Malcolm Gilloch, fleet operations officer at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, points to the large street map sprawled out on the table and coloured lines drawn along major arteries and minor roads. Each line denotes the waste collection routes during the London 2012 Olympics.

“Stratford is only a mile and a half up the road,” he says. “We’ve got the Olympic routes running through and we are obviously facing the challenge of maintaining services during this particular period.”

True, the greatest sporting event on the planet may finally have descended on London’s East End but for Tower Hamlets’ residents, life goes on as usual, not least the business of waste collection.

Yet with the world’s gaze firmly on London, expectations are running high, not only in terms of how successful the city will be in delivering the Games but also on wider issues such as transport, hospitality and even waste handling.

Images of streets littered with overflowing wheelie bins are unlikely to bolster the UK’s environmental credentials, especially after the promise that this will be the world’s first truly sustainable Olympics.

But in Tower Hamlets, one of the host boroughs, a revolutionary approach to waste collection offers an alternative to wheelie bins, taking refuse disposal both “out of sight” and also arguably “out of mind”.

Popular on continental Europe where the population is generally more proactive on waste and recycling issues, and certainly more prepared to give up time to act responsibly on disposal, underground refuse systems (URS) are a relatively new phenomenon in the UK.

Tower Hamlets pioneered the use of underground units for waste collection in 1999 when the first bins were installed in social housing. Since then, URS roll-out has gathered pace, and later this year the council and its housing association partners plan to extend collections to take in mixed recycling materials.

According to Gilloch, who joined Tower Hamlets in 2004 and oversees the in-house URS collection service, the decision to install the bins first came about after the council received Government funding to modify and update its housing stock.

“There was an opportunity to look at new developments in refuse collection and the borough pioneered the European-system of containing rubbish below street level rather than having loose wheeled bins,” he says.

While a number of bin providers install URS across the borough, the lion’s share have been provided by Plastic Omnium Urban Systems/Sulo, which first became involved in 2006 when the French-owned company began replacing existing units from a previous supplier with its own Iceberg Optima system.

“We work with a number of organisations, offering installation, maintenance and internal and external cleaning,” explains Alan Craddock, the company’s project manager.

“Our main client is Poplar HARCA housing association and there are currently 190 URS in use by local residents which are typically positioned outside high-density social housing or outside privately-owned apartments.”

As Craddock explains, the underground units come in three standard sizes – 3, 4 or 5m3 containers, which translate to 3,000, 4,000 and 5,000 litres of storage space.

Clustered in one area or scattered across a housing development, Craddock argues that one of the major advantages over conventional over-ground bins is space.

“One of these units will store up to 5,000 litres of waste whereas a standard four-wheeled bin will only store 1,100 litres,” he says. “The number of collections is greatly reduced.”

Space-age in appearance, the above ground “columns” have a secure “night-safe” opening that enables residents to drop the waste down into the underground containers.

“Aesthetically, they look like high-quality street furniture rather than a four-wheeled bin,” he continues. “Also, with the underground unit, it’s completely self-contained, so you benefit from no unsightly over-flow, minimal smell, and you don’t have issues with vermin.”

Gilloch concurs that it’s “a cleaner system” but adds that there are practical issues to consider. “You can’t get some of the really bulky items into the containers and so there is a limitation on the size of the item that you put in,” he explains. “We do find that people prop their boxes against the underground bin.”

The URS’ unique design also means that the council requires a specially-designed vehicle to collect the rubbish.

Essentially a remodelled RCV, the state-of-the-art vehicle includes a substantial crane-installation behind the cab and specially-adapted hydraulic equipment on the crane tube, which are used to lift the unit columns, together with the walk-on plates and underground containers, out of the ground.

Lifted over the rear of the RCV by a hand-held remote-controlled device, the container bottom is then opened and the waste deposited before the units are placed back into the ground.

“The vehicle needs access and we need space to put the stabilisers down to run the crane,” explains Gilloch, who emphasises the importance of siting URS in locations where the RCVs have easy access. Still, resident parking can be an issue.

“Often, we have to abort a call because we can’t get in; we can’t manoeuvre or reach the bin,” he says. “We have a policy of not lifting over cars.”

Surprisingly, the service only consists of two fully-trained crews, each manned with a heavy goods vehicle driver, a certified crane operator and a third member who acts as a look-out for the driver while the bins are being manoeuvred.

Most URS are emptied once a week, regardless of whether they are full or not, although some locations receive a twice-weekly collection. The service has grown over the years from only a couple of hours each day to a full 35-40 hour week operation.

“Just to cope with the volume, we are looking at possibly running two vehicles certain days of the week to keep up,” says Gilloch, who adds that with the Olympics now on, it may even be necessary to run two crews “six days a week if necessary” to maintain the schedule.

The service is also about to see a major upgrade with a new specially-designed vehicle now in operation.

Designed to handle both underground containers and wheeled bins, the vehicle can be used to collect either mixed recycling or domestic waste.

“We are converting a number of the existing units that are currently used for household waste to collect mixed recycling materials,” explains Craddock. “We are changing the colour and adding new labels to prepare them.”

While the long-term plan is to adapt URS on existing locations to take both waste streams, any new developments will be built with both bin types installed from the outset.

Linked to this, Plastic Omnium is also looking to conduct a trial that will enable residents to unlock the URS units and place recycling inside with an access control card; the idea being to prevent contamination by unauthorised residents or passers-by.

Neighbouring local authorities Hackney and Newham have also shown an interest and visited Tower Hamlets to discuss the merits of URS.

Having overseen the collection system for eight years, Gilloch is well-placed to share the lessons learned. He has some interesting insights.

“We have had estates where they’ve very neatly laid out their 12 bins but the units nearest the main route in and out of the development seem to take the most refuse,” he says. “There is an imbalance been usage and the anticipated usage of the bins.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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