Go underground for recycling targets

New homes are often built on plots so small there is no space for proper recycling. One way round this is to look beneath the surface, says Derek Monk

A survey has suggested that nearly 75% of new homes are built on plots so small they do not have enough space to store the necessary bins to allow people to recycle properly. The survey, by the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE), polled 2,500 private housing owners and 72% said they do not have enough space to fit in three small bins required.

Without that recycling space, the houses do not conform to the Government's code for sustainable homes, which should be built to lifetime homes standards. The Government aims to have private housing built to these standards by 2013 and its 2007 waste strategy for England includes a target for 40% of household waste to be recycled by 2010.

The fear is that targets may not be met if homes lack the space for basic recycling facilities. The pressure for councils is making sure that planning permission is given on the basis of doing all they can to make sure that people living in every type of property have the opportunity to recycle.

So, what is the answer? We should drive the problem underground. An underground waste system (UWS) can hold the equivalent of 15-20 240-litre domestic wheeled bins. The system has major advantages - it reduces the amount of slow-moving, refuse collection vehicles, which have to stop every few metres, often holding up the traffic. And an UWS can be collected in about two minutes by a vehicle with a single operator - a crane is used to remove the full hopper and replace an empty one.

Mapping out the options
Alternatively standard four-wheel bins can be used, raised from their underground position by hydraulics. The surface configuration remains the same, offering a wide choice for mixed or segregated waste. By using new generation technology, route planners and satellite navigation, the UWS can 'report' to a central control which automatically plans the collection vehicle's journey for optimum efficiency.

The idea of temporarily storing waste underground before moving it to its next stage of processing came to the fore in the mid 1990s. By moving the majority of the storage underground, valuable space is freed-up and only access to the storage via neat surface receptacles is necessary. It tackles aesthetic problems as well as the need to improve waste streams segregation as the large underground containers reduce the amount of discarded waste lying around awaiting collection and odour levels are reduced.

In domestic applications, a simple swipe card/sensor provides access to a UWS. It is also easy to monitor how much refuse is placed on each access. This gives the option for charging, perhaps not now but for the future. Underground waste systems are an extremely effective and desirable way to collect and store waste. In a new development it is very easy to plan in such bins at an early stage, making the site and the long-term environment much more attractive.

Using underground systems requires a change of attitude as well because one UWS would used for a cluster of houses, meaning that residents are required to walk a few metres to dispose of their waste rather than have it removed from their driveway or gate. But using the system also has great advantages in terms of segregation and reduced costs for councils.

There are already major examples of UWS use in residential areas. Yallop's Yard, in east London, is a mixed development comprising 260 new homes and a community centre. The development includes social housing, rented, shared and private accommodation with dwellings - and underground waste facilities.

Tower Hamlets Council specified underground bins with the specific aims of massively reducing the visual impact of household bins, reducing disturbance and the chance of vandalism. Also high on the council's list of objectives was the long-term reduction of collection costs. Recycling targets and bin space for modern homes is the next challenge.

Derek Monk is managing director of Otto UK

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