or gritting information.

That disclaimer shows the three big limitations of this service.

  • It’s limited to trunk roads and doesn’t cover the local roads most of us live and work on.
  • It doesn’t show whether the gritters have treated the roads or simply driven along them
  • Refresh rates are low so the trails are actually a collection of dots that don’t really join up

I don’t think this has much practical use. At a push you could deduce that a trunk road had not been gritted from lack of dots, but that’s about all.

It may seem that I’m being sniffy about all this rather than constructive. That isn’t my intention – I’d simply like to see this data turned into more useful information. I’m happy to acknowledge that there are other services already offering a little more..

Stoke, for example, have a similar service and have embedded it in their comprehensive citizen app. This goes further than the Traffic Scotland system by also showing the standard gritting routes and also bringing grit bins, their locations and requests for refills into the picture. This does make the whole thing more relevant to a resident looking out of their window at the snow.

I still don’t think this is very useful. In fact, putting a dot on a road which says ‘a gritter was here in the last two hours’ could actually give a false impression that the road is free of ice and safe to drive on.

There is also the question of how close to ‘live’ this data should be. Those who provide the service may have very justifiable concerns about sharing live location data for their workers, even if it is not directly personally-identifiable. However, if the data is not real-time or is somehow reduced in precision to obscure it then it’s hard to see how it could be used to provide useful services.

I suggest there are three major things citizens might want to know.

  • When do you grit the roads, and where?
  • What’s the status of the roads I need to use for my journey?
  • Is the council or highways agency providing me with a good service for my taxes?

Raw data, however nicely presented on a map, doesn’t seem to answer any of these questions.

The routes that are gritted, usually graded into 2 or 3 levels of priority, can be fairly easily presented via maps or address-based information. Simply knowing whether your street, or a street you use often, is designated for gritting is useful information that helps to set expectations.

Gritting is, by its very nature, partly guesswork based on the weather forecast so sometimes the wrong decisions are taken about whether to grit or not. Sometimes the forecast will suggest gritting roads above a certain elevation, but not lower ground. It’s not unusual for gritters to go out expecting a cold snap that never materialises, or worse, the opposite. This can lead the public to wonder why on earth gritters were / were not out!

Service managers can and do tell residents what they are doing on social media etc and I think ‘working in the open’ is a useful way to demystify the process. It can certainly help people to understand why the gritters were or were not sent out. If the gritters are sent out then it’s logical that as a motorist I would welcome that news too, via some form of alert service so I know to take extra care in my local area.

To address the second question I can envisage that third-party services, commercial or otherwise, could aggregate and interpret data to put it into a more useable context.

“Alexa, what’s my drive to work looking like?”

That requires a service to know

  • what is your route to work?
  • what have the road temperatures been for the past few hours?
  • have all the roads on the route been treated (combining data from local, county and national services)?
  • does travel information suggest there are delays?
  • would public transport be a faster or safer alternative?

I don’t doubt that this kind of service could be made. We’ve already seen apps springing up to consume data about bin collections (see Leeds Bins or one if its cousins for example) and present useful functionality to the public. I have no doubt that if agencies were to publish their gritting data in a way that allowed aggregation and timely access then similar services would emerge for gritting.

Why the coalition has got it wrong on ‘bin tax’

In the early days of office the coalition government, as represented by Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for communities and local government) and Caroline Spelman (Secretary of State for Environment) have set out their policies for waste collection. Setting aside the question of whether we need a national ruling for a service which is delivered and measured locally, I believe that the new policy is a wasted opportunity which owes more to party politics and the whims of the Daily Mail than to any kind of reasoned argument.

The main points of the recent speeches are as follows

a) a firm ‘No’ to variable charging (or bin tax as the tabloids have dubbed it)
b) hearty support for schemes which reward and otherwise promote recycling
c) a restatement of the Conservative manifesto pledge to reinstate weekly collections

The public response appears to be generally quite positive. On the face of it Council Tax payers will receive more frequent collections and will get vouchers and other rewards for putting out recycling. We are told that this will increase recycling, improve public health and reduce the local authorities costs of landfill.

The benefits of recycling are clear. Every kilogram of waste placed in a recycle bin is a kilogram if waste not sent to landfill. The economics are set to improve long-term, with the cost of landfill continually rising due to capacity shortage and escalating landfill tax. Recycling revenues may have taken a hit during the economic downturn, but long term the value of the recycled resources will rise as virgin products (especially oil based ones such as plastics) become more expensive to derive and transport.

So what’s to complain about? Why do I say that this is a missed opportunity? The policy forgets the simple, but effective mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, where recycling is the last (and least) option.

The waste hierarchy, accepted the world over, is a simple pyramid which puts waste into an order of social and environmental menace. Landfill, not surprisingly, tops the pile. It pollutes the local landscape, emits significant methane (a greenhouse gas many times more effective than carbon dioxide) and captures none of the valuable resources contained within the waste. Energy recovery (crudely put, burning waste to release the energy within) is the next worst option.

But look at the next level, third-worst, and what do we find? Good heavens, it’s recycling; the very thing that Pickles and Spelman want more of. Recycling is better than landfill, but it still represents consumption of a resource (usually a virgin material), shipment of a material across the country (if not the globe), gallons of diesel consumed by refuse trucks collecting it and considerable energy and effort consumed in converting back to another material. A material which is then shipped around the country again.

A closeup of unwanted toys in a dustbin

This is a huge poverty of ambition. Why are we settling for the next worst option rather than really educating the public about what waste and recycling really is and the environmental costs it carries. The new government could have made serious steps to eliminate household waste at source, which for the most part means tackling our retail packaging culture. As it stands we can just keep reusing our carrier bags and fool ourselves that this is a major contribution to making our consumption culture sustainable. The real message is that recycling may be better than landfill, but it still represents a huge use of resources which we need to avoid.

Still, on the plus side we’ve seen the back of those beastly bin taxes, right? Well actually they never existed in the first place. DEFRAs own documents on the subject support the then-government’s statements that variable charging schemes were to be revenue-neutral; that is to say that they could not increase total householder costs. What would have happened is that people who produced less landfill waste would have seen their costs reduced and those who produced more would have paid more. This ‘metering’ of waste is fundamentally no different to metering of all our other utilities. If we were to announce a flat rate cost for electricity, regardless of use, there would be outcry about the unfairness and there would be no incentive to use less. Yet this is exactly the system the popular press tell us the public are keen to keep.

Of course, establishing metering systems in which every bin is weighed and electronically identified with a tag would be expensive to implement. A certified weighing system costs around £20,000 per bin wagon, not to mention the costs of the back office systems to process all that data. A typical Borough council with 20 bin trucks would need to find around £500,000 to establish a robust and legal weighing system. This is a lot of money, particularly at a time when public services are being cut.

It is, however, interesting to put it into context. Over its 10 year life, such a system (across the whole fleet) actually equates to only around 20% of the fuel costs of the truck it’s fitted to (at today’s fuel prices). I think many householders would be amazed to hear that a waste truck costs in the region of £20,000 per annum for fuel alone. Reverting to weekly collections from fortnightly would presumably lead to a doubling of these fuel costs.

Still, even though the cost of weighing may not be as outrageous as it first appears, anything that avoids that cost has to be a good thing. Which brings us back to schemes to reward recycling which now seem to be fundamental to the government’s waste policy.

The pilots in Halton and in Windsor & Maidenhead use exactly the same weighing and bin chipping systems that the variable charging schemes require. So the capital investment in the equipment and systems is still required. The question then is “who is paying for it”? If there is a sustainable and scaleable model under which we can chip and weigh recycling and reduce landfill (and the associated costs) then I am all in favour. If the ongoing incentives to householders can only be achieved by Council Tax payers stumping up £500,000 per council to get the scheme started then I would much prefer to see the nation bite the bullet and target landfill with mandatory pay-by-weight schemes.

Bin collections – a matter of life and death?

