Pay-by-weight: Lessons learnt in Ireland

County Cork Council has operated a pay-by-weight system for refuse collection since 2003. Enda Kiernan explains how the scheme works and charts its progress to date

Over the past 15 years, there has been an evolution of policy and law in waste management, which is increasingly reflected in improved waste management practices in Ireland. Nowhere is this more evident than user-based charges - either by way of pay-by-weight (PBW) or pay-by-use (PBU).

Cork County Council is the administrative authority for County Cork. Cork is the largest county in Ireland and comprises 7,453km2. In 2002, the population was 324,767. It comprises one eighth of the land area and population of Ireland. Due to its size, it is divided into three administrative divisions (north, south and west) with each being an autonomous authority at operations level with respect to waste management. It is important to note, however, that a common charge is applied equally across all divisions.

In 1999, the southern division received government funding to do a pilot scheme for weighing domestic waste. This took place over 12 months and provided accurate data on the amount of waste presented by those in the pilot area. However, Ireland does not have domestic rates as exist by way of the council tax in the UK, and so there was little motivation for customers to reduce the amount of waste presented. However, Cork County Council saw the operational benefit of the introduction of such a system in the right environment.

By 2002, however, the need for a dramatic change was recognised with respect to collection methods and practices if EU recycling targets were to be met. A government study on waste collection services showed that, in 1998, the services provided by local authorities did not reflect the full economic cost at all in some regions. The cost of collection and disposal in 1998 was ¬80M while the income was just ¬40M. A decision was taken by council management in association with the elected members to introduce a PBW or variable-charge method of collection.

This method was introduced in West Cork on 1 January, 2003, a year later in North Cork and another year later in South Cork. In 2003, the charge was ¬140 standing charge and 33 cents per kilogram of waste presented. In 2004 and 2005, the charges were ¬120 standing charge and 47 cents per kilogram of waste presented. In 2003 and 2004, the fixed charge was ¬400 for those customers who did not have the new collection system. In 2005, the average charge per customer based on the invoices raised was ¬279.

Step-by-step guide to implementation
In June 2004, Advanced Management Control Systems (AMCS) was appointed by Cork County Council's southern division to roll out the PBW system. The initial project involved the following steps:
  • the installation of radio frequency identification chips on 38,000 standardised wheeled bins
  • the installation of weighing and identification systems on 18 refuse collection vehicles (RCVs)
  • global position satellite tracking and digital mapping
  • bi-directional GSM/GPRS communication between the trucks and the back-office system
  • integration of the system with the council's back-office software management system which included invoicing and the council's call centre
  • certification of all RCVs in conjunction with legal metrology.
Impressively, the project was completed in early December 2004, allowing time for the testing of systems prior to full introduction on 1 January, 2005. Some of the benefits that South Cork County Council had on rollout of the project were the ability to charge all customers on a per-kilogram basis, the capability to monitor residents' behaviour and measure presentation rates automatically, the ability to trace missing and stolen containers and traceability of all customers.

Since the project's introduction in 2005, all customers have been charged per kilogram of waste presented. The amount of waste collected has reduced from 1,200kg per house in 2003 to 405kg in 2004 to 383kg in 2005. It is estimated the amount of waste per household in 2006 will be around 360kg.

AWCs resulted in cost savings
Due to the improved levels of recycling and public awareness, alternate weekly collection of waste and dry co-mingled dry recyclables was introduced and the average householder was able to save more than ¬120 a year in the PBW scheme compared with a fixed-charge scheme. Surveys also indicated that 84% of people on a PBW/PBU scheme had been encouraged to recycle.

In June 2005, a pilot scheme for the collection of co-mingled dry recyclables was rolled out to around 5,000 households using standard wheelie bins. It was evident that this system was the best way forward due to the substantial quantities of material being presented (190kg per house per year), the presentation rate of bins on waste week (which rose from 49% to 65%), and the low levels of contamination in the bins (6%).

In February 2006, AMCS began distributing 30,000 burgundy-coloured recycling bins. The project, which was due to be completed by the end of July, was fully completed for June of that year. To date, the participation rate on recycling week (based on one presentation per month) is in excess of 75% with some routes showing rates as high as 90%.

The average weight of a standard recycling bin is currently 10.5kg or 205kg per house per year. The system allows interrogation of statistics on a route basis either per day or week or per house. And it allows the identification of heavy recycling bins, which are then investigated during the next collection cycle to ensure that the contents are not contaminated.

In rolling out this project, staff were kept informed - not only collection crews but back office and call centre staff. Considerable interaction with other departments in the council also had to take place. Policies had to be developed for many operational issues and training for all staff had to be introduced as appropriate to their job function.

Thankfully, there are not many high-rise buildings on the collection rounds. A property management company, which is the client for the refuse account, normally oversees where such exist. Bins of 1,100 litres are used in these situations. Cork County deals with just one person, and the management company bills the tenants or residents in accordance with their own system. This saves time and administration.

Tracking waste remains an issue
So where has all the waste gone? Unfortunately, no one can give a definitive answer to this. Latest figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that 10% of householders admitted to backyard burning of waste. The EPA acknowledges that this is an under-estimate, as most people are not going to admit to the agency of breaking the law.

Some 15% of people believed burning waste in the back garden was acceptable behaviour, even though this is the biggest single source of dioxins in Ireland. Most of this takes place in rural areas. As much as 25% of households in rural areas in some counties have neither a waste nor a recyclable collection from the kerbside. In addition, there have been increased reports of fly-tipping but this is harder to quantify.

To say that PBW/PBU is the ultimate panacea is not quite true. There is a need for extra resources in implementing such systems - increased litter monitoring, monitoring of backyard burning and fly tipping, increased staff training, and additional recycling infrastructure in terms of bring sites.

However, there can be no doubt that it is effective in terms of reducing the amount of waste produced. Not every householder is a customer of Cork County Council at present - the council has embarked on a marketing campaign to increase its customer base. With several private operators in the county, the council advertises it waste collection charges as being "competitive for the consumer" - not something that you might normally associate with refuse collection services.

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