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Ground rules

Recycling - Demands of the EC Landll Directive are forcing local authorities to do some serious thinking on recycling. Greg Pitcher reports.

As innocent ideas with unforeseen and incredibly damaging consequences go, it's up there with whoever thought of stufng tobacco leaves into bits of rolled-up paper. But, for some reason, dumping all of our waste in the ground seemed like a good idea at the time.

By the 1990s, Britain was running severely short of suitable landll sites and the European Commission was running short on patience with Britain's atrocious environmental record.

So the Commission introduced the Landll Directive, which is now forcing Britain to slash the amount of waste it buries to 35% of that buried in 1995 by 2020 (NCE 2 March 2000).

In response, the government has been increasing targets for waste recycling by local authorities ever since. It has also hiked up punitive landll taxes to make doubly sure that they stop dumping as much waste.

So how are councils going about changing the way the British public disposes of its waste?

Many are pushing recycling hard. Although there has been an increase in civil amenity recycling sites - and the variety of materials collected from them - it has quickly become apparent that the main way to increase recycling is through kerbside collections.

For a while, extremely low recycling rates were boosted by a surge in the number of trucks picking up boxes of old newspapers and empty glass containers from homes.

But it was not enough. We are now in a new phase of the battle to cut landll.

With slow planning hampering the growth of landfill alternatives like incineration and mechanical biological treatment, councils need to radically change residents' behaviour so that more is recycled and less is landlled.

'There are two main ways that councils are doing this, ' says Hyder principal waste management consultant Adam Read. 'They are either reducing the frequency of residual waste collections, or they are making recycling compulsory.' The first system, known as alternate-week collections, is increasingly common. Councils generally collect bins full of stuff that can be recycled one week, and bins full of waste for landfill the next.

'Rather than asking people to change their behaviour, or encouraging them to do so, you are forcing them to, ' says Read, who has advised several councils to follow this route.

A shining example of an alternate-week collection scheme increasing recycling was run by Daventry District Council. In 1997/98 the Midlands authority achieved only a 9% recycling rate through its red and blue box kerb side collection scheme.

'The council felt something else had to be done if it was to reach the government's 25% recycling target by 2000, ' says a Daventry spokesman.

In 1998, the authority introduced a collection of compostable waste to a trial area of 5,000 households.

'The 12 month trial was a great success, with in excess of 50% of waste collected in the area being recycled, ' says the spokesman.

On the back of this success, the go-ahead was given in January 1999 for the council to introduce district-wide alternateweek collections of organic waste and refuse.

By September 1999, all 30,000 properties within the district were receiving a weekly collection of their red and blue boxes, and a fortnightly collection of their compostable and residual waste.

This integrated waste collection system is generating one of the highest recycling rates in the country, with more than 45% of waste in the district recycled for the last five years in a row.

'The Daventry scheme is a beacon for other authorities, ' says Read. 'Alternate-week collections have been extremely successful for some councils.' But he cautions against blanket use of this collection method.

'You do need space. I wouldn't necessarily advise councils in London to use them, ' he says.

Local authorities in the capital have been particularly keen to follow the other main route to increasing recycling - making it compulsory.

Some councils monitor residents' use of their recycling boxes and waste bins. If they decide that they are not recycling enough they issue warnings to residents who ultimately can be taken to court and fined for non-compliance.

The first local authority to make recycling compulsory was the London Borough of Barnet.

The authority recycled just 12% of its waste in 2002/03 and was set a target of 27% in 2005/06, which it managed to meet after rolling out a compulsory recycling scheme from April 2004.

A year-long pilot went borough-wide in March 2005. Barnet's scheme requires residents to recycle paper, glass and cans, and not to place these items in their refuse bins. 'As a last resort, the council will prosecute those who persistently refuse to deposit these three materials in their black recycling box, ' said a council spokesman.

'This prosecution could result in a fine of up to £1,000 as permitted under Part 2, Section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act.

But the scheme makes considerable demands on the council. Recycling assistants send two letters and then make a personal visit to households who do not regularly recycle in order to further explain the scheme and encourage people to participate. Residents who persistently and deliberately fail to recycle will receive warnings and legal notices.

The scheme is also limited to houses, because the council must be able to prove that a person is putting cans, paper or glass in their refuse bin. As fl ats have shared bins it is difficult to prove who put what in.

So far, Section 46 notices have been issued in relation to three properties, showing that they are officially not participating in the recycling scheme. 'Two residents have now begun to recycle, and the other case is ongoing, ' said the spokesman.

Barnet has recorded a 28% increase in tonnages collected since compulsory recycling was introduced.

Compulsory recycling and alternate week schemes have both had success in increasing the amount of material householders put out for recycling. They are different approaches and work in different situations. But both their success depends on good communications between local authority and council taxpayer.

'Both schemes rely heavily on education and awareness campaigns, ' says Read.

'People need to know the where, when and why or they won't engage. People need to understand alternate-week collections or they will cause problems. And if 90% of people don't use a compulsory recycling scheme, what are you going to do? Put them all in prison?'

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