Boxes or bins? The kerbside safety debate

How much of a health and safety risk do kerbside collection boxes really pose? And are wheelie bin collections a better alternative? Katie Coyne investigates

In sunny Croydon where LAWR’s offices are based, a pretty dispute is brewing. Waste collection crews have been banned from throwing bags of rubbish around. Why might they want to do this in the first place, one might ask?

In order to save time, crew members have been flinging bin bags up from below ground flats for colleagues to catch on street level. But the council fears that handling the bags in this way breaches health and safety (H&S) rules and could cause injury to crews or members of the public.

It has banned the practice and instead, asked householders to carry the bags up the stairs themselves. It adds that the crews don’t have the time to do this, as it would delay them on their rounds.

One resident is refusing to comply and local paper The Croydon Advertiser has described the H&S rules as “pernickety” and quoted a neighbour saying that the situation was “ridiculous”. But H&S is a serious issue, particularly in an industry that has an accident incident rate four to five times the national average according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

So why has a HSE-commissioned report published earlier this year from the Health & Safety Laboratory (HSL) – an independent research centre – suggesting that kerbside collection boxes could pose a H&S risk generated so much controversy? And realistically, how much of a risk are kerbside recycling boxes to workers?

Most criticism centres on the report’s main conclusion – the study Manual handling in kerbside collection and sorting of recyclables recommends that where possible: “It would be more appropriate to use wheeled bins for the collection of recyclables”. According to the study, this is because “previous research suggests that the use of wheelie bins reduces the risk of manual handling injury compared to handling non-wheeled containers”.

How sound is the evidence?

One of the main criticisms of the study is that the “previous research” referred to is not relevant. Phil Hurst, from Wales Community Recycling Network (CYCLCH), argues: “They didn’t compare wheelie bins directly with lifting boxes.”

Previous research might include the HSL report Manual handling in refuse collection published in 2002. This reviewed scientific literature on manual handling operations plus risk factors in musculoskeletal disorders.

It primarily talked about wheelie bin, dustbin and bag collection, and recommended that: “Wherever possible, refuse collection should be carried out using wheelie bins of appropriate sizes rather than bags or small dustbins.”

Another criticism of the latest HSL study is that the weights recorded were not representative. Critics compare the study’s findings with a report carried out by commercial consultancy, the Centre for Health & Environmental Research & Expertise (CHERE).

Published in July, the CHERE report “failed to identify any significant risks within kerbside recycling operations.” CHERE received funding for the report from the Welsh Assembly and the EU as well as from not-for-profit recycling groups that include kerbside recycling organisations among their members.

One such group is the Community Recycling Network (CRN UK) and Lisa Saunders from the organisation explains: “Box weights recorded in the HSL report do not reflect the weights of boxes collected at the kerbside.” A 13kg kerbside box is regarded as an acceptable weight for men to carry and 7.5kg for females. The CHERE report recorded an average box weight of 4.9kg and a maximum box weight of 12kg.

However in the HSL report, 75% of the boxes weighed more than 7.5kg and 26% were above 13kg. Saunders and others argue that this is atypical and that as the CHERE report surveyed nine different schemes and the HSL only looked at three, the former is bound to be more accurate.

Getting the facts right

Jonathan Straight, chief executive of Straight Plc – a leading supplier of kerbside boxes – agrees with this sentiment. But he adds that authors from the HSL study muddled kerbside boxes, in one of the schemes, with slave boxes (boxes that waste is decanted into from the kerbside before being emptied into the collection vehicle). Although the study was altered once the mistake was noticed, he argues: “The conclusions of the report were not changed – yet how can this be?”

Industry representatives are also fuming about the way the HSE has reacted to the report’s findings – namely in not doing anything at all. The HSL report is one of a series commissioned and the HSE has not yet issued any guidance on the subject. Andy Bond of ECT Recycling, a community recycling organisation, says: “I think it’s a travesty that they haven’t stepped in to make it clear to the industry that this is only a report for debate and is not guidance to be followed.”

This leads to a much more serious, and persuasive, argument that the report fails to appreciate the knock-on-effect that wheelie bin recyclables collections could have on workers at materials recycling facilities (MRFs), for it is here that accidents more frequently occur.

This is because wheelie bins tend to be used for co-mingled collections where separation is conducted at the MRF, whereas box schemes separate out waste at the kerbside. Bond argues that any study looking into the H&S aspects of collection methods should also consider the potential repercussions. The fact that the HSL report didn’t do this, he says, makes it “fundamentally flawed”.

As for the argument that has surfaced about residents potentially suing their local authority, this has received short shrift. And Jonathan Straight adds that the major waste contractors have told him that none of them have come across any cases of muscular skeletal disorders among kerbside collection workers.

The risks around lifts

However Simon Dutta, marketing director for Plastic Omnium, takes a very different view – he has banned his pregnant wife from lifting their household kerbside collection box. Admittedly Dutta works for a firm that manufactures plastic wheelie bins, but his piece of tender husbandly concern does illustrate a valid point. And it is one that Justin Bowden, senior organiser for public services at the GMB, expands upon.

Bowden argues that any recyclables collection scheme has to be designed for use by a whole cross section of the community including pregnant women, frail older people, and those with disabilities. He adds: “There is really nothing to stop a householder from taking their local authority to court for suffering an injury while taking their recycling boxes out. If there aren’t any at the moment, I won’t be surprised to see any coming along in the future.”

He says his union is “actively” supportive of recycling and would like to see more waste streams recycled as standard. But he adds: “One of the reasons that wheelie bins were introduced was because of the injuries that our members were suffering – mainly back injuries.”

He says that the union is involved in pursuing injury claims from members who have worked in kerbside collection. And he adds that unless something is done, the number of claimants will increase.

Bowden argues that collection workers should be consulted on how best recycled materials can be collected as “they are the ones doing the job”. And his views coincide with concerns within the industry that whatever the HSE decides, it shouldn’t be too prescriptive.

He explains: “It’s difficult to have a one-size-fits-all solution because people live in different houses – there is an element of horses for courses. You almost need a street-by-street consultation.”

While Lee Marshall, chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), is very critical of the HSL report for many of the reasons outlined above, he admits: “We realise that there are health and safety implications with manual handling – it’s very repetitive and that amplifies risk.”

Useful pointers going forward

The individual arguments surrounding this debate are too numerous to all be outlined here, yet there is a realisation that both the HSL and CHERE reports offer some useful advice. This includes the suggestion that kerbside boxes should be limited in size to 40 litres to keep their weight down.

The suggested use of lids has also been accepted to prevent the boxes from being overfilled and protect the materials from the rain – a particular concern where paper is being collected due to its rapid absorption of liquid and subsequent weight gain.

Recommendations that handles on kerbside boxes should be more pronounced to enable collection crews to grip them while wearing gloves are also seen as a good idea. In fact, many box designs already incorporate most of these features.

Is the future underground?

And while a solution to this particular dilemma will have to be hammered out in the near future, it is possible to take some solace in the fact that in five to seven years’ time, the problem will have disappeared anyway. At least this is according to Dr David Gillett, marketing director of Taylor – supplier of plastic and steel bins – who predicts that the use of underground waste systems will be in full swing by then.

These underground systems he describes as the “ultimate solution for household waste collection” as they enable streamed waste collection while improving the street scene. He predicts that in three to five years’ time, wheelie bins – with separate bins for different waste streams – will take over from kerbside boxes in residential areas that have the space to house them.

But he believes kerbside boxes will linger on a little longer in urban areas where space is limited. Maybe during this time a solution to the dispute in Croydon between residents and the council will also have been found by then.

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