Introducing Co-Mingled Recycling to Cambridge

Wheelie Bins, Cambridge
On the 13th of January 2009 I attended the Cambridge City Council meeting where a decision was made to go ahead with plans to replace the recycling boxes currently used in homes in the city with a third wheelie bin. This new bin, which will be dark blue, will be able to take mixed recyclables including everything that is currently put in the black and blue boxes as well as additional items including Tetrapak cartons and cardboard. In the council’s jargon this is a “change to co-mingled collection”. Waste collection and recycling are the most important things the council do according to surveys of residents so this major change is critical. The council’s primary aim appears to be to improve the percentage of the city’s waste which is recycled. This statistic, while important, is not one which can be considered alone as it does not account for waste reduction. The headline figure also does not consider the efficiency of the recycling process both in terms of how much energy goes into the separation and how good the end product is for making new things with.

Major questions included:

  • Is a mixed recycling collection the right way to go, does it reduce the quality of the product?
  • Is broken glass a potential problem, are we risking ending up in a situation where we won’t have waste glass collected from homes in the city?
  • What are we going to do with all the existing recycling boxes?
  • How should consultations about if particular streets are gong to get the new bins or not be run?
  • What colour should the new bins be?
  • What is the position with respect to Tetra-Pak recycling?

Public Questioning

A member of the public, Martin Lucas-Smith, addressed the meeting. He used the opportunity open to anyone to speak at council meetings to comment on the new recycling proposals. His main concern was that the officers’ report had not considered potantial negative impacts of mixing the recyclable waste. He questioned if mixing more different types of waste together was the right way to go, or if we should be moving in the opposite direction, with people separating more classes of waste in their homes and the council collecting it in separate streams. Mr Lucas-Smith said that while the council was focusing on the first step of the process, looking at how much recyclable material was being collected, there was also need to consider what happens next – reusing the material to create something new. He expressed a worry that the quality of the recycled material would drop as a result of mixing the recyclable waste. He told the committee he had seen a television documentary on recycling which had urged viewers in areas where there were currently co-mingled recycling collections to ask their council why it was not running collections for separate types of recyclable waste. Mr Lucas-Smith said he would have expected this key point to have been dealt with in some detail by the report yet there was nothing there at all. (Cllr Rosenstiel raised his eyebrows and nodded, indicating he agreed )

In addition to his main point Mr Lucas-Smith asked about the fate of the 65K blue and black boxes currently in the city, he noted that subject being another key point omitted from the report, and he also took the opportunity to say that despite being a Cambridge University graduate he was happy with the choice of dark blue as the colour of the new bins.

Cllr Colin Rosenstiel responded saying

I am convinced co-mingled collections are effective

Cllr Rosenstiel said it was all about the technology, which had now improved to the point where this type of collection was now possible. In particular he said there had been advances in the ability to separate glass from other waste. He tried to make some kind of connection to the economic downturn, saying, that the economic conditions made it even more important that we recycle more. I can’t see the direct connection myself. He focused on the main aim of the current changes, which is to increase the percentage of Cambridge’s waste which is recycled. He also said:

The new scheme will enable cardboard to be recycled, not composted. Composting cardboard has always struck me as a poor use of fibre

The fact that the new bins will, unlike the current boxes, have lids was given by Cllr Rosenstiel as another factor in favour of the scheme as this would he said reduce litter on the streets, particularly on collection days.

Glass Separation

Councillor Knightly drew a comparison with Ipswich, where he said they have a three wheelie bin system but glass is not allowed in any of them. He said the problem was with broken glass in the containers. He was concerned that the problems of broken glass might, in the future, result in glass being banned from the new dark blue bin leaving residents of Cambridge without a collection of glass for recycling from their homes. Cllr Knightly said: “Glass must be collected from homes”. Jas Lally, the City Council’s Head of Environmental Health and Waste Strategy responded to say that the proposed contract stated that glass would be acceptable in the new dark blue bin, and said the contractor had the technology to separate it. Cllr Knightