Woking food waste initiative is served up to flats and schools

In a novel move to extend food waste collections to the wider society, Woking has introduced a new service to schools. Nick Warburton reports

Food waste is collected every week

Food waste is collected every week

Like an award-winning dish that needs to be cooked to perfection, timing is also important when it comes to introducing new services to residents. Careful planning and preparation are critical, but so too is the delivery.

That's why Woking Borough Council rolled out its latest food waste service to schools in June to ensure that the collections were bedded-in and running smoothly before children broke up for the summer holidays.

"We wanted to move on this as quickly as we could, obviously to benefit from the service but also to meet the schools' term time," explains Woking's contracts and project support manager Mark Tabner.

Working with Biffa, Woking's service provider, the original plan had been to introduce the food waste service in 2011. However, Defra's decision to delay publishing its review of the Controlled Waste Regulations (CWR) until March 2012 meant that the roll out was postponed.

As Tabner explains, the schools' food waste collection was envisaged as a bolt-on to an existing service that targets residents in flats, a traditionally hard to reach group.

In March 2011, Woking and Biffa rolled out the first stage of this pioneering service to 5,000 flats. Since they'd always intended to extend this food waste service to schools later in the year, the council approached the borough's 41 schools to gauge levels of interest.

The majority of schools were receptive to the service provision. Those interested in participating were surveyed to determine how the service could be delivered and to calculate the number of food waste bins required at each location.

All this preparatory work had been done on the assumption that schools' food waste would still be classified as household rather than commercial waste after the CWR review.

The problem was that if Woking rolled the service out and Defra then decided that schools' food waste should be reclassified, the council might have to withdraw the service after only a few months of operation.

Fortunately, the review kept schools' waste as household waste, so all that Woking had to do was get back in touch with the schools and find out who was still interested.

"It was really about reminding the schools about the survey that we had completed [in 2011] and making sure they were happy about the number of containers and that they would be able to receive them," explains Tabner.

Despite a minority of schools declining to participate, 28 schools have signed up. Each receives a range of containers, from 7-litre caddies to 23-litre caddies on top of a 140-litre wheeled bin, which is emptied each week. At each collection, Biffa fits a replacement 140-litre compostable liner that is secured in place with a ballet band to keep the bin clean.

"We are now working on the remaining schools and are hopeful that we can deliver that for part of the next school year in September," says Tabner.

Together with the other borough and district councils in Surrey, Woking is part of Surrey Waste Partnership, an umbrella body that also includes the county council. As part of the partnership's plan for waste management, each local authority has committed to providing food waste collections for residents.

Woking rolled out its own food waste service in early 2010 by first targeting the 34,000 individual households in the borough. The real challenge, however, has been adapting the service for the remaining 6,000 households in flats.

"The intention was always to turn our attention to flats," says Tabner. "This is about equality of services and giving everyone the opportunity to recycle their materials and have the full suite of recycling services."

Looking to the future, he adds that there was another important reason why the council needed to target this particular housing group.

"We employed Waste Watch to undertake a door stepping campaign...and this identified that participation in recycling services is around 10% lower than at individual households. It is likely that flats and multiple occupation dwellings will account for 50% of all housing in Woking."

To kick start the flats initiative, the council carried out site surveys of every block of flat or site that had not been issued with food waste containers in the initial 2010 roll out.

They then categorised the flats into three different types - difficult, very difficult and most complex to reflect the different characteristics on each site. Staggering the roll out, the council targeted each flat type differently, visiting each household in person to explain the service and to provide food caddies.

"Based on the numbers that we had, the number of sites and the number of containers or lifts per day, we felt that we were looking probably at a maximum of around three days' collection in total in the borough," he says.

To share resources and keep costs down, Woking partnered with Guildford Borough Council, which uses the dedicated food waste collection vehicle on a fourth week day to collect from flats in its town centre.

In the first phase, launched in March 2011, Woking surveyed 5,000 flats and put them into a collection route order over two days.

"The challenge now was to turn our attention to some of the properties that had been identified as perhaps more difficult," he explains.

"These are dotted in and around the borough so it was always going to be a case that the third collection day wouldn't be the most efficient route, but it was the most expedient way to get these flats on the service."

In September 2011, the council added a further 2,500 flats to the third day's collection round plus another 250 flats in May this year.

To improve the service efficiency, Woking and Biffa decided to re-route the three days once they had brought the remaining flats on-board and extended the service to the schools.

"There is still capacity on those three days but there is also one day's worth of collection available if we need it," he says. "The 7.5-tonne vehicle that we use does have two compartments on the back. One for the food waste and one, should it be needed, to deal with any contamination."

Tabner has some interesting figures on the food waste collected to date. Prior to extending the service to schools, the average weight collected by the vehicle over three days, covering a four-week period from 28 May to 18 June, was 3.83 tonnes per week.

Since then, the average weight has increased by 1.83 tonnes per week to 5.66 tonnes, a 48% increase, he says. Tabner estimates that over 38 weeks this could amount to around 70 tonnes of food waste per year. If the service providers can encourage 10 more schools to participate, he thinks they could collect close to 100 tonnes per year.

While the schools' food waste service is provided free of charge at the moment, Tabner says that it might not remain so in the future, a fact made clear to the schools from the outset.

"Ultimately, schools are continuing to pay landfill tax because they are producing this material and they are shipping it off as part of their existing residual waste contracts," he says.

"I am hopeful that our service, even if there is a disposal cost, would still be more competitive than their contractual cost."

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR


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