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The need to do more with less

The need to do more with less

Chris Oldfield, managing director of UNTHA UK, was interviewed by leading journal LAWR magazine recently, on the subject of austerity. Drawing upon his specialist industry insight he commented on the bright side of austerity in the waste sector and the extent to which the sector needs to adhere more to the ‘do more with less’ philosophy. If you missed his write up, you can read it in full here…

With the media reporting that the UK is only 40% of the way through austerity measures₁, how can the ‘do more with less’ philosophy gain momentum when it comes to waste collection? Chris Oldfield, managing director of UNTHA UK, investigates.

In February 2015, a report₂ published by Ricardo-AEA – in association with CIWM – relayed some interesting points about the attitudes and practices of local authorities, in the face of austerity. Whilst we often read about the doom and gloom of the continued public sector financial crisis, we rarely hear about the successes being experienced when things are fiscally tough.

The report therefore acknowledged that yes, some council services are being stopped, redundancies are apparent, and in many cases morale has suffered – messages we’re perhaps more familiar with. But the study also highlighted that many successful authorities are actually thinking about the ‘opportunities’ afforded by the challenge from austerity. A ‘do more with less’ philosophy is seemingly emerging.

Such a positive ‘can do’ approach is encouraging, especially because councils are said to only be half way through funding cuts. But what more can be done to capitalise on this progress? And can some of the improvements being seen in the MSW environment, be transferred to the C&I arena?

Communication is key

As with many areas of business, effective communication is crucial, to achieve wider audience ‘buy in’ to an overall objective. And Rochdale Council’s ‘Right stuff. Right Bin’ campaign is a great example of the benefits, if executed well.

Waste collectors left a green tag on bins containing the right items, with a message of thanks for recycling correctly. Conversely, a red ‘Wrong Bin. Wrong Stuff’ tag reminded households what items should go in each bin, if there were mistakes. In less than two months this pilot scheme reportedly saved £22,420 through landfill diversion, and a 61% contamination reduction was experienced for comingled recycling.

The importance of better public education and engagement is clear – we cannot expect residents to know what to do, without a little help.

However communication must be relevant. Some residents may benefit from leaflet drops and bus adverts, but as Prodware’s Jason Fazackerley suggested recently, younger people are particularly more in tune with apps and social media. Councils therefore need to capitalise on technological advancements and usage habits, for optimum results.

The need for a universal approach?

Considered communication is particularly important given the UK doesn’t benefit from a universal approach to waste collection. In many ways this could be holding us back. With little consistency from one local authority to another, it’s perhaps no wonder households remain confused about what they can or cannot recycle. What’s more, people living less than 10 miles apart may not even have uniformly coloured bins. This seems ludicrous, especially when organisations like WRAP are working so hard to colour-code recycling messages, for ease of understanding.

Such local authority variations also mean that, whilst some councils are making real headway, others are lagging behind. At the Secondary Commodity Markets Conference in March for example, delegates were reminded that Wales has a statutory 70% MSW recycling target to meet by 2025, otherwise local authorities will face significant fines per tonne. This is driving progress. In England however, we were told that the comparable rate is only 50%. What’s more, under the Waste Framework Directive, the EU will fine the Government (UK plc) if these targets are missed. The consequence to local authorities is therefore minimal, other than reputational damage.

For me, this cemented the fact that UK waste policy, and policies in devolved nations, do not tie up. This needs addressing, sooner rather than later.

Legislation drives innovation

I’m a big believer that legislation drives innovation. Of course nobody wants to be restricted by unnecessary red tape. But the fear of some form of penalty is often what’s needed, for more people to address their moral duty to recycle. We cannot rely on altruistic drivers alone.

The January introduction of TEEP could have been a great catalyst in this respect. But whilst Scotland has defined TEEP as mandatory separate collections of paper, plastics, metals and glass, it hasn’t been defined in England. I can’t help but fear that subjectivity will impede progress here, especially with C&I waste. If segregation at source hasn’t been ensured, there stands to be a potentially high volume of contamination, which surely jeopardises the resulting material quality for reuse and recycling.

Should we pay as we throw?

Ultimately, when people are not obligated to do something, actions often boil down to incentivisation. It would therefore be great if more thanks were given to households for the part they play in the wider recycling jigsaw. Individuals or businesses could even be financially credited for compliance.

But there’s also the argument that if UK waste was ‘metred’ like utilities, people would strive to learn more about recycling, to avoid incurring otherwise avoidable costs. Whichever government made this decision would not be very popular, but it could be the solution the country requires.

Capitalising on progress

So many MSW and C&I waste collection variables are still up for debate. However, if councils are to continually communicate with households to ensure progress even during difficult times, the commercial sector should capitalise on this. With 38 million people in employment in the UK, the focus should be on ensuring recycling improvements at home are echoed in the workplace.

₁ –

₂ – Waste on the Front Line – Challenges and Innovations, 05/02/15

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