In the current snowy conditions, with all the relevant agencies and motoring organisations warning against non-essential travel, Twitter is alive with the sound of people moaning that their bins are not being collected.  It is a collision of two great British media obsessions – the weather and bins.  I haven’t yet seen the Daily Express weave Princess Diana into the picture, but perhaps they are working on that angle right now.

cars and trucks on road in bad weather, blurred image

The most striking aspect of all this Twitter-talk is that most of the people complaining seem to be at home.  I imagine it is far too dangerous for them to attempt to drive their small hatchbacks along the street, let alone walk to work.  And yet they are aghast that council managers are not willing to send out 26 tonne (gross weight when full) wagons down ungritted residential roads, where children are rightly playing (because teachers clearly cannot open schools) to pull heavy bins along icy pavements.

Let’s put it in perspective.  If the council don’t collect your bin, it will have to stay full for a few days.  Most councils are relaxing their side waste policies so they can catch up next week.  Your life won’t be blighted for too long.  Store the waste in the garage, in your recycling bin or perhaps in the boot of the car you can’t drive.

The alternative is that a 26 tonne truck may just slide straight through your garden.

Google StreetView just saved me hours…

Much has been said about Google Streetview; it’s an invasion of privacy, it’s utterly pointless etc etc.  Well today we used it at work and it saved us a huge number of man hours.

We are currently working with a UK council to digitise their waste collection service, starting from entirely manual systems.  Before we can do the really clever bits we need to get a firm grip on the basic layout of the territory, who has what bins etc etc.  It sounds real easy, but you soon realise that whilst the great majority of premises are straightforward (house with 1 black bin and 1 green bin) there are lots of exceptions which don’t follow the norm

  • blocks of flats where dozens of ‘dwellings’ share a communal bin store
  • premises above shops
  • sub-divided houses
  • commercial premises

and the list goes on…

Asphaltic concrete road in Thailand

Today we were looking at these exceptions and trying to get a grip on exactly how many of these exceptions there are, and what the actual situation was.  It was a planning meeting to work out exactly what data was available and what needed to be done to get the computer systems to reflect reality.

This time last year, one or more of us would have spent half a day plotting some representative locations on a map then another day visiting each one and taking photographs.  Then a few hours documenting it all and presenting it back to the team.

Today, we gathered around the laptop and used Streetview to look around a few locations and survey how the bins were stored.  We found some in the middle of the road (!), some where several blocks of flats shared one or more different bin stores etc.  We did the whole thing in about 30 minutes and cut the ‘decision time’ from a week to an hour.  Pretty cool.

Is the Government having another try with ‘pay as you throw’?

The Daily Mail today carries a story about one of their favourite subjects – bin taxes. It reports that the Government is trying for push these through again after failing to attract any interest in its ‘pilot schemes’. Not surprisingly, the report is entirely negative and presents ‘pay as you throw’ as another Gordon Brown stealth tax.

Article here

I have several questions after reading this article.

  • what is this ‘huge public opposition’? The media regularly whip up a storm over this and tell us that we are totally opposed to ‘bin taxes’, but I don’t actually see any real feeling that rewarding recyclers with lower Council Tax is a bad thing. Although not reported, that would have been the outcome of the DEFRA pilot schemes.
  • what is the alternative? Landfill is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions whilst simultaneously wasting energy rich resources such as glass. How would the Daily Mail suggest that we divert waste from landfill now that those who are will to recycle are mostly doing so?
  • what other utility service do householders receive unmetered? Gas, water, electricity, window cleaning and everything else is paid for subject to the amount used. Why is waste so different and why do we cling so tightly to being able to produce and dump as much rubbish as we feel like? I’m not actually sure that the general public is that bothered about being asked to separate out resources from waste.

I believe we are missing the point.  Householders want to have a dependable and efficient waste collection service.  In recent times many of us have had our residual waste bin collected less frequently or reduced in size to force us to recycle more.  I have no doubt that this has been done for the right reasons (to reduce landfill) it hasn’t been popular and many councils are now faced with a hostile public, despite the fact that most residents have a considerably larger total bin volume than ever before.  In part this is due to natural resistance to change but also that many items still cannot be recycled (plastics in particular) and that availability of services differs greatly from one region to another.

