Westminster takes waste solution to the streets
The central London authority is unique in the challenges it faces managing its waste and recycling. Nick Warburton reports
As any waste and recycling manager will be only too aware, a one size-fits-all-approach to kerbside collections is simply not practicable.
Councils need to design services to reflect their own local circumstances and meet the needs of both residents and businesses.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of dedicated officers, the past decade has seen a massive surge in recycling rates in many local authorities.
What's more, an increasing number of councils have also started to look at how they can improve recycle-on-the-go solutions and bring sites to push recycling rates even higher.
As a major focal point in the UK capital and an international city that entertains millions 24/7, Westminster City Council arguably stands alone among local authorities in terms of the diverse range of issues that it grapples with.
Managing the huge tonnages of waste and recycling generated by local residents and businesses, not to mention over 1 million daily visitors, is a gargantuan challenge, and one that is complicated further when the boundary between the household/business and public spaces becomes blurred.
No other council, for instance, has got such a high proportion of its waste that is comprised of street litter. Just the sheer volume of free newspapers that are brought into and circulated within the borough by commuters and residents every day requires meticulous management.
"That's why we have so many on-the-go bins and the free newspaper bins to capture it because it's such a large stream," says Westminster's waste & recycling manager Phil Robson.
Not only does Westminster have to contend with the huge footfall of daily commuters and tourists and the challenges that they present but it also plays host to major events - everything from the London Marathon to New Year celebrations and from Royal events to demonstrations, all of which place significant demands on street cleansing services.
On top of this, Westminster also has to grapple with the unique challenges presented by local residents and businesses.
In particularly busy areas such as the West End where there is a high density mix of commercial and residential streets, Westminster needs to provide over 20 kerbside collections a week to manage the volume of waste and recycling generated.
With a population churn of a third each year, many of whom are wealthy, temporary residents, services have to reflect these unique circumstances.
"One of the challenges is that we door-knock people and you don't do it face-to-face," explains Robson.
"You do it to an intercom. Then you are communicating with a gatekeeper - a porter, a managing agent, a concierge, a cleaner who doesn't necessarily speak English. You are not communicating with the producer of the waste."
Of the 121, 000 households in the borough, nearly 90% are comprised of flats while of the remaining properties very few have a front garden or any means of storage.
To further compound matters, only 37% of residents have access to a car, which means visiting a household waste and recycling centre isn't a viable option.
Because space is so finite, the council has had to design services so that there are daily kerbside collections and capture points extend beyond the household/business to accommodate on-street facilities.
This is especially important in a borough where it's impractical to provide an alternate weekly kerbside collection and source separation is out of the question.
With 20% of household waste ending up as street litter, Robson says that it is vital that the local street units encourage residents with limited waste storage to dispose of materials in the correct stream.
"Residents will come out, walk to the tube station, the bus stop or wherever they are going and they will deposit their waste within a couple of hundred metres of their dwelling every day of the week," he says.
"People want recycling services; generally they are very positive about upcycling; they just don't want the bins outside their homes, so we've got to make the street units as attractive as we can."
Working with Taylor, Westminster has recently installed almost 100 container housing units at various points across the borough.
"With the street units, we're aiming to make recycling a more attractive proposition, integrating waste containers into Westminster's street scene, make recycling more accessible for and appealing to those in flats and improve the quality of public engagement points with waste," explains Robson.
Providing this additional service is vital in a borough where household recycling rates are poor - Robson says they fluctuate between 23-25%. Only 7% of Westminster's waste is sent to landfill; the bulk of its residual waste is transported to two energy from waste plants in London.
However, with recycling targets from the Mayor's office to meet and the disposal cost for residual waste escalating, driving up recycling rates is the cheapest option long-term, especially at a time when public funds need to be used wisely.
"It is spend to save because we need to encourage much greater participation and capture of that recycling stream," says Robson.
But it's not just about maximising the volume of materials collected. It's also about the quality, which is another reason why Westminster has linked up with Taylor.
The council has 160 bring sites across the borough to support doorstep collections and were using standard brass padlocks to secure the containers.
"We were finding that overnight someone would go round and snap of the steel element on the loop and we might lose 70-80 padlocks a night," says Robson on the metal theft.
"We wouldn't necessarily find direct contamination but because people would come up to the bin that had no padlock, it is then much easier to contaminate."
Working with Taylor and its waste contractor Veolia Environmental Services, Westminster successfully trialled a new Slam-Lock device, which has been specifically designed to lock automatically on closing, eliminating the need for any additional external locking system and saving the council valuable costs.
Over the coming months, Westminster plans to install the new locking system to 2,500 waste containers with a wider roll-out expected later in the year.
As Robson points out, the system supports the council in its wider efforts to reduce waste across the borough.
"It's really important in the long-term that these locking mechanisms work properly. With such a big on-street presence, it's a key part of our positioning."
Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR