Wales lays the foundations for a new approach to recycling that merits attention

April 11th, 2011 by Nicola Peake

Nicola Peake is Managing Director Environmental Services at May Gurney. This article appeared originally in Materials Recycling Week on 25 March 2011.


In the race to deliver a greener household waste system, the UK has a new champion – Wales.

The country has led the way by setting higher household recycling targets than outlined by the Government in Westminster.

In its Toward Zero Waste Strategy launched last year, the Welsh Assembly set bold targets for 70% of household waste by volume to be recycled by 2025.

At the time the move was lauded as heralding an ambitious new recycling and waste strategy but it now appears this was only the beginning.

Nicola Peake, Managing Director Environmental Services at May Gurney (click image to expand - ©May Gurney)

The Welsh Assembly has now unveiled its Municipal Sector Plan and collections blueprint which sets out a new vision for waste collections and provides clear direction for council’s in Wales in delivering recycling and waste services.

Too often, national strategy documents shy away from difficult issues, with bland references to local circumstances dictating local solutions and one size not fitting all.

The Welsh have opted for a different approach and one which challenges conventional thinking around municipal waste collections stating that waste collections need not be weekly, so long as collections of dry recyclables and food waste are.

In my view this is a pragmatic and sensible step that gets over the barrier that some people have when it comes to alternative weekly collection recycling schemes by still ensuring that perishable refuse is collected weekly.

The Welsh model states that recycling should be collected though a comprehensive next generation kerbside-sort service, to maximise the quality of the materials and encourage behavioural change. A model I strongly endorse as it significantly increases the amount of waste captured that can be successfully recycled (compared to co-mingled collections).

The Welsh model also says that food and garden waste should be collected separately from each other and the garden waste service should be charged for, in order to discourage unnecessary centralised composting. This is a much ‘greener’ solution as it can be used as part of a wider programme to encourage people to create their own home composting systems. This dramatically cuts the carbon footprint of this element of the recycling service and is good for the garden as well.

The Municipal Sector Plan also states that single pass recycling and food waste vehicles, that not only kerbside sort but separate glass colours, should be the norm. Again, a significant development that sets clear guidelines for local authorities and differs from the more hands-off approach used by governments elsewhere in the UK, which have traditionally left the choice of collection schemes to local authorities themselves.

Finally the Welsh vision stipulates that refuse capacity should be reduced from 240 litre bins to 180 litre or less to enforce the view that recycling is now the default and waste is for what’s left.

Collection of recyclable material in Bridgend, Wales (click image to expand - ©May Gurney)

This comprehensive vision for a new way of dealing with household waste is not entirely new as it builds on initiatives that work well elsewhere. Indeed the recycling and waste collection scheme we run for Bridgend Borough County Council already uses these core principles and currently has the highest kerbside recycling rate for dry recyclables in Wales and is also the first authority in the UK to exceed 50% recycling without collecting garden waste.

However, what is different about the new Welsh scheme is the scale of the ambition and the fact that it will apply to all councils across an entire country.

In my view the collection blueprint set out by the Welsh Assembly Government will provide the lowest costs and highest environmental benefit solution for dealing with household waste.

The move will not be without its critics. Any change to recycling and waste collections stirs controversy and there are people who still believe they should be entitled to a traditional weekly waste collection, using one bin and without the need to segregate waste for recycling.

The reality is that no local authority anywhere in the UK can get away with this. The cost for councils and council tax payers, in terms of landfill taxes and fines, under the EU waste directive is so prohibitive that any local authority indulging in a ‘traditional’ one bin and no –recycling service would be swiftly voted out of office, or face crippling cost rises that would directly impact service provision in other areas.

The issue now for local authorities in Wales is what to do in order to meet this blueprint and how to deliver the bold vision for a new age of recycling and waste services that it sets out. The biggest challenge is for authorities that currently operate a commingled service for dry recyclables. The change they face is far reaching and many are likely to seek private sector expertise to deliver this cost effectively.

Significant change now faces councils across Wales and their counterparts in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be watching closely.

A new era in recycling and waste collections could be about to begin.


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