How will efficiency savings hit council waste services?

Waste services are one of the key areas where local authorities are expected to make cost savings going forward. But how will tighter resources affect councils' ability to deliver? Katie Coyne finds out

At the end of last year, Chancellor Alistair Darling announced that local authorities had to deliver £550M in efficiency savings by 2012-13 - and that waste collection and disposal services were one of the key areas that should be targeted to make these cuts. So just what tough choices face councils in making these savings when it comes to household waste collection?

With myriad systems in place, it's difficult to get a coherent picture. "If you are looking at the council reductions that are coming in the micro-sense, anything could happen," says waste adviser Peter Jones OBE. "They all have different priorities and it will just depend on the individual circumstance."

Jones argues that the Government should be accelerating the introduction of producer responsibility regulations. If a scheme similar to that designed to deal with WEEE was brought in for packaging, he believes this could result in huge savings due to economies of scale. "We should be doing the work to find out what that [saving] will be. I think it would be at least £200M cheaper to do it through the supply chain and it would be much simpler to the consumer."

Jones adds: "The Government has said that our packaging recovery system is cheaper than in Europe, but the Government isn't including the cost of recycling to local authorities within that."

Keeping it in the neighbourhood

Economies of scale is a theme Cllr Paul Bettison picks up when he suggests that councils should look to working with their neighbours. "That's certainly a better way of looking - towards cooperation with a nearby authority to renegotiate better with contractors," he says.

He also feels that councils should not switch to co-mingled collections to make cost savings. "You will not use as many vehicles as you are collecting more efficiently, which is good for carbon footprint, but in terms of cost I am not sure there is a difference. What you save by not having so many vehicle movements you pay for by having to sort it at the depot."

Bettison argues that those councils which have switched to co-mingled - such as his own - do so with carbon footprint and convenience for residents in mind. He maintains that local authorities won't save money by switching to alternate weekly collections either, as it simply results in a better service for the same money or - in other words - more recycling at no extra cost.

The councils that are best placed to make significant savings are those which are about to re-negotiate their waste management contracts.

But with most contracts lasting a minimum of seven years - the length of time it takes for the contractor to break even against the cost of the refuse collection vehicle - not all councils will be able to take advantage.
"You can change your services and you can get better service for less money and lots of councils are doing that," says Dr Adam Read, practice knowledge leader for waste management & resource efficiency at AEA.

But he points out: "The only time you get to say to your waste contractor 'that isn't good enough we want another 10% efficiency, recovery rate or £1M saving' is after seven years or with an extension clause. The whole contractual set up means it isn't as easy to get efficiencies as you might like."

Just tinkering around the edges

While there is "give and take" between councils and waste contractors, Dr Read argues that without a renegotiation of the contract, the changes being made will be relatively minor. "You can tinker. You can take a little bit out of the communications budget. You can do less school visits and send less people on training courses - but you are not going to save £1M."

He suggests that the sort of changes to the waste collection systems might be changes in the materials which are collected. Last January it was reported that councillors in East Cambridgeshire were to vote on removing plastic bottles from kerbside collections. There would still, however, be bring bank facilities for plastic bottles.

Dr Read says that this might turn out to be a wider trend, particularly for materials such as plastics and glass, as the 3-4% recycling recovery rate they offer might not be deemed worth the extra cost to collect.

He even ventures that plastics might actually end up back in the residual bin in some parts of the country, and that trials for services where a contract has not been put in place yet, such as food waste, may be shelved. However, Dr Read points out that there does come a point where savings cannot be made without detriment to the service and recycling rates offered.

He argues that waste management in the UK is already vastly underfunded compared with the rest of Europe. He wants to see a debate held around funding and the importance of waste management, and its relation to other services such as schools, roads and hospitals.

Katie Coyne is a freelance journalist

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