What’s the way forward for Local Authorities and Waste Management?

The UK Government believes that one of the major challenges holding recycling rates back is the lack of consistency in collections by local authorities. It’s rumoured that they plan to introduce new regulations relating to how recyclable materials are to be collected in future. And it’s likely to be the subject of heated debate.

To the average person it might sound like a good policy. But for local authorities that have been working independently with a goal of increasing recycling rates in their area for years, the reality is that it’s not that simple. Waste collections differ between areas depending on the industries operating or the communities they serve. Some believe that a blanket mandate on how collections should be structured could present more challenges than solutions and will be difficult to implement.

Yet there is some truth to the belief that the UK’s waste collections are inconsistent. It was one of the arguments cited against the controversial DRS scheme that Scotland has been trying to implement.

If recycling rates are to be improved, will mandating collections be the solution or are there other methods that could complement efforts, create fewer challenges and still achieve the objective of improving recycling rates? We look at some of the strategies local authorities have implemented to look at the pros and cons of different approaches to improve their operations.

Education

The many different approaches to waste sorting ranging from different drop off depots to having multiple bins or different collections on different days. Yet despite this one of the major challenges remain that people discard the wrong types of materials in the wrong places.

To address this, many councils place stickers for bins reminding people what they can and can’t place in recycling bins, and why. For example: No batteries in bins as they can cause fires. Only place recyclables in recycling bins. Councils also use leaflet drops to ensure the message is getting out there. If this type of education campaign can be effective, it could make a significant impact on improving recycling rates and making collections more efficient.

However, I’m just not sure that this type of education is having the right effect.  With limited budgets, how can councils ensure that the quality of recycling continues to increase? Do councils simply need to manage out the human element with better processing capability?

Food waste collections

It’s well known that food waste is a major problem. There’s too much of it, it’s seldom composted or disposed of properly, and because of this contamination, is often the cause of recyclable materials being sent to disposal facilities too.

Many councils have introduced composting caddies, asking household to dispose of food and kitchen waste in a way that is easier to collect and process. In many areas, similar programs are being implemented with supermarkets and restaurants with the overarching goal of reducing food waste and properly composting it.

But even in this there are differing views. Some say that the focus should remain on addressing the issue of food waste while others say that there’s no reason food waste can’t be combined with garden waste. It’s all compostable after all.

Currently local authorities all have their own systems and approach to this, but as new regulations are introduced, they may start to look to one another for best practices.

Circular mindset

Most waste management departments in local authorities are all too aware that waste collections and recycling are just one component of building a circular economy. As much as they’re providing a service to local communities, they also need to take a critical look at ways to improve their operations.

Suggestions have been to use electric or hydrogen powered vehicles to reduce emissions. Some councils are taking a different approach. Instead of replacing diesel-powered vehicles, they’re converting them to operate on biofuel.

It’s estimated that this will reduce emissions by almost 90%, while providing a solution to reuse food waste that would be difficult to recycle and would otherwise have limited use. An added benefit is that in building relationships with local restaurants, it opens up opportunities for greater collaboration – which is the key to creating circular economy solutions. Do councils need to take back control of the collection and processing of recyclables and residuals? Will that provide them with opportunities to both increase circularity and retain much needed profit?

Local council collaboration can be state of the art

One of the challenges that local authorities often face is a lack of funding. It’s not necessarily that there isn’t any funding, but just that their piece of the pie isn’t big enough to implement the solutions they’d like to.

This is where collaboration can make a massive impact, as in the case of Sherbourne Recycling. In 2021, eight local authorities came together with a plan to build a state-of-the art recycling facility. One that would serve multiple industries and be significantly more effective in processing waste streams and recycling in the West Midlands.

When it’s fully operational it’ll be using technologies such as AI for sorting and processing. It’s an ambitious project that epitomises forward thinking. It may well also pave the way and become the blueprint for how local councils approach waste management in the future.