Waste incentive pilots: the devil is in the detail

Tim Hobbs examines recent Defra guidance on waste incentive schemes, and argues that greater detail on operational issues is needed if pilot trials are to work

Defra has recently launched draft guidance documents to UK councils, aimed at encouraging authorities to apply to participate in forthcoming trials for waste incentive schemes, to examine the potential impact of waste charging. Experience in Europe and Ireland suggests that such schemes can be very effective in diverting waste to recycling as well as drive a cultural change in attitudes.
According to Defra, the schemes fall into four broad categories, but it remains open-minded about other variations or hybrid schemes. The four categories are as follows:
  • Waste charges via sale of sacks or tags for sacks/bins through local shops, Post Offices, and so on
  • Charges based on the size of residual bin, with lower charges/rebates for smaller bins
  • Charges or rewards based on the frequency of presentation of waste and/or recyclate
  • Charges or rewards based on the weight of waste and/or recyclate presented
At Bartec Systems, we have examined the draft guidance and believe that each of the four scheme types is potentially viable, but have their own advantages and potential pitfalls. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are certainly some very wrong answers in specific situations. It is crucial to the success of any pilot scheme that it is not only technically viable, but also that it is appropriate for the particular environment in which the pilot will operate.

The guidance pays little attention to how schemes will be physically operated by the refuse collection crews, the waste department staff and the call centre team who will be required to make the new system work in the face of potentially hostile public opinion. In our opinion, these issues are central to the success or failure of trials.

Changes to working practices are not easily introduced and collection crews may find themselves being asked to collect data or check for tags as well as picking up waste.

Easing the load is essential
With a typical round lifting around 1,000 bins on a six-second cycle time, it will be essential to minimise or eliminate extra work for the loaders. It is vital that any scheme is rigorously evaluated to determine what the impact might be for loading rates and to reassure crews that they will not bear the brunt of negative public opinion.

All of these schemes require some degree of technology change in waste collection operation. Verifiable data will be required from thousands of households on a daily basis, to be processed and fed to some form of billing system. New charges will almost certainly lead to an increase in enquiries, disputes and accounts in arrears. It is essential that councils have confidence and transparency in their data collection if they are to strike the right balance of customer service against credit control and recycling enforcement.

It seems likely that a proportion of householders will test the ability of the system to detect non-conformance and fraud, particularly in the early days. Those first skirmishes may be decisive in defining the relationship between the council and the householder.

Call centres and waste managers need to be able to differentiate between householders who need assistance or have simply misunderstood the scheme, and those who are trying to beat the system. Typical call centre customer relationship management (CRM) systems can hold and report on the history - for example those repeatedly using unofficial sacks in a sack scheme. But these systems need to be fed by the crews with every collection event and non-conforming sack.

Councils will need to have automated and verified systems gathering this information from the crews and passing it quickly to the CRM system if they are to respond robustly to persistent offenders while allowing some leeway to those who make honest mistakes.

Schemes which work on tagged bins will require councils to have tight control of their bin register, particularly where bins of different sizes are offered. Many fear that larger bins will be stolen or that householders will report small bins missing to obtain an extra one. The existing workflow run by councils to replace lost, stolen and damaged bins will need to cope with the extra volume of work and also maintain tag information and pass it to the vehicle systems. Staff may need to visit households to resolve arguments over bins and will need reading equipment to be able to identify bins from their tags.

Scant on technology requirements
The guidance contains hardly any reference to the technology required and readers could be forgiven for fearing that they will have to invest in extensive bespoke systems projects to make a trial work. Thus councils considering applying to run a trial may be deterred by the perceived technical problems. The good news is that much of the technology to drive the schemes as outlined by Defra already exists.

For example, in-cab systems are in place at several councils recording participation information and linking directly to CRM. Mobile computer systems are available to maintain bin registers over GPRS and some councils even have one or more vehicles equipped to identify and weigh the bin as it is lifted, although few are actively using the facility.

Variable charging is a necessary component in maintaining the UK's strong improvement in recycling. But implementing the right systems will be crucial to the success of any pilot scheme and that collection crews will need simple and robust technology to record and view historical data about the premises they are serving. Defra needs the trials to deliver results in a very short time frame and schemes based on proven techniques have the best chances of success.

Tim Hobbs is director of Bartec Auto ID

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