It’s not every day that a local authority asks its residents whether they are a lemon or lime. But like the marketing campaign on TV with the catch line “there’s method in the Magners”, Sutton Council hit the jackpot with its use of fruit to influence behaviour.

The idea behind the fruit teaser was to prepare Sutton’s 80,000 households for a change to the council’s waste and recycling collection service on 16 April. In practice, this meant that about 40% of residents would get a different collection day while the remaining 60% would keep the same day but be allocated another collection time.

“We came up with the concept of attaching fruit to the day of the week,” explains Sutton’s head of waste management and fleet services, Matt Clubb. “What we looked to do was to come up with a way that would make it easy for residents to remember what day their waste and recycling would be collected.”

The new working patterns came about after the council implemented its Smarter Services Sutton review in 2010 to look at service efficiency. Anticipating the looming budget cuts, Sutton calculated that £1m had to be slashed from its £6m waste and recycling collection service. Local residents, council members and staff were consulted on how best to save costs.

“What was clear from residents was that they didn’t want services affected,” says Clubb. “They wanted to maintain a weekly collection of domestic waste, and the garden waste they wanted to remain free.”

With such strong feelings among residents, the most practical solution was to monitor how Sutton used its fleet. Like most local authorities, refuse vehicles would start at 6am and then return to the depot between 12pm and 3pm, depending on the day of the week, on a Monday to Friday timetable. Rather than use 11 RCVs for a single shift, Sutton decided to introduce two shifts a day from Monday to Friday plus a Saturday morning, dividing five vehicles among 10 crews.

“We looked at using the RCVs for longer periods of the day, so that means we retain staff and there are no job losses,” says Clubb. “It also maintains the services and frequencies as they are.”

With the first crew operating the morning to early afternoon shift and the second crew the early afternoon to evening shift, crews would now operate between 6am to 8.30pm, Monday to Friday, with a new Saturday service running from 7am to 2.45pm.

“This way we could reduce the number of vehicles, which has resulted in a reduction of £500,000,” claims Clubb. “The RCVs cost about £150,000 to purchase and were doing between six and seven hours a day. Instead of using them for 36 hours a week, we are now using them for 72 hours and really working the vehicles harder.”

With changes to collections times, and in some cases collection days, it was essential that residents were ready for the service roll out.

In the weeks leading up to its introduction, the council undertook an extensive marketing campaign that included posting out colour-coded calendars to residents, assigning different fruits for the six collection days.

The week before, refuse collection workers attached colour-coded bin hangers to brown wheelie bins to remind residents about the roll out while the council’s fleet hit the streets branded with posters promoting the teaser – are you a lemon or a lime?

As a fail-test system, Sutton also carried out trial runs in early December and late January to determine the most effective collections times for certain routes.

“We took our existing rounds and started them at 1.15pm,” explains Clubb. “We had loggers on the rounds to see what the pass rates were and the weights of the vehicles so we could compare the same rounds collected in the afternoon with those in the morning.

“The outcome is that the two shifts will both be six and a half hours but the morning shift may have more collections on it than the afternoon because the pass rate is slightly different.”

As well as cutting costs through using the fleet more efficiently, Clubb says the remaining £500,000 savings have also been secured by implementing changes to other services, most notably by increasing charges for the council’s trade waste collections.

“What we tried to do was look at every part of the waste collection, so that one set of people didn’t feel it was just them. We looked at everything,” he says.

“As a service and directorate, we are always looking to reduce costs. We are continually looking for ways to save money and work more efficiently.”

But the new service is not just about cutting costs and protecting staff jobs. Once residents have got used to the new collection times, the council plans to widen its recycling programme over the summer.

At the moment, Sutton provides a fortnightly co-mingled recycling collection that takes in paper, card, plastic bottles, steel and aluminium cans and glass. From May, however, residents will also be able to recycle yoghurt pots, margarine tubs, plastic food trays and Ali Foil.

“We plan to run a recycling campaign in the new financial year, which will emphasise again these additional materials,” concludes Clubb. “Once the collections have settled down, we’ll look at that at the next stage.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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