AWCs: It’s good to talk

Belfast City Council realised that communication at all levels was crucial in convincing householders - and the media - of the merits of alternate weekly collections. Sonia Boal explains

When it comes to implementing alternate weekly collections (AWCs), an effective communications campaign can make all the difference between success and failure, as Belfast City Council has found out.

As the largest local authority in Northern Ireland, it was crucial that Belfast made a success of AWCs. Throughout the UK, AWCs have been fraught with problems and in some cases councils have experienced a fall in their recycling rates and lost public support following negative media reports.

Happily, the situation in Belfast couldn’t be more different, where the recycling rate has trebled over the past three years. Although some individuals were slow to be persuaded, the media is now firmly on board and keen to promote any development in Belfast’s recycling service.

Brief the media

So, how did this happen? Prior to a change of collection, Belfast undertook a media briefing session. Here, journalists were invited to an event outlining exactly what changes were planned, then shown what infrastructure would be put in place and how householders would be affected by change.

As bins would be micro-chipped, delegates were shown where these would be located, how the chips worked, what information would be recorded, the reasons for doing so and, most importantly, what items could now be recycled on the doorstep.

This information was also put into a press release and sent to anyone unable to attend the event. While this did not counter all negative media coverage of AWCs, by being totally open about the procedure, Belfast experienced a much lower level of resistance to the changes.

In 2005, Belfast began the task of providing each householder with the same information as had been presented to the media. With 120,000 households, 70,000 of which were due to move onto AWCs, the most logical way of managing the operation was to split the city into phases of about 11,000 households at a time.

Using information from Ordnance Survey backed up by field data collected by a council officer, a street list was generated for each phase that listed every address on each street affected by change. At this point, a team of recycling advisors were employed to visit every address on the street lists.

Each household was given details of the new bin, when it would arrive and what materials could be collected. Residents were informed on the micro-chips and were given the opportunity to ask any questions. In addition, each resident was given an information pack and collection calendar which outlined a free recycling helpline should any problems crop up in the future.

For households that were empty when a recycling advisor called, the date and time of the visit was recorded, and the household revisited again at a different time of day. This was done to try to maximise the amount of people spoken to face-to-face.

Leave no-one out

For households that were empty on a second visit, the information was left in a pack along with details of the time and location of a Saturday morning surgery in their local area, where a member of the council’s waste management team would be available to answer questions.

Since the initial launch of AWCs, Belfast has continued to push the recycling message to the general public, using local radio, billboards, bus shelters – even phone booths dressed to look like recycling bins in the city centre. Participation now stands above 75% with an overall contamination rate below 2% which has increased the value of the recyclate contract.

The council’s ‘Waste – it’s not rubbish’ campaign has since been rewarded with a ‘Best Practice’ award within Northern Ireland – comparable to the Beacon scheme that operates in the UK.

Sonia Boal is part of the waste education & promotions office at Belfast City Council

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie