Rochford - a rising star on the recycling front

From being one of the worst local authority performers for recycling, Rochford District Council has transformed its service. A contract with UPM has added to both partners' green credentials. Nick Warburton reports

Rochford reaches out to the community

Rochford reaches out to the community

It's often the simplest things in life that prove the most successful. That was certainly the ethos behind Rochford District Council's maximise recycling scheme when it was rolled out in July 2008. Only a year earlier, the Essex local authority had achieved a mere 17% recycling rate; a performance so poor that it warranted outside help.

"We were doing so poorly that WRAP gave us a special grant for low-performing local authorities," says Cathy Cook, Rochford DC's senior recycling officer. "We then got it up to 19% in a year, just through publicity."

Last year, Rochford's recycling rate hit 63%; an impressive achievement that brought a string of accolades - winner in the local authority target success category at the
2009 National Recycling awards and runner-up at the 2010 Green Apple awards. While this year's figures have yet to be audited, the current recycling rate is around 65%, with an aspiration to reach 70% in the next few years.

The scheme's overnight success comes down to two important factors. The first was council members' decision to prioritise recycling as a service. By coupling a long-term strategy for boosting recycling with the allocation of carefully targeted resources, the recycling service had the impetus to drive up the recycling rate.

Equally important, Rochford DC also needed to engage with the local community early on in the process to glean what residents wanted, as well as identify any problems the public might face around recycling. Once this was done, the recycling service made sure the new scheme was as simple as possible so as to encourage participation.

Before rolling the scheme out in July 2008, Rochford DC only collected three recycling streams - glass, cans and paper. A small 44-litre recycling crate was given to each household for these materials while most of the waste was placed in a larger 240-litre bin for residuals destined for landfill.

Under the new contract, Rochford DC expanded the range of materials that could be recycled to include all cardboard, including greeting cards, and certain plastics - essentially food trays and drink and cosmetic bottles. The 240-litre bin was rebranded to take the dry recyclables while a smaller bin was introduced for the residual waste. At the same time, a third 140-litre bin was introduced for green garden waste and food waste.

The compostable waste is collected every week, and the recycling and non-recycling is collected on alternate weeks with the compostable waste stream. As a further service enhancement, the council also works with a local textile company, which recycles textiles deposited with dry recycling kerbside collections.

"When we communicated the scheme, we had a tiered approach," says Richard Evans, head of environmental services. "The first thing we started to do was promote recycling as a concept. We talked to the residents at community events and in focus groups about recycling and why we should recycle, almost to get them into the mind-set before we said, 'and these are the changes coming'. That seemed to work well."

Rochford DC also recognised that a one-size-fits-all approach was impractical. While many properties had the convenience of additional storage space, others required an individual tailored-approach.

One of the more recent success stories has been the commitment to target difficult-to-reach groups, which has seen the extension of the scheme into flats, sheltered housing and mobile home sites.

"The main issue, and I think it's why everyone avoids it, in terms of flats, is that they share bins," says Cook. "It's very hard if there are materials in the bins that shouldn't be there. You can't say that was a particular household. What we tend to do is send out letters to the whole block of flats and do door knocking, offering general advice. We have done an enormous amount of face-to-face communication in the community."

As part of this tailored approach, the recycling team provides each household in the flats with a kitchen caddy and 50 liners; recognition that these residents face very different challenges compared with most households in the district. Rochford DC has also targeted the elderly and the disabled to ensure that the scheme fits around their needs.

Being a collection authority, Rochford DC is responsible for the end use of its dry recycling and green waste. Last year, the council undertook a procurement process with a number of companies in a bid to set up a contract with a materials recycling facility (MRF) to take the dry recyclables.

As Evans points out, most companies are set up to collect paper, which is the most lucrative market for recycled materials. However, because the council wanted to keep the scheme as simple as possible for residents, it was essential that the successful contract bidder would also take materials like glass that can cause wear on MRF equipment. UPM won the contract and started taking the dry recyclables at its Shotton MRF in Flintshire, north Wales, in October 2010.

"We were mindful of keeping it local and not shipping it half the way around the world," he says. "UPM is some distance away, but there is an arrangement whereby we have reduced the carbon footprint of that journey. Hauliers who transport items such as newsprint and biomass from the plant in Shotton to London and the South-east make a detour across to Rochford on their return journey to collect our recyclables."

The dry recycling service operates five days a week, all year round, including bank holidays. Every week, the council's waste contractor delivers the dry recyclables to a waste transfer station where UPM picks up the load. Around 9,000 tonnes of this waste will be sent to UPM each year.

Cook and a small group of officers and councillors visited UPM's Shotton plant during May. "They provide an environmental service but it doesn't stop there," she says.

"I was impressed by their use of renewable energy, the fact that they really do try and get every bit of material from the waste stream. The recovered paper that is left goes to the paper mill next door. They are trying to be green across their whole industry."

The fact that UPM was able to take additional materials like food and drink cartons and envelopes helped. The partnership enables Rochford DC to take action further upstream in the waste hierarchy to influence consumer behaviour.

"They do give really good feedback on contamination and analysis of materials," she concludes. "That is really useful for us. We had a meeting with UPM, and they said that textiles had started appearing in the recyclables which gets caught in the machinery. Because we're getting that feedback, we can tell residents not to put textiles into the dry recyclables and use the kerbside textiles collection."

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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