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Rising cost of rubbish raises new concerns
Would you be willing to pay to have your garden rubbish – grass cuttings, rose prunings and the like – collected? Charging is one option council bosses may consider as they struggle to balance tough targets on recycling with cuts in spending. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
NINE years ago, when Geoff Derham first came to York, the city boasted a fine record on recycling its rubbish. About ten per cent of all the junk we threw out – bottles, cans, paper – was laboriously sorted, sifted and eventually recycled.
“We were proud of what we were doing then,” Mr Derham says. “We made some big steps forward quite quickly, and we were ahead of quite a lot of other authorities.”
Less than a decade on, how things have changed. A recycling rate of ten per cent might have seemed impressive ten years ago. But today York recycles an impressive 47 per cent of its rubbish – and yet still there is relentless pressure on the city to do better.
From April, there will be a big hike in landfill tax – the tax the city council pays to central government for every tonne of rubbish that ends up being buried in at Harewood Whin waste tip, near Rufforth.
At the moment, the tax stands at £64 per tonne. From April, it will increase to £72 per tonne. Take the ‘gate fee’ into account – the money the local authority pays to the operators of Harewood Whin to dump the city’s rubbish there – and the cost rises to £94 per tonne.
“It will cost £1,400 to tip a truck load – and there are 48 trucks every day going to Harewood Whin,” says Mr Derham, the city’s Head of Waste Services. That is a lot of money just literally being thrown away.
Couple that with new recycling targets which say that by 2020, local authorities must be recycling 50 per cent of all their rubbish, and it is easy to see why the city council is keen to improve York’s recycling record still further. This is because if we recycle more, we have to dump less in expensive landfill.
With 47 per cent of the city’s rubbish being recycled already, it may seem we are not far off the Government’s 2020 recycling target.
“But it’s those last few percentage points that are most difficult to achieve,” says Mr Derham.
In recent years, many people in the city have become accustomed to separating their household rubbish – putting tin cans and plastic bottles into one box, newspapers and envelopes into another, glass bottles into a third.
But others are still refusing to make the effort.
Recycling rates across the city vary widely, Mr Derham says. “There are areas of the city, which can be considered more affluent, where recycling is as high as 90 per cent. But there are other areas where it is as low as 20 to 25 per cent.”
Coun David Levene, the authority’s cabinet member for environmental services, is keen to do something about that.
The council is planning a big push to encourage more people to recycle their rubbish, he says. “And we will be targeting areas like Tang Hall and Westfield.”
That ‘push’ will involve going into local schools, to talk to children about the importance of recycling rubbish; recruiting local ‘champions’ within communities to encourage more people to recycle; and even knocking on doors in areas of the city where recycling rates are lowest.
“That will be quite effective, but also quite staff-intensive,” Coun Levene says.
Pressure on budgets is intense, however. Coun Levene says the city council will be expected to trim £12 million off its total budget in the latest round of cuts which will kick in at the start of the new financial year in April. The authority’s waste services department has already made significant efficiency savings, says Mr Derham: and there is a limit to how much more spending can be squeezed without affecting services.
Then there is the cost of maintaining and replacing its waste lorries. The entire fleet is replaced on a rolling five-year basis.
Last year, the fleet of 12 large recycling lorries was replaced at a cost of about £2.5 million. The new vehicles are bigger, more fuel efficient, and can carry more recycled rubbish – meaning they have to divert to the Hazel Court recycling depot less often, so save on petrol. But the cost comes out of the budget for waste services: putting extra pressure on already stretched spending.
Replacing vehicles regularly makes sense in the long term, stresses Mr Derham. Not only are newer vehicles more efficient and cheaper to run: they cost less to maintain, too. “When they are older than five years, they can cost £20,000 to £25,000 a year to keep on the road.”
The new fleet of recycling vehicles thus fits in with the principles of Smarter York, says Coun Levene. “It’s about investing in technology that may cost more upfront, but in the long-term works for us,” he says.
But with budgets tight, further changes may well be needed in the council’s rubbish collection strategy if the twin goals of keeping spending within budget, and increasing the amount of rubbish recycled, are to be met.
