Student engagement puts curb on street clutter

When a former waste officer at Birmingham City Council hit the streets of Selly Oak to listen to local students, recycling performance dramatically improved. David Cowing reports

Like all local authorities Birmingham City Council has worked hard in recent years to minimise waste to landfill and increase recycling rates.

While recycling rates have improved progressively in Birmingham over the years, the Selly Oak area was underperforming the rest of the city.

There were also problems with waste sometimes being left at the curtilage for several days, causing litter and attracting rats. The problems seemed persistent, so Birmingham City Council sought to establish why it was happening and how the situation could be turned around.

In recent years the University of Birmingham in Selly Oak has grown substantially in size to become the largest in the West Midlands with over 18,000 undergraduates and 8,000 postgraduates. As demand for student accommodation grew, buy-to-let landlords were attracted to the area.

Many of the Victorian three-bed terraced houses have been converted to multiple student occupancy. As a result, the demographic mix has changed to a virtual monoculture of student accommodation. Smurfit Kappa Recycling has a long history of working with the council to increase paper recycling in Birmingham.

Today up to 40,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard collected from paper banks and household collection boxes in Birmingham goes directly to the Smurfit Kappa SSK mill in nearby Nechells for recycling, helping to minimise carbon emissions associated with material transport.

In 2011, the company recruited Jeremy Shields, a former waste officer at Birmingham City Council, to help investigate the root causes of issues affecting Selly Oak and to look for solutions. An energetic champion of recycling, who tours the city on his bicycle, Shields believes two-way communication is essential.

One of the most important aspects of his new role has been to listen to local stakeholders and the student community.

“Two-way communication is essential,” asserts Shields. “Yes, I am educating the student community on practical aspects of recycling and waste management, but listening to their needs and adapting our facilities is proving equally important to improving recycling rates and the cleanliness of the streets.”

It would be easy to stereotype students as lazy and apathetic, but Shields quickly discovered this was far from the truth.

“The younger generations are great believers in recycling and waste minimisation. They really want to make a difference,” he says.

“True, they may not always be the most organised or experienced homemakers, but some aspects of student life make it more difficult to implement recycling good practice.”

The multiple occupancy of student accommodation makes it harder for students to co-ordinate their activities than in a typical family home. Communication can be quite fragmented.

Further issues arise from the fact that students very often leave at weekends to go home, and even more go home in the holidays. Students may change house each year and are unlikely to stay in the area for more than three or four years.

Birmingham City Council operates weekly collections of residual “black bag” waste and alternate weeks recycling. Student premises with collections early on Monday mornings were found to be a problem.

Waste was often put out on Friday while students went away for the weekend, or was put out on Monday but too late for collection.

Recognising this, the council has changed its collection to later in the day on Wednesdays, a simple change which has helped to eliminate cluttered kerbsides.

Shields also discovered that although students were keen to recycle, they needed facilities to be very local as most get around on foot, cycle or by public transport.

Smurfit Kappa brought in a new paper bank at the council’s leisure centre and added to some existing on-street locations. This has already helped to increase paper and card recycling in the area with all the new banks being well used by students.

The community wardens, part of the Guild of Students, have played a vital role. In a further move aimed at improving communication and keeping students informed about waste and recycling services, such as the timing of alternate weekly collections, a hyper-local QR code has been developed, which links to a partnership information project, and can be scanned using smart phones to find local updates.

“The problems we have encountered in Selly Oak are by no means unique to Birmingham, but few places have a higher density of student accommodation,” says Shields.

“Although there is much more to do, we have been able to achieve positive change through better communication with the student community and a combination of practical improvements, which are smartening the whole area and improving recycling performance.”

David Cowing is commercial manager at Smurfit Kappa Recycling

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