Ceredigion’s big recycling leap

Ceredigion Council’s plans to change its rubbish collections starting in November are causing a stir. Currently waste that can be recycled is collected in clear plastic bags every two weeks across 80% of the county, with the usual black bag (or ‘residual’) waste being collected each week. As reported on this blog in February, the plan is to reverse this so that recyclables are collected weekly, along with an added weekly collection for separated food waste, with the left over residual waste picked up fortnightly. To simplify things, all rubbish in Aberystwyth will be collected on the same day of the week instead of the current split days.

The driver behind this is the
European Landfill Directive which pressures governments to incrementally increase recycling and reduce the waste being buried in the ground. Governments are fined if they don’t fulfil the directive. They therefore pass the financial incentive down to Councils whose job it is to administer waste collections. Each year the fee for sending waste to landfill rises a bit more so that Councils need to increasingly look for ways to reduce their waste to balance the books. This year the tax is £48 per ton with a planned rise to £72 eventually. The fine for exceeding the landfill allowance is £200 per ton. Councils that don’t reduce their landfill won’t be able to afford this.

Apart from the financial imperative, there’s a further logic behind Ceredigion’s scheme. In the last two years, since the introduction of the Council’s fortnightly kerbside recycling collection, the amount of waste being recycled in the county has doubled whilst the amount of residual waste has halved. Most households participating in the recycling collection now put out a significantly larger bag of recyclables than of residual waste. Reversing the two collections has a clear logic to it.

Aberystwyth Town Council supports the increased recycling collections but want the weekly residual waste collections to remain. This undoubtedly expresses the current public view but, according to Ceredigion, misses the point. The planned new scheme is not just aimed at keeping pace with the current demand for recycling but to increase it. Although Ceredigion has a higher rate of participation in recycling – currently 47% - than most other councils in both Wales and the UK, there are still many people who don’t take part. Some people simply don’t want the complication of cleaning and saving recyclable material until the next fortnightly collection. They just want to stick it in a weekly black bag to get rid of it as fast as possible and they’d probably still do this if both recycling and black bags were available alongside each other each week. The hope is that, if recycling is actually made easier than not recycling, rather than just an option, then even the most recalcitrant of people will decide they may as well do the right thing and recycle.

This all sounds very understandable, but there are potential problems. There are many non-recyclable things other than food waste, some very smelly things, that one would not want to keep in a small town centre flat with no back yard for two weeks. There’s likely to be a tendency for some of these things to find their way into recycling bags, contaminating the rest of the contents. Worse, in most people’s eyes, the town’s rubbish bins may suddenly start to overflow with household waste - a seagull bonanza.

Some occupants of HMOs in Aberystwyth seem to have difficulty putting their black bags out on the right day as it is, resulting in bags ripped open by seagulls and the contents strewn about the street. How much more difficult will it be to get the day right when they’re collected fortnightly. The mess caused by seagulls is already
a highly sensitive issue in the town without adding to it. For the scheme to work well the arrangement of household waste will require a degree of domestic organisation that some town centre households don’t seem to possess.

At a recent briefing meeting council officers gave assurances that the scheme would be assertively policed. An intensive public information programme will be undertaken. Fifteen council officers have recently been through a course in administering on-the-spot fines under Section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act to people putting their rubbish out on the wrong day. Landlords will be asked to help. Housing associations will be briefed, students e-mailed, other councils running similar schemes liaised with.

The controversial element of the scheme is the cutting of residual waste collections. Ceredigion Council views this as the only way to force the whole population to recycle rather than just the socially responsible. Only a few years ago, anyone wanting to recycle in Aberystwyth had to have an almost religious commitment to collecting and transporting their empty baked bean tins and marmalade jars out to
Aberystwyth Recycling Centre at Glanyrafon (not the municipal waste tip but a small organisation that hasn’t received the credit it’s due for kicking off the whole recycling effort in the area). Then the Town Council, to its great credit, provided recycling bins around the town. Finally, after many years of campaigning, Ceredigion Council began its kerbside recycling collections. Making recycling an option for those who want it has achieved a lot. The new scheme takes it to the next level where life becomes difficult for those who do not.

There’s no doubt it’s going to be an in-depth test of the population’s commitment to recycling, a commitment that has been impressive in Ceredigion up to now. One thing councillors learn quite quickly is that people don’t like change, and, in terms of everyone’s domestic arrangements, this is quite a big one. But if we’re to take climate change seriously, reduce pollution and our use of finite resources, this is the kind of change we were always going to have to make eventually. This is the moment recycling has been building up to, the moment when the scales are tipped and recycling becomes the main waste event with the shrinking bag of residuals increasingly an afterthought.

There will be tests of the Council’s and the public’s resolve, especially in the first few weeks. The Council will need to respond quickly to problems and the public don’t yet have confidence that they will. Every household in the county will need to give deeper thought to what they throw away. But, if the scheme can be made to work, everyone will benefit. And since the majority of people do get rubbish day right, by going fortnightly, the amount of black bags out on the streets could be halved. The seagulls will be gutted.