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?

Is the UK coming around to Pay As You Throw?

A recent news article from the BBC ( seems to suggest that there is some degree of support for variable charging (a.k.a. ‘pay as you throw’) for waste collection.

With the Climate Change Bill now passed, the road is clear for DEFRA to proceed with the 5 pilot projects they intend to run over the next 3 years.  Look out for more posts here as the situation develops.

Are the Conservatives losing the argument on ‘bin taxes’?

The Guardian reports that Conservative shadow Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has threatened to expose Conservative councillors who get involved in variable charging schemes as ‘collaborators’.

I’m not quite sure what conclusions I draw from this.  Obviously domestic rubbish collection and recycling is seen as an area where the Opposition can garner significant public support; the persistent trickle of ‘bugs in bins’ stories in the press seems determined to keep this at the top of the political agenda.  But the tactic of threatening your own party members with a vote-losing public ‘outing’ seems rather odd.  Does Eric Pickles not have confidence in his colleagues in local government to represent the people who elect them and to make local decisions?

What I would really like to see is a clear statement from the Conservative party on what they would do in power to tackle this country’s dependence on landfill and incineration.  If there is an as-yet undisclosed ‘third way’ in which we can stop filling the ground with rubbish and the air with methane without having to put chips in bins and expensive equipment on the back of every bin truck then I’m sure it would be a great vote winner.

Mr Pickles – feel free to click Comment below and fill in the details….

Variable waste charges cause cancer! You couldn’t make it up…

Well, I rather suspect that someone has!

I’ve long suspected that certain newspapers and other media outlets have simply decided that waste collection is one of their ‘old faithful’ subjects that they can simply reheat every time they have a slow news day, alongside ‘who killed Princess Diana’ and ‘chocolate is good for you’ (or bad for you, depending on whatever they wrote last time).

Even so, I had to chuckle at the link between ‘pay as you throw’ and cancer! There are many reasons why people burn things in their garden (barbecues quite possibly chief amongst them for middle-class Daily Mail readers), many sources of dioxins in the atmosphere and many causes for many variants of cancers. The article doesn’t consider the negative effects of our landfill culture on the local environment and the wider carbon emissions problem. I don’t have any idea whether one outweighs the other but unfortunately this rather unbalanced article doesn’t leave me or anyone else any the wiser.

What is undeniable is that there is a common concern, particularly from the Irish experience with variable charging, that ‘pay as you throw’ will lead to environmental side-effects such as fly-tipping and waste burning. Local authorities implementing schemes must ensure that they include clear communication (supported by local by-laws if necessary) to prevent diversion of waste to illegal burning and dumping.

I’m sure the Daily Mail will be very supportive of councils who clamp down on people having illegal, cancer-causing bonfires in their back gardens!

Original article here

Open Letter from the LGA regarding Landfill Tax revenues

It is a popular argument against ‘pay as you throw’ that this is simply another stealth tax designed to swell Whitehall coffers at the expense of Council Tax payers.  The Government has often claimed in its ‘marketing’ of variable charging schemes for waste that ‘revenue neutrality’ will be transparent and will reduce costs for effective recyclers at the cost of those who persist in sending recyclables to landfill.

DEFRA themselves are insisting that any proposals put forward for their 5 pilot ‘waste incentive schemes’ must demonstrate that they are revenue neutral and don’t raise any additional income for the council.  It is therefore worrying that the Local Government Association should be concerned that the Government is already using Landfill Taxes (a supposedly ‘green’ tax) as a general revenue raiser and not returning the funds to local government as promised.

Below is the letter Paul Bettison wrote to the Local Government Chronicle in May of this year…

Your article ‘Waste reduction insufficient’ states that in the last financial year, councils paid net £407m in landfill tax, following a rebate of £291m. In fact, Government has never clarified how much landfill tax revenue has been returned to councils, despite repeated requests by the LGA. It has simply said that the cost of landfill tax is taken into account in its assessment of local government spending pressures. We therefore cannot say that £291m was returned in 2007-08.

This position is becoming even more serious. The Government is substantially increasing landfill tax rates, but it appears there is no longer a commitment to return the extra money. John Healey said to the CLG Committee Enquiry on Refuse Collection in December: “we have changed our approach in this spending review period from the way we … had the full and automatic offset for local government in the previous period.”

The outcome is that despite increasing recycling rates, we estimate that councils will still pay more in landfill tax (in fact £1.5 billion over 3 years). This money will be swallowed up in government coffers, at the expense of helping councils to take further action to develop sustainable waste solutions.

This is not an acceptable outcome, puts increasing strain on council tax and does nothing to support the investment the country needs in more effective waste management. We need transparency about what Government is prepared to invest from burgeoning landfill tax revenues.

Yours truly,

Paul Bettison
Chair, LGA Environment Board

original article link here

Bin tags – revenue raiser or tools for reducing Council Tax?

I’m not a tax inspector or a traffic warden. It’s worse than that – I work in the waste collection industry. Admit that, even in polite circles, and you might as well add “I’ll get my coat”. It seems that everyone has an opinion on the role of technology in waste collection, usually underpinned by the suspicion that a new tax is just around the corner.

RFID (the ‘chip in the bin’) seems in danger of being blighted by its association with ‘pay by weight’. With householders now on the lookout for any signs of a technology which might be a Trojan horse for variable charging it would perhaps be a brave local authority who publicly announced that not only were they putting chips in bins, but were also going to read the tags and weigh the bins at point of collection.

This is a shame because bin tags are an established technology which can empower local authorities and their contractors to improve services and reduce costs. Cutting out recalls for missed bins (and the enormous administrative effort that it causes) is one quantifiable benefit, but precise household-level data and automated auditing functions are all part of a picture of increased efficiency and faster response. The waste industry has historically been slow to adopt technology solutions, but smart adoption of RFID could make a big contribution to improving the relationship between householder and Council and ease the way for future changes such as variable charging.

Consumers are accustomed to suppliers keeping them up to date with service information via email and the web. My water, electricity and gas suppliers all send me information about my service electronically – why shouldn’t waste collectors do the same? “Thank you Mrs Smith, this month you recycled 44% of your waste and as a result the end of the world has been postponed by 28 seconds.” OK, that still needs a bit of work, but it demonstrates the level of information that can be made available, both internally within the local authority and more widely to consumers of the service.

The technology and equipment required to do this already exists, and much of it is already in place in a number of Councils. The challenge is for local authorities to openly embrace RFID and weighing and prove to householders that it can be about much more than pay by weight. The technology can be used to identify households recycling successfully and deliver targeted assistance to those who are not. The result can be a much stronger relationship with householders; a win-win where householders get improved service, councils reduce operating costs and recycling rates increase.

Then again, perhaps they’ll just be used to charge us more for waste collection.

Analysis of DEFRA guidance from industry technology supplier

Bartec Systems have posted an analysis document in response to DEFRA’s guidance documents for councils considering variable charging, known as Waste Incentive Schemes in DEFRA parlance. The full document is available here.

The points that stand out are that DEFRA have perhaps not given enough consideration to how schemes will actually work on the street, and that schemes could be delivered using technology and techniques already in use in the UK. The article stops short of naming exactly who and where these schemes are active.

Pay as you throw – it’s already here and appears to be working!

Blaby District Council introduced the UK’s first variable charging scheme for household waste in 2000.  The scheme was designed to restrict householders to 140 litres of non recyclable waste per week, and gave householders the option to purchase additional capacity and waste services as and when required.


The intention was that by restricting the capacity of the residual waste bin, residents would realise how much waste they produce and therefore encourage householders to make full use of the opportunities available to reduce and recycle their waste. The philosophy behind the scheme was communicated to residents by distributing a DVD with a special edition council newspaper to all 37,500 households in the District.  In addition to this a number of roadshows and promotional events were held to reinforce the message.

Blaby clearly believe that the scheme has been successful, as the amount of waste to landfill reduced by 3% within its first year of operation and the overall recycling rate has increased from 29.3% in 2004/05 to 37% in 2005/06.

This methodology is pretty much an exact fit with the ‘bin size scheme’ described in the draft ‘Guidance to Councils’ issued by DEFRA.  What is most interesting is that Blaby have managed to implement a scheme some 8 years ahead of the Climate Change Bill which DEFRA have heralded as being a necessary piece of legislation to enable waste incentive schemes to be piloted.