London looks to take recycling to the next level

The tougher aspects of delivering a better recycling service fell under the spotlight at a recent London Remade event. Maxine Perella reports

How can you best collect food and garden waste, or offer an effective recycling service to estates and flats above shops? These were the kind of the challenges discussed at a recent London Remade local authority network meeting, where the outcomes from a twinning and mentoring scheme were shared among delegates.

The scheme was set up in 2005 to provide a mentoring forum for local authorities to speak honestly about the problems they faced in implementing and enforcing certain recycling schemes in and around London. More than 100 council officers from 30 London boroughs participated in the scheme. Cluster groups were formed around four topics - organics (food and garden waste), recycling for estates and flats above shops, trade waste, and enforcement.

Penny Bramwell, from the Government Office for London's sustainable development unit, which commissioned the scheme, said she was struck by how much higher performing councils had learnt from those that were struggling and had, therefore, tackled tough challenges along the way. "This approach has broken down many barriers. Local authorities were nervous about declaring the problems and issues they were grappling with four years ago, and I think it is important we continue to foster a culture where we can learn from each other."

An inner-London perspective on collecting organics was given by Ann Baker, recycling manager for London Borough of Camden. Camden has a highly transient population with an annual turnover of 40%. But it is also a very mixed borough, being home to a range of people from the most socially deprived to the wealthiest in London.

"About 75% of our housing stock is multiple occupancy, so there are lots of challenges regarding food and garden waste collections," she said. "Our recycling rate last year was 28% and we have a target for this year of 30%. Of the rate last year, just more than 5% was organic, which was the composting element. We have 20,000 properties with private gardens."

Greener push for composting
The council currently offers a free borough-wide garden waste collection, and a subsided home composting service. Composting workshops are also held throughout the year, and the council is now looking to expand the range of composting bins it provides to households.

"The most recent waste analysis we've had done, from January to June 2007, showed we're left with a remainder of 33% food waste and 6% garden waste," said Baker.

Camden is looking at a number of options to tackle this, including a doorstep collection service, which is on trial on one of the refuse rounds, and a Rocket in-vessel composting scheme for one of its housing estates.

The issue of estates recycling was picked up by Kevin Crook, waste policy and development manager for the London borough of Tower Hamlets. An area undergoing huge redevelopment at the moment, Tower Hamlets has 99,000 households - 82,000 of which are flats on estates or larger blocks - and the borough is looking to accommodate another 31,000 homes over the next few years.

"Tower Hamlets didn't start offering recycling to people in flats until 2003. In that year, we issued a five-year contract to a community recycling organisation. The original intention was that it would be a communal service, but they persuaded us that a doorstep service was better. The initial 10,000 properties quickly increased to 50,000, and we also provide a hybrid service to 20,000 flats as well," said Crook.

Safety shift back to communal collections
However, due to low recycling rates, last year the council took the decision to phase out doorstep collections and move them all to communal. "There are health and safety issues with the doorstep service," explained Crook. "In some of the blocks, there are no lifts so recyclables have to be dragged down stairs. There are also access problems, so London Fire Brigade asked us to look at alternatives."

He acknowledged that a key challenge during the conversion would be preventing a "huge loss of tonnage". "We're hoping to address that by making recycling compulsory across the whole borough later on this year. We're also planning to introduce a network of recycling champions, supported by a new outreach team of recycling officers."

Crook added that the money saved by going from doorstep to communal will enable the council to set up food waste collections for estates and low-rise properties - a vital benefit as Tower Hamlets is the only authority in London not offering any kerbside collection of organic waste.

Maxine Perella is editor of LAWR

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