Cue a new report which will go to the city council’s Cabinet next month. The report will set out a number of options for changes to the authority’s waste strategy – many of them focusing on garden rubbish and food waste.
Perhaps the most controversial will be a possible charge for emptying green bins containing garden waste. Selby is consulting over whether to charge householders £26 a year to have their green bins collected, points out Coun Levene. “So this is not something unique to York.”
No figure has yet been put on how much might be charged – and no decisions have yet been made, stresses Coun Levene. The Cabinet meeting on February 12 will simply be deciding which of the options contained in the waste strategy report should go out to full public consultation. Other options considered in the Cabinet report, which will be published on February 5 on the council’s website, are expected to include:
• A suggestion for collecting ‘food waste’. A shocking report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers recently suggested that half of all the world’s food is thrown away uneaten. It blamed poor storage, strict sell-by dates and buy-one-get-one-free offers – but it is local authorities left with the headache of disposing of uneaten food in a way that doesn’t generate gas in landfill.
• Proposals for encouraging more homeowners to compost food waste and garden waste at home
• A proposal to ensure that the council gets the best deal on recycled waste sorted and delivered to Yorwaste.
Tinkering with the council’s waste strategy will only go so far, however. If we’re really to reduce the amount of rubbish being dumped in landfill, the only way is to encourage the people of York to put more effort into recycling household rubbish.
Eighty per cent of all rubbish in landfill comes from the top five supermarkets, says Geoff Derham.
The authority doesn’t have the clout to force supermarkets to change. But it may be able to influence the behaviour of the people who buy things: by getting them to bring home less packaging in the first place; and by getting them to recycle the packaging they do bring home.
“Everything we collect on our waste rounds is something you have bought,” says Mr Derham. “The best way residents can help us save money is to reduce what we have to take to landfill.”
Selby looks to charge
Selby District Council is consulting with the public over proposals to charge £26 per household per year for collecting ‘green bins’ – those in which you can dispose of grass cuttings, clippings and so on. The council estimates the move would save £442,000 a year.
City of York Council is not revealing yet how much it would propose to charge – if it decides to charge at all. The cabinet report outlining options will not be made public until February 5 – a week before it will be discussed by cabinet members.
They themselves will make no decisions then, stresses Coun Levene: they will simply decide which options contain in the report are worth considering, so that they can go out to public consultation.
Opposition groups on the council are already concerned, however.
Carol Runciman, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said there was a danger that if the council charged for collecting garden litter, people may well stop using their green bins, and would just put all their grass cuttings and other garden waste into their black bins to go to landfill.
Andy D’Agorne of the Greens shared those concerns.
“The devil is in the detail,” he said.
“How do you identify the people who are going to pay to have their green waste collected? Do you take the green bins away from those who do not want to pay? And what happens if people then start to put green waste in landfill?”
But he would welcome any moves to encourage more people to compost at home, Coun D’Agorne said. And he would welcome attempts to collect food waste. “Facilities to process food waste are now more widely available.”
Recycling facts and figures
THE cost of collecting and disposing of rubbish in York has fallen steadily over the past four years, even though landfill tax has risen.
In 2008/ 9, the cost of collecting and disposing of the city’s rubbish was £9.575m, which included a landfill tax of £1.931m.
In 2009/2010, the cost was £8.598m (including landfill tax of £2.412m).
In 2010/2011 the cost rose slightly to £8.845m (including landfill tax of £2.668m), and it rose again in 2011/2012 to £8.733m (including landfill tax of £2.995m). Even that, however, was £842,000 less than in 2008/9.
Those figures reflect the “much more efficient collection service” and the efforts to encourage more people to recycle, says Geoff Derham.
Other facts and figures:
• In 1999 the city sent 90 per cent of household waste to landfill. By 2011/12 this had reduced to 52.92 per cent
• 99.98 per cent of commercial, recycling and waste collections are collected first time.
• There are seven million ‘transactions’ (ie collections from individual households or individual visits to the Hazel Court waste recycling centre) every year– more than any other York council service.
• Only 18 per cent of annual garden waste collected is collected between November and March