Sorting it out
The hundreds of thousands of tonnes thrown away from people’s homes each year pales into insignificance when compared to the business or construction sector.
And yet changes being made by councils to reduce the amount of rubbish sent to landfill – and raise the rates of recycling – such as stopping weekly collections, giving people smaller bins and insisting people separate their waste into several different piles, still have the power to annoy and in extreme cases have even been blamed for losing politicians elections.
Earlier this year the Scottish Parliament passed its new waste regulations that include ensuring that local authorities introduce separate food waste collections.
However, there are not completely hard and fast rules over how council collections have to be run and between the 32 councils there are vastly different approaches to answering the waste question.
Most of Scotland’s councils have now made the change to some form of fortnightly collection for rubbish, often seen in the form of “managed” or “alternate” collections as people leave out their residual waste one week and the recyclables the next. In addition, many of those councils who have not already introduced food waste collections are testing schemes as a result of the new legislation.
One of the most recent to try and overhaul its collections is Edinburgh, which switched to a new regime in September.
Trying to work within the confines of a historic city that in part dates back several centuries, the city has attempted to move several thousand of its homes onto a fortnightly collection of rubbish.
The system has led to complaints as people have been asked to put their rubbish out on a different day for collection and whole bin routes were started again from scratch. Councillor Lesley Hinds, who has been in charge of environment since the May elections, says it has been a complex process, dating back two years, as the authority tries to take residents with it.
“The whole purpose of this is to encourage people to recycle, that’s the basic point of it,” she says. “We can’t continue to keep on dumping all our rubbish, both in terms of the environment – you don’t want a rubbish tip next to you – but also for the costs that’s come from landfill tax.” She adds: “We have been building up to this. We have changed all the systems in terms of shifts and routes. It’s very complicated in Edinburgh because you’ve got tenements, you’ve got the Old Town, the New Town, conservation areas where people don’t want large bins.
“The managed weekly collections is about encouraging people to recycle but also to get better recycling on the road as well as on the street, so we’ve introduced food waste, large food waste bins in large containers as well as people having individual bins, so that’s a new one. In theory, they should be able to recycle almost everything and that’s what we’re trying to encourage people to do.” It has not been without its problems, some parts of the city have had daily pick-ups previously and there is ongoing negotiation with areas about what exact form their pick-ups will take.
But now her officers tell her that the initial complaints have died down and most residents are adapting to changes. Calls to the councils’ contact centre are dropping off and “less than 10 per cent” of the calls are classed as complaints.
Edinburgh’s recycling rate is one of the lowest, according to the most up-to-date figures from SEPA, they were at 28.5 per cent – although that was from October to December 2011, before the most recent changes were introduced. And Hinds said there had already been an increased interest in recycling as a result of the changes.
She says: “We were prepared for an increase in people asking for recycling bins, but in fact it’s been five fold compared to last year. That is encouraging.” And she adds: “I think Edinburgh has learned from other authorities, their teething problems and how they addressed it. We’ve gone and visited the other authorities that have brought it in. I think East Dunbartonshire was one of the first to come in and they ended up losing the election because of it, so I think you have to recognise that it’s a very difficult to, first of all, to change people’s habit, but to make sure you implement it well – that people understand the reasons why you’re doing it but also, that you follow up by getting it right.
“We had people who were working in the cleansing department, lifting up the bins and we retrained them and they’ve gone out as recycling officers and they’ve gone out and knocked doors rather than just sticking a leaflet through the door.” The Scottish Government has announced it is putting an extra £1.2m into helping councils meet the target of 50 per cent recycled waste.
Speaking at the Scottish Waste and Resources Conference at the start of October, Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead confirmed there is money for improvements for recycling centres and to increase the number of household glass collections. It is in addition to the £5m which has already been allocated to support food waste collections.
He said: “Councils have already made huge progress and seven councils have already hit the challenging 50 per cent recycling target.
“Raising our recycling rates is also about a much bigger prize. It is about keeping valuable materials circulating in our economy then we can create more jobs and business opportunities here in Scotland.” Aberdeen, whose recycling rate is at around the 30 per cent mark, has also faced challenges in putting its recycling plans into place – mainly because of the high number of flats and tenements in the city centre.
Currently the majority of these residents still have a weekly bin pick-up and no place to recycle, but the eventual aim is to build a mixed recycling centre that will reduce the need for each resident to have an individual recycling box.
Peter Lawrence, the city council’s waste and recycling manager, explains the differences between various council approaches, namely, that “we didn’t all start at the same time or from the same place.” The council is now discussing a new 25-year blueprint for its waste services, but Lawrence said while the regulations provided some clarity on the way forward, the Government and other agencies, like Zero Waste Scotland, still needed to ensure there was not a “one size fits all approach.” One of the guiding principles in waste collection is that the end “product”, be it glass, cardboard, paper or something else, should be high-quality – making it more marketable – this is particularly evident in glass, where “comingled” collections lead to an end-product that is less desirable and usable for manufacturers.
Aberdeen’s aim has been to make the act of recycling straightforward, with as few bins as possible, so Lawrence believes it is preferable to continue with co-mingled collections like this, and to separate the glass out later, investing in technology to ensure the end product is still high quality.
“Our take on this is that you can’t recycle something if it hasn’t been put out for recycling in the first place.” Other councils have taken completely different approaches. Dumfries and Galloway has no separate recycling collections. Instead the waste is picked up weekly and taken to a large treatment facility.
The Ecodeco plant treats up to 65,000 tonnes a year and splits the waste into fuel to be burned, materials like metals which can be recycled, or some which is sent back to landfill.
Other areas like Argyll and Bute or the Western Isles, have some weekly collections because of the nature of the geography.
Charlie Devine, Head of Resource Management for Zero Waste Scotland, said: “It’s for individual local authorities to decide on the nature and frequency of recycling and waste collections, a decision often informed by local considerations.
“We provide technical support and expertise to help local authorities understand the benefits, challenges, and overall impact of different service options, and ultimately maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of their collections. We also offer funding to support councils roll-out collections for new materials, such as food waste.
“Under new Waste Scotland Regulations, which will come into effect from January 2014, commingling recyclable materials will only be acceptable if quality outputs similar or equivalent to those from full source separation can be demonstrated from the recycling process.
The Scottish Government intends to consult on a series of proposals around ensuring recyclate quality in the near future.”