York 'spring clean' sweep on household waste
Faced with tough decisions on its waste collection and disposal, City of York Council has increased community engagement to improve recycling, as Nick Warburton discovered on a trip to the historic city
Back in March, York Press newspaper reported that the City of York Council risked missing the European Union's new household waste and recycling targets and would have to fork out an extra £372,000 to get rid of its rubbish.
True, the local authority's current recycling rate of 46.4% is only a few percentage points short of the 50% recycling targets required by the EU by 2020, but the reality is that the last few steps will not be easy.
Take into account the year-on-year hike in landfill costs, significant cuts to spending and City of York Council's unique circumstances and some very tough decisions will be needed going forward.
At present, the historic city sends just over 50% of its waste to a single landfill site at Harewood Whin, near Rufforth, on the edge of York.
Nearly a fifth of this material (18%) is food waste that in theory could be diverted to anaerobic digestion (AD) or in-vessel composting (IVC). That is if there was an existing, nearby facility that could accept this material.
"We are slightly on the back foot because infrastructure in this part of north and northeast Yorkshire is very few and far between," explains head of waste and fleet services Geoff Derham.
"We are very conscious that we don't want to be spending a lot of time shipping materials at great expense to both fuel and the environment."
As Derham points out, the region's large quarrying industry has enabled councils to landfill much of its waste in the past.
However, as landfill costs have risen year on year, local authorities across the region have been driven towards cheaper, more environmentally acceptable alternatives.
In York's case, this includes increasingly the volume of dry recycling sent to its materials recovery facility at Hessay. For the more difficult materials, another option is a large incinerator, which is planned for Allerton Park to the west of the city.
Unfortunately, Defra's announcement earlier this year that PFI credits would not be available to fund the facility has thrown the development into doubt.
"Our nearest facilities if we don't get Allerton Park built are 51 miles south and 57 miles north and that's twice as far as Allerton Park, which has massive implications for us in terms of transport and logistics costs," explains Derham.
Faced with this dilemma but also determined to find a local, alternative disposal route for its residual waste, especially the food component, the City of York Council is exploring a number of options.
Back in 2006, it introduced a free garden waste service that helped increase overall recycling rates significantly. This material is currently brought to an open composting site at Harewood Whin and one solution could be to introduce a separate food waste collection and combine it with the garden waste.
However, this would mean sending the material to either IVC or AD and with no existing infrastructure within easy reach of the city, York would have to invest in a new facility.
With the council expected to trim £12m off its total budget in the latest round of cuts, this is clearly a significant challenge.
"Certainly in face of those cuts we have to think very strategically long term about what we want to do with our waste," explains councillor David Levene, cabinet member for environmental services.
"We are a small unitary authority trying to do a lot of work in terms of both collecting and disposing of waste. If you look at the London boroughs, it's much easier for them with their tri-borough arrangements to go in for joint processing facilities."
In the past four years, the council has worked hard to improve the efficiency of its waste services, reducing its operating costs by £1.2m. Yet, there is a limit to how much spending can be squeezed without affecting existing service levels.
Increasingly, the City of York Council is focusing on community engagement to encourage greater recycling.
While some of this work is about introducing new materials that residents can recycle, without increasing infrastructure costs, a major focus is getting people who have access to the recycling scheme to make greater use of it.
In some areas of the city, recycling rates are hitting 90% levels. Elsewhere, however, participation is significantly low and barely scraps the 20% mark.
As a response, the City of York Council has been targeting local community groups, schools and colleges to spread the message that recycling their rubbish is important.
Local "champions" have been recruited to encourage the wider community to recycle more. Officers have even knocked on doors in areas where recycling rates are at their lowest to try and influence behaviours.
During May, the council also rolled out a "spring clean" campaign, which included a road show that visited two areas of the city with particularly poor recycling rates - Tang Hall and Westfield.
As Derham points out, the road shows are family orientated and the aim is to draw on the enthusiasm of the younger generation to influence the behaviour of the wider community.
"You've got kids in their twenties and younger who have grown up with recycling and you've got my parents' generation which had to do it due to austerity during the war and the post-war years," he explains.
"Then you've got this generation in the middle, which grew up in the Seventies and Eighties as a very much disposable society. We need to get those two ends of the generations to influence the people in the middle."
Arguably more important, it's about encouraging local residents to be less wasteful in the first place and to reduce their overall consumption levels.
As Derham observes: "One of the key targets I certainly look at isn't about our overall tonnage or our recycling rate, it's how much waste is produced by individual households across the city because that's a really good indicator to show us whether waste minimisation is working or not."
Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR