Blog: Eric Pickles' rubbish views

Posted on Tuesday 4th October 2011

Written by Chris Game

Back in June, before Eric Pickles had, as one DCLG civil servant put it, ‘raided every biscuit tin in the building’ to find his £250 million to help councils retain or restore weekly bin collections, I wrote a blog on AWCs (Alternate Weekly Collections and other rubbish thoughts). It was not a topic in which previously I had had more than a mild consumer curiosity, but, as often happens, after writing about it my interest increased.

Not that I expected – supposing as I did that the Coalition’s bid to be the ‘greenest government ever’ must begin somewhere – the saga to unfold in the way it has. In fact, the blog’s underlying argument was that, if only he realised it, the Big Man was already on his way to a notable victory – if his battle really was to enable ‘every English man and woman to put the remnants of their chicken tikka masala in their bin without having to wait a fortnight for it to be collected’.    

Not for the first time, the minister’s headline-seeking language didn’t help what was a valid case. When councils first started switching in significant numbers from weekly to fortnightly or alternate weekly collections, at least some of the concern about the health consequences of uncollected food waste, especially in summer, was much more than Daily Mail alarmism.  Recommendations from scientific studies and international bodies like the World Health Organisation were disregarded. Specious distinctions were made between adverse amenity effects – odours, insects, vermin – and health effects. Corners were cut on consultation and information provision, and the impression was given that complainers were whingers – with the government-funded, recycling-promoting quango, WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), advising councils to introduce fortnightly schemes during the winter months, so that ‘initial resistance has faded’ by the time the warmer weather comes.

It’s not very clever advice to have made publicly available anyway, but it’s particularly unhelpful when ‘fortnightly’ and ‘alternate weekly’ are terms with no precise or commonly understood meaning. For some councils, from the outset, the terms meant that, in the interests of increasing recycling and composting rates and reducing the waste going to landfill, recyclables would be collected in Week 1, residual, non-recyclable waste in Week 2, and food/kitchen/compostable waste weekly, as before, but now segregated. For others, however, food waste became part of the fortnightly cycle.

The conceptual vagueness remains, but I reported in my blog that, following an albeit pretty arbitrary web search, I was clear that many, probably most, of the councils describing themselves as operating fortnightly or alternate weekly systems were in fact ‘providing alternate weekly collections of recyclable and non-recyclable refuse, including in many cases garden refuse, but weekly collections of separated food waste.

That impression was confirmed with the recent publication of the annual recycling and composting league table produced by the letsrecycle.com website - http://www.letsrecycle.com/news/latest-news/councils/exclusive-south-oxfordshire-tops-recycling-table-with-70. South Oxfordshire topped the table, as the first English local authority to recycle, reuse or compost more than 70% of its waste, but note the other two data columns in my summary table. All but one of these top 10 performers operate AWCs – alternate weekly collections of recyclables and residual waste alongside weekly food waste collections.

Top recycling councils, letsrecycle.com annual survey, 2010-11
Local authority Recycling rate 2010/11 (%) AWC? Food waste collections
1.   South Oxfordshire DC 70.6 Yes Yes – weekly
2.   Rochford DC 65.4 Yes Yes – weekly
3.   Surrey Heath BC 64.7 Yes Yes – weekly
4.   Bournemouth BC 63.9 No No
5.   Cotswold DC 60.4 Yes Yes – weekly
6.   Staffordshire Moorlands DC 60.2 Yes Yes – weekly
7.   Stratford-on-Avon DC 59.3 Yes Yes – weekly
8.   Epping Forest BC 59.1 Yes Yes – weekly
9.   Suffolk Coastal DC 58.7 Yes Yes – weekly
10. Harborough DC 58.1 Yes Yes – weekly

The first message, then, is to look behind the label.  AWC or fortnightly can mean, in true Humpty Dumpty style, just what a local authority chooses it to mean – neither more nor less. The second is that Pickles really doesn’t need his Weekly Collections Support Scheme – which even interested councils suspect is unlikely to be renewed when the initial cash runs out. He already has his victory – weekly food waste collection increasingly accepted as good practice, with rising recycling and composting rates to boost his Government’s green credentials. Unless, of course, the campaign developed over time into something more personal: having to prove his ministerial power, demonstrate who bosses local government, or irritate Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, other Cabinet colleagues including probably the PM, the waste management industry, environmentalists everywhere, and a good many local authorities.  

Spelman and DEFRA in particular must be seething. They are the ones actually responsible for waste and recycling, and, unlike most departments, their latest statistics have some moderately encouraging news to impart - http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/environment/waste/wrfg22-wrmswqtrPickles’ intervention, however, means: (1) hardly anyone’s listening, and (2) even worse, all these positive trends and the hard-won behavioural changes behind them are going to be that much harder to maintain.

Local authority collected waste for England – Quarter 3 statistics, 2010-11 (DEFRA)
Headlines 2000/01 2010
Household waste production continues to decrease 25.1 mill. tonnes 23.2
Waste generated per person continues to decrease 510 kg per person 447
LA-collected waste sent to landfill continues to decrease 22 mill. tonnes
(79%)
11.5
(44.2%)
Household waste recycled continues to increase 11.2% 40.8%