Councils don’t necessarily have much control over any of this.  However, they must continue to improve services, reduce costs and drive up recycling.  It’s about time the lazy media stories were replaced with a serious explanation of what ‘pay as you throw’ really means – that it is a revenue-neutral means of forcing people to send less waste to contaminate our green and pleasant land.  The happy side-effect of this is that councils will pay less for disposal and earn more for reclaimed materials, which can be passed back to you and me as savings in Council Tax.

It can’t be that hard to sell, surely?

The Truth About Recycling

At last, a well written, balanced and accurate assessment of ‘how recycling works’.  This should be required reading for all politicians and special interest groups who think we can just keep on shoving waste in a black bin and tipping it into the ground.

The simple truth is that we have a constant supply of a valuable resource and regularly bury large quantities of it.  Everyone (central and local government, householders and businesses) should unite to put this material back into our economy.

The Truth About Recycling

What’s really happening in Harrow?

A story, first run in the Daily Telegraph and subsequently picked up by the BBC and the Daily Mail (so far) reports that Harrow’s bin men will be ‘profiling streets’ to record recycling activity, paving the way to introducing ‘pay as you throw’ waste charges.  My employer, Bartec Systems, is named as the supplier of this Orwellian technology. So, what is actually being introduced at Harrow and why? It’s perhaps useful to start with the problem that Harrow, and many other Councils, are trying to solve.

  1. Landfill taxes and the general push to reduce landfill and carbon emissions mean they MUST send less waste to landfill
  2. The need to collect different waste types means a more complex service with a greater need to optimise collection routes and use of vehicles and crews (imagine the workload for green waste during an August heatwave compared to a frostbitten February for example)

So, how does a council answer an enquiry from a householder who hasn’t had their bin collected and wants to know why? At present, the majority of bin crews keep paper records on a clipboard of which households have not put a bin out, have presented contaminated recycling or an overflowing bin or what have you.  The amount of paperwork created across a fleet of bin trucks (the largest UK fleet is over 100 trucks) is absolutely staggering.  Worse still, that paperwork is locked in the truck until the end of the day, at which point it lands on somebody’s desk for processing. Harrow, in common with a good number of UK councils, are adopting technology to solve this problem.  Rather than writing this information on a clipboard, the driver can enter it on a touch-screen.  This is faster and more reliable than paperwork.  It’s also much safer, because unlike paper it only works when the vehicle is stationery.  The touchscreen also gives the crew reminders about households which need an assisted collection or have a valid second bin. As a result, the crews will miss fewer collections and will consequently deliver a better service with lower costs and carbon emissions.

Harrow expect to save £3.1 million over ten years through use of this technology.  That is surely a good thing and should be supported by residents of Harrow.

Does recycling have a real impact on emissions from landfill?

Councils are constantly (and rightly) on a continued crusade to reduce the amount of waste they collect from homes and take to landfill. There are several factors in this

  • the increasing landfill taxes make reduction or diversion to recycling economically essential
  • landfill space is running out (although some dispute this) and alternative facilties such as waste-to-energy and incineration take a long time to implement
  • landfill sites are a significant contributor to global warming due to production of methane, a more potent ‘greenhouse gas’ than carbon dioxide

Councils clearly have to persuade people to reduce their waste outputs and the most effective method in recent times has been restriction of residual waste collection.  This has been done by switching to alternate weekly collections, reducing bin sizes and enforcing stricter policies on overloading bins and collection of side waste.  All of these things reduce the volume of waste collected, and of course the first thing people do with a full bin is squash everything in tighter!

Measurement of recycling performance is nothing to do with volume, but is based on data collected at disposal site weighbridges.  This leaves Councils with a problem -it is necessary to deeply cut volume capacity to have any effect at all on weights.  These deep cuts have a strong and potentially negative effect on the Council’s relationship with the public. So far, so obvious.  But the question I have is whether weight or volume is in any way relevant?  To answer that question I have to go back to the very reasons why we wish to reduce residual waste.  The landfill tax is simply a man-made tool to pressure local government and so is not a justification of itself.  The question of available space in landfill is subject to some discussion.  And that leaves climate change and global warming as the strongest reason for our obsession with reducing residual waste.

The UK has certainly had some success in this.  Kerbside collection of recyclables has increased from almost nothing to over 50% in some areas.  But what types of waste have we diverted?  In my own backyard my recycling bins contain glass, tin cans and paper.  In the summer we send a small amount of green waste to compost, although most is composted in the garden.

My question is how much methane this has saved – I am no expert on this but I believe glass hardly breaks down at all and cans will oxidise over a very long period to rust without releasing any carbon (as methane or any other gas).   That leaves the paper, which does have a high organic content and will decompose to methane, amongst other gases, in a relatively short timescale.

This leaves a rather paradoxical situation for the waste collection authority.  If I were to stop recycling glass and put it all in my black bin then the effect on methane emissions at the landfill site would be nil1. Perversley, under any variable charging scheme I would be heavily penalised and the Council landed with a large landfill tax bill.

It is hard to conceive of a collection scheme that can measure waste both quantitavely and qualitatively, but any justification to the public of variable charging and specifically ‘pay by weight’ which hinges on the climate change effect of landfills should address the long term changes not just to the volume and mass of landfill, but also the composition of it.

Tim Hobbs

1 This argument does ignore the energy benefits of reusing glass instead of processing sand to create ‘virgin’ glass, which is in part offset by the carbon and energy costs of the additional collection process.

How many Councils will apply to run a ‘Pay as you throw’ trial?

It was widely reported on 1st January in the national press that in a recent survey not one Council was planning to apply for a pilot scheme.  To quote the Daily Mail “But a survey of 100 local authorities found that not a single one even wanted to take part in an initial trial run.”.

However, having looked into this a little further it is apparent that the figures are not quite as clear cut as that.  The survey asked 160 councils about their intentions.  Only 100 replied, all of them saying that they would not take part in the trials

Put another way, 63% of the Councils surveyed have said they will not take part.  We don’t know about the other 37%.  It is reasonable to assume that any Councils which are interested in running a trial (and presumably are preparing a bid now) would be very wary of the likely response from local and national media.  As a result they are likely to carefully control the way they present this to their residents and therefore hold their counsel until their application is finalised.  Likewise, those taking the undoubtedly more popular ‘no’ stance are more likely to advertise the fact early and at every opportunity.

DEFRA are seeking to run only 5 pilots (not hundreds as implied by some newspaper articles).  The results of this survey would appear to be far more encouraging for DEFRA than the national press would like to think.

More Daily Mail rabble-rousing over pay as you throw

Article here

It’s been fairly quiet on the ‘Council Bin Tax Killed Princess Diana’ hysteria front, and I suspect New Year’s Day was a slow news day. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the Daily Mail chose to run yet another re-hash of its opposition to variable waste charges under the guise of ‘news’.The key facts they choose to overlook are

  • waste is not building up in the streets, because Councils provide a perfectly adequate collection service to every household in the UK
  • people who recycle (and even relatively small amounts) will pay less to their local Council
  • people who prefer to fly-tip are not an oppressed majority – they are litter louts and should be treated as criminals
  • current problems with ‘stockpiling of recyclables’ are temporary due to the sudden collapse in demand
  • we cannot keep shovelling huge amounts of waste into the ground

Doing nothing and blaming Local Government for all the world’s ills is, no doubt, very popular but it won’t solve the problem that the UK has been collectively avoiding for decades.  The rest of Europe has developed a culture of waste minimisation along with civic pride and responsibility for its street scene.  That’s one European import I’d welcome.

Footnote – the Dail Mail comment police still haven’t released the item I wrote on their article a week ago. Looking at the comments on there it appears that 100% of the public agree entirely with the article. Are the Daily Mail following a policy of suppressing dissenting comments?