Oxfordshire councils drive to recycling summit

Shared working through a joint waste contract has pushed South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse DCs to the top of the recycling table, discovers Nick Warburton

There’s an old joke in the recycling community that goes, “You can take the horse to the leaflet but you can’t make them read it and understand it”.

In trotting this out, Matt Prosser, strategic director for South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse district councils, goes some way towards explaining why the authorities have become trailblazers in the world of local authority recycling.

“Undoubtedly there’s a pre-disposal to recycle and ability to interpret communications here,” he says. “In relative terms, we’ve got an affluent population, educated and articulate, and we’ve worked with them to find a system they like.”

While he acknowledges that the councils don’t face the recycling challenges seen in more deprived areas, such as inner cities, it’s unfair to put the success entirely down to its affluence.

Three years ago, Vale of White Horse’s recycling rate was a very poor 36% while its neighbouring authority, South Oxfordshire was only marginally better at 40%. It has been the transformation to a current combined recycling rate of 68.5% that really impresses.

As Prosser explains, it was a corporate decision to share services between the neighbouring district councils that paved the way for the new recycling collection and a joint waste contract with Verdant, subsequently bought out by Biffa, that has enabled the improvements to happen.

“One of the advantages of going to a shared contract was a chance for us to bring a step change to the collection methodology all at once,” he says.

“We did a lot of background work looking at the reports and statistics at WRAP around what are the drivers for changing behaviour. It’s about getting people to recycle and reuse rather than putting things straight in the bin.”

As with most success stories it came down to keeping things simple, not only for the residents but also for the two councils and the contractor.

Rolled out first in South Oxfordshire in July 2009 and then in the Vale of White Horse in October 2010, the new collection service comprises a 240 litres wheeled bin for commingled dry recycling, which Biffa picks up alternate weeks with a 180 litres wheeled bin for black bag waste.

The commingled dry recycling collection takes in cardboard, glass, plastics, film, Tetra packs and batteries with plans to introduce a pilot doorstep WEEE service in the next few months.

On top of this, there is also a weekly food waste collection with a 23 litres caddy and a paid for, opt in garden waste service, available in another 240 litres wheeled bin.

“We are nearly at the holy grail of 70%,” he says. “We have a corporate plan target in both councils to be one of the top 10 councils nationally for recycling. We’d like to hit 75% but we know it’s probably going to take more effort to get from where we are at 69-70% to 75% than it has been to drive us from where we were when we started.”

Prosser explains that they would probably be hitting the 80% mark if they offered a free garden waste service but it’s not a financial decision the two councils want to make.

The relationship with Biffa throughout has been pivotal in driving up recycling rates. The two councils work constantly with the contractor to look at ways to improve services further.

The contract also contains a bonus scheme to incentivise Biffa to promote the recycling service. Each year they jointly agree a marketing promotions campaign, which the contractor delivers.

“What we didn’t want to be in a position of was – they don’t achieve their targets, they don’t get their bonus and they criticise us for not doing enough marketing promotions. Why not let them do it?”

Since rolling out the new collection service, recycling rates have soared. They’ve also been significant improvements in service efficiency. In part, this is down to the route optimisation software provided by Whitespace, which has enabled the councils to map out the most economic routes and share RCVs to cut costs.

Whitespace also provides on-board cab technology for bins that are not presented at the kerbside with a live feedback to its call centre. This enables the local authorities to keep track of missed bins, which Prosser says are in single figures per 100,000 households.

But the real gains arguably have come from the contract. “I know the industry doesn’t always like competitive dialogue as a process because it’s quite costly for those who are tendering and it can be quite detailed,” says Prosser.

“But I think for us it was really helpful because we were then able to take the best ideas and at the final stage when we were down to the last two or three companies just say, ‘We need you to come back on these suggestions. What do you think will work best?’ We’ve got a contract that works.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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