Lambeth walks towards zero waste

The south London borough has made waste prevention a priority. As Nick Warburton discovers, it's a no-brainer for the man tasked with driving the message home


Letting things go to waste is a costly business. It’s far better to prevent the waste in the first place or to reuse materials while they still maintain a value.

That’s the thinking behind the London Borough of Lambeth’s waste prevention plan, a major strand in its overall waste strategy launched in April 2011.

For the man tasked with driving the message home to residents, it’s a no-brainer.

“Waste prevention activities are a priority for the materials that would otherwise be collected for disposal if not recycled and there is an instant cost saving,” says waste development officer Philip O’Keeffe.

“Not throwing items away reduces disposal costs and there’s the reuse of materials.”

Like all councils, Lambeth faces a significant squeeze on its budget but that hasn’t impacted on its waste prevention work, especially as it contributes to overall savings.

Community buy-in varies and besides the borough-wide local recycling points, Lambeth has rolled out several focused campaigns that target specific groups. One of these is the promotion of washable reusable nappies to expectant and new parents.

The council had participated in a London-wide real nappy campaign but after a service review in early 2012, Lambeth introduced its own local initiative in April.

The local authority purchased its own real nappy trial packs and O’Keeffe provides advice sessions and demonstrations. To date, over 50 expectant and new parents have applied to take part.

“It’s still very limited where you can purchase modern washable nappies from,” he explains.

“High streets don’t do them, general stores don’t do them and so a lot of it is online. Unless you know someone who is using them, you don’t get to see what it’s about.”

It’s all about changing perceptions, he continues. “People don’t associate a washable nappy with a modern day living environment. But a lot of people are surprised. Lambeth’s trial pack is about giving people a chance to try it out, take it up if they want to and be part of a network where they can get more advice and information.”

There’s also a wider benefit to the scheme. When one parent takes part, they’ll often tell another parent and overtime the increased take-up of real nappies should lead to a reduction in disposables.

But real nappy adviser is only one of several hats that O’Keeffe wears. He’s also Lambeth’s compost doctor; a role that involves offering technical support and advice to all local composters, whether it’s home composting, community composting or master composting training. He’s often out and about giving compost demonstrations and doing home visits.

“It’s about linking it up. You’ve got gardeners, people who want to reduce waste and people who want to compost but they don’t know how to do it,” he explains.

“There’s a lot of multiple-occupancy but still there’s a lot of community space. The interest is there and the sale of compost bins has been steady.”

But driving home the recycling, reuse and waste prevention message is an on-going challenge. The borough has a large transient population, which means that around 12% of the population leaves each year to be replaced by nearly as many new arrivals.

Against this backdrop, Lambeth has expanded the number of local recycling points across the borough to encourage greater participation.

The recycling points take in a wide range of materials -textiles, shoes and toys, small electrical items, used books, CDs and DVDs, and even broken and unwanted garden and household tools, which go to repair and reuse.

Because the council works with a varied network of third sector groups that take the unwanted items away, there’s no disposal cost. Lambeth’s household waste and recycling centre in Vale Street has contributed significantly to the diversion of waste from landfill.

“It’s not just about sticking it in a skip for the council to deal with,” he says.

“There are materials that community groups require for reuse projects such as bicycles. Councils are and are seen as collection and disposal and we need to do something in between to help divert ‘waste’ to become a useful community resource.”

Last summer, council officers pounded Brixton’s high street, side streets and its markets to collect and catalogue information for a Brixton reuse directory. A borough-wide online directory is in the works.

“In the Brixton re-directory, we’ve listed every charity, second-hand shop and repair shop and what they take, as well as local recycling drop-off points for plastic shopping bags to batteries,” he explains.

“This is a good way of promoting what’s in the community and involving the residents and shoppers to help each other to be more environmentally friendly. If the local shops don’t receive these materials, there is a chance that they could close, which has an impact on the wider community.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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