Who needs your services anyway?

When you design and promote your waste service, do you know who it is for?

Most businesses design and market their services to a specific demographic or sector. For each product they have the typical customer in mind at all times. Whether it’s a new sports car, a package holiday or an insurance product, you can be sure that right from the start the product was conceived and produced with the end customer in mind. 

Local Authorities, though, are often offering services which are simply needed by everyone. We all need to get rid of our domestic waste and all have to change our habits to improve sustainability. So councils cannot imagine a specific demographic for their new garden waste services – it must be attractive and accessible to everyone. 

Historically this has meant channel shifting in a way which uses new technology without leaving anyone behind. I’ve sat through many workshops over the years where we’ve discussed the ‘older generation’ who don’t use the internet, want a more personal touch and perhaps wouldn’t cope with a shift online. 

However, I think this does those customers a disservice. A great majority of customers now use the internet, have smart phones and manage other services such as energy bills online, no matter what their age, ethnicity, education or social group. There are of course still pockets of people who will need additional support, but by driving more traffic through automated online processes we should have more time and resources to support those that need it. 

Man at home looking at waste collection calendar on Android tablet

An online service can be very different to a telephone or in-person service. If we think about online services as an add-on to the traditional process we are likely to just computerise what we already have. For each individual process you will end up with a form which mimics the conversation you would have in person – “what is your name”, “what is your address”, “what can I help you with today”… Before you know it you have a website full of forms – does that sound familiar?

Society is changing; people expect everything to be simple to use and quick to be actioned. Amazon, for example, gives customers a ‘one click’ option to buy and it’s delivered the following day. We don’t have the patience to read through walls of text or click through multiple menus to find what we’re looking for. Many businesses offer websites and apps which are engaging, eye-catching and simple to navigate. The most successful online services solve a problem for the user with minimal fuss and maximum convenience. Amazon have never asked me to fill in a form to request a product – they show me a picture with a price and a “Buy with One Click” button that does exactly what it says it will!

Mobile phone ‘buy now’ button

There will always be some users who can’t or won’t use online services, and local authorities cannot ignore them. I would argue, however, that the tipping point where services, communications and policies should be designed “online first” was long-since passed.

Understanding the cost of assisted collections

Controlling the cost and failure rates of assisted collections is a constant challenge for councils.

It is universal now that waste and recycling is collected from the kerbside. The householder must take the bin out each week and then bring it in again once it’s been emptied.  

Lots of people need help to do this because nobody living there is able to manage the size or weight of a full bin. These households will qualify for an ‘assisted collection’ – the collection crew will come into their garden and wheel the bin out for them (and usually back again).

When a collection round has over 1,000 bins to empty it’s a challenge for the council get this right every time. It also takes time to do and that must be planned into the routes.

In this article I explore the impact of assisted collections on the waste service as whole.

How Many Assisted Collections Are There?

The number of households with assisted collections varies from council to council, but I wanted to get a feel for how this impacts on collections.  Luckily, we have a lot of data to work from so I sampled over 70 of our live customer systems on a single weekday in July 2022.

On average, 3.3% of collections were assisted but there was a very big variation. 2 councils had less than 1% and one council had 11.1% of their collections assisted! I expected to see the highest figures in our rural and coastal clients, based on their older demographic. Although this was true of the one highest council, it actually did not follow as a general trend.

Are They Expensive?

The costs of providing an assisted collection service are two-fold.

Firstly, there are the costs of the extra crew time taken to provide the service. It clearly takes longer to go into the garden of a property than to collect and return the bin when it’s at the kerbside. This adds time to the route and reduces overall productivity.

Secondly, councils must provide a process to manage the service, allow people to apply for it, review the performance of it, train crews to carry it out and communicate how the service works to their residents. Those costs may not scale proportionately to the number of assisted collections, especially if they are computerised rather than relying on manual administration.

Operating Costs

I made an assumption that an assisted collection takes an additional 30 seconds compared to a standard kerbside bin. From our data I then calculated the additional working time required on a typical day.

On that day, one of the councils in our sample group spent over 42 additional working hours on assisted collections. For an ‘average’ crew with 2 loaders on a 7-hour day that equates to 3 whole routes on that day!  

The average, across all 76 authorities, was 9.4 working hours, still almost an entire working route, every day. The additional cost, for that one day, of providing assisted collections across our sample of 70 councils was £10,683.


The cost of administering the service is more difficult to quantify. It’s unlikely that any authority is in a completely ‘start-up’ position with no service or processes already in place.  There is likely to be a considerable ‘sunk cost’ in your service already. For example,

  • there is likely to be a policy on assisted collections – that will have taken a considerable amount of officer time to produce and have approved
  • there is probably an online form to allow residents to apply for an assisted collection. That form will have been designed by officers in accordance with the policy, then coded, tested and deployed by an IT team or website supplier
  • the call centre staff will have been trained on what an assisted collection is and be able to assist residents with their enquiries. Someone has probably spent time building training materials for them.

Occasionally, someone in the organisation will request a review of the policy. If anything changes, then it’s likely that all the costs above recur to some extent.

The Price of Failure

We’ve considered the cost of creating and operating the assisted collection service. Unfortunately, sometimes councils will get the service wrong. No matter how good the processes and people are, with thousands of jobs daily there are going to be failures. When a council misses an assisted collection they need to put it right quickly.

I know first hand that assisted collections are a major cause of ‘missed bins’, and anecdotally the cost of rectifying collection mistakes is reckoned at anywhere between £25 and £75 per bin. If, each day, our ‘average’ council makes a mistake with 1 in 1,000 assisted collections then it will spend £7,300 per annum (using the lower £25 per bin cost) on correcting assisted collection failures, but the highest end of our range indicates one council could be spending almost £40,000 per annum on assisted collection failures. 

I estimate the total cost, on that one Thursday in July, of correcting mistakes in the assisted collections service across 70 councils may have been £557,036!

The cost of returning to missed bins is heavily linked to costs of fuel, vehicles and staff time. All those costs are rising year on year, more so now than at any time in the last 30 years. The only effective way to reduce the cost of missed bins is to reduce the number of bins we miss!

So What To Do About It?

Nobody wants to remove or diminish this crucial service from residents. Councils are rightly keen to provide assistance to their residents where needed. 

Clearly though, there is much to gain from making it easier to apply, less prone to human error, free from administrative burden and focussed on those who need it.  The good news is that all the necessary tools are readily available once we step back and look at the whole service.

Simplified Administration

The simpler councils make their policy, the less administration it is likely to take. Whilst some councils require extensive evidence of need to support an application, many others simply accept the request at face-value. This removes barriers for those who really need the service, with the associated risk that some people who do not need it may be included. 

This approach makes the policy simpler and with lower training and enforcement requirements. Webforms are simpler and therefore cheaper, both to create and maintain and less likely to be dependent on integration with other systems. It’s also pretty obvious that a process that always says ‘yes’ is unlikely to generate many complaints and appeals, which further reduces the administrative burden.

Better Routes

A good waste management system will collect all the data about assisted collections alongside bin records and collection schedules.

Having all this information in one place allows the system to allow appropriate time for each collection when designing and optimising routes. It can also optimise for the right number of loaders on each route.

Better Communication

Crews do not want to miss collections and do work hard to get every bin. Frequent changes to routes make this more difficult and it’s important that crews have clear and precise instructions available to them as they work. A note in a briefing pack or update a paper round sheet will not suffice – it is simply not possible for crews to read paperwork for each street or premises they attend.

In-cab and mobile systems can be used to alert crews to changes in their route as they work. Crews need to be able to see summary information for the jobs they are closest to, with audible and visible prompts for things that have changed recently, including new assisted collections.

We should not ignore the daily briefing and driver’s information pack either. Even the most robust technology needs fallbacks for times when a spot-hire vehicle is deployed without a device fitted, an untrained agency driver is in place or times when the system is out of use. The ‘crew papers’ are a vital safety net and should be updated regularly to ensure they have the same information as the live system.

Finally, supervisors may need a way to enforce additional attention to specific premises. If a household is newly-added to the assisted service or has recently had service problems such as missed collections then it is desirable to flag that and require that the crew specifically acknowledge it. In-cab computers can enforce this and ensure new or problem collections are not overlooked.

Dealing With Mistakes

The measures above should reduce the number of assisted collections which are missed and particularly improve the reliability of new assisted collections.  Mistakes will still happen of course, so how can councils respond and learn from them?

The first priority for a missed assisted collection should be to rectify the error. Wherever possible I would advocate for this being done by the original crew. Returning for the missed collection is a strong means to embed the knowledge of that particular collection and reinforces ownership with the crew. 

Secondly, try to understand why the collection was missed. People do make mistakes but there may be an underlying cause. Is the premises easily visible from the road? Was the gate locked or were the bins inaccessible? Was it the usual crew or were there agency staff or inexperienced loaders on the crew?

Onboard cameras can replay the collection directly into the waste management system. Team leaders can use this to work with crews to really understand the root cause of the problem and prevent a recurrence.

All this helps you to understand if changes to the design of the round could reduce the risk of mistakes in the future or whether crew training or monitoring could help. It may simply be that an additional reminder or alert would be appropriate.

Regardless of this, the crew should receive specific instructions to pay special attention to that premises in future weeks to ensure that the mistake is not immediately repeated!


There are many factors here beyond the control of councils. The ageing population and increasing labour and fuel costs guarantee that the number of assisted collections and the costs of providing them will keep going up. 

As is often the case, effective communication is essential. Give residents simple ways to access their service and much of the administrative cost can be removed as people naturally shift to the easiest channel for them. Good technology for crews makes them less likely to make mistakes and makes it easier for managers to listen to their advice and experiences.

With the right systems in place, councils can provide a better assisted collection service at a much lower cost. 

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 of 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.

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.