Trashy tales: how best to tackle them?

Bugs in bins! Litter snoops! Beware the leaf police! Last year, waste and recycling issues made national headlines like never before, but for the wrong reasons. With its public image somewhat battered, how does the industry plan to fight back? Katie Coyne reports

Peep outside your window at this point in time and you’re bound to see a couple of bin workers being chased by a group of irate householders, or an out-of-control collection vehicle that has been mutinously commandeered by the people.

Failing that you might spot a whole street of “up-in-arms residents” simultaneously ripping out the “spy chips” that have been installed in their wheelie bins by a dangerous collection of “barmy, big brother councils” or “litter snoops”.

And those who haven’t yet witnessed the proliferation of the “super rat” brought about because residual waste hasn’t been collected for a fortnight need their eyes tested … apparently. Well, that is, judging by the waste and recycling stories coming thick and fast from sections of the UK’s national media.

These hyped-up reports might be laughable to informed waste and recycling officers but they can cause huge problems for the local authorities who are “named and shamed”. The regional press, particularly outside of London, also has the ability to deliver devastating blows to local government.

Despite successfully piloting an alternate weekly collection (AWC) scheme in Southampton, the City Council put plans to roll out the initiative on hold. This is despite forecasted annual savings of around £750,000 on implementation.

During the trial period, the local press ran a fierce campaign arguing that the scheme posed a health and safety risk. The issue was given the front page and subsequent seven pages of coverage in one edition of the local paper. The council has not cited press coverage as the reason for shelving the scheme. However this coverage would have placed the authority under enormous additional pressure.

Scaremongering fuels frustration

Frustration within the industry at the popular press and its attitude towards waste and recycling issues is all too apparent. One LA waste manager who contacted LAWR, said: “What gets me is AWC in the UK is the biggest risk to public health since bubonic plague, and direct charging is the work of the devil. Yet on the continent you get the putrescent fraction collection twelve times a year potentially and the nation is healthy and happy to pay for rubbish collection (based on volume not weight).”

So how can those within the industry redress the balance? Catherine Park, communications manager at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), believes that many of the waste and recycling “anti” stories, particularly those run in the middle market press, run to a formula – that of the householder being put upon by their local authority.

“These are often the type of article that these newspapers like to run,” she argues. “Sending in letters in response to these negative stories is going to have limited impact because they want to have negative stories and they have chosen that angle. The challenge for the sector is to get more sufficiently interesting positive stories out there.”

Lee Marshall, chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), agrees: “We have been interviewed and given comment, but these don’t make it into mainstream media. We are quite happy to engage with the national media – if they don’t want to print what we have to say that’s their prerogative. We have just got to try and get our message across wherever we can.”

Be proactive in combat

Marshall argues that unless the industry continues to tackle this press “distortion”, progress made so far in waste and recycling could start to backslide.

“The papers are hyping the concerns of a minority, which can impact on the majority view of our services,” he says. “But our main concern is that people are believing it. Over the past few years local authorities have been putting out new services and more people are using them – this momentum could grind to a halt with this sort of coverage.”

Getting the public to realise that they are part of the problem and the solution would help the industry enormously, argues Marshall. The idea that there is no link between the individuals producing waste and the LA must be challenged. Yet while blaming outside forces, the industry shouldn’t forget that it has made mistakes of its own that should be learnt from.

“Local authorities could have been a bit smarter by telling people that the chips were going [into their bins],” says Marshall. “This was a bit of an own goal, but it wasn’t done deliberately, and many councils did tell residents. Some installed chips for future proofing and are only using them for monitoring.”

By reducing these “own goals”, the industry can help itself. If residents are informed it’s much more difficult for the press to subsequently distort the facts, explains Marshall and in the case of the “spy chips” there would have been nothing to write about.

One way of guarding against this is to make sure the information put out by the LA and waste industry is accurate. For this reason LARAC is in the process of putting together a factual information sheet about the issues involved for local government. Getting facts right is crucial, Marshall argues, as LAs are often rung up by residents querying stories run in the local and national press. This gives councils an opportunity to put across their message, although he points out that this does require extra resourcing.

Gareth Lloyd, director of communications at the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), agrees. He adds that any new scheme that involves getting people to change their routine or behaviour is going to create, at the very least, ripples.

“We are all creatures of habit,” he says. “If we change our system to something else it’s really important that we communicate that as well as we can – that it’s properly communicated in a proper consultation.

“We have got to do our best to communicate to residents not just about why recycle but about any new system, how it works and why it works. That’s the essence of a good scheme – the communication around it.”

And Lloyd points out most, if not all, of the press coverage around recycling has been supportive – it’s the way the schemes are run that have come in for a bashing. The public is interested in waste and recycling, which is a positive point that should be latched onto by the whole of the industry. In terms of public and political interest, Lloyd argues: “We have moved up from the bottom of the pile.”

Link arms for cross-party support

CIWM chief executive, Steve Lee, has urged Defra to produce a co-ordinated communications strategy for LAs, government and the waste industry. He points out: “We’ve done TV and radio and prepared press statements, but we are all acting individually across the industry.”

Defra’s involvement is vital, according to Lee. “We very much hope it’s Defra that holds the ring. CIWM would be happy to help deliver and develop this strategy but would much rather do this with the highest level leadership.”

In the meantime, it might be helpful if some of the more tricky questions were thrashed out nationally. Councils are starting to fine individuals for not recycling or disposing of waste appropriately, but how much stick should be used?

Head of waste and recycling at Essex County Council, Nicola Beach, says: “Personally I think it’s inherently unfair that people who act responsibly by reducing and recycling waste have very little incentivisation. Whereas next door make no effort and pay the same level of council tax – you have to question if there is something wrong there. It’s a resource, just like water and gas.”

She argues that the UK has one of the lowest costs of waste management in Europe and most people aren’t aware just how little of their council tax is actually spent on it. She adds: “The majority of people do their best, but there are a large number of people who unless there is a financial pressure won’t act. Some will act because they want to, some because you make it easy for them and some who won’t act unless you make it costly for them.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. BBC Breakfast won many industry fans for its recent weeklong focus on waste and recycling, which included interviews with LAs and industry figures. And successful implementation of new waste and recycling schemes have already taken place as Vanessa Pye, environmental services manager at South Northamptonshire Council, illustrates.

When her council first started to introduce AWCs around eight years ago negative local press coverage was an issue. Today, however, now residents understand how the scheme works, press coverage is information-based rather than headline news. And as CIWM’s Steve Lee points out: “A third of local authorities have already implemented AWCs without there being riots in the streets.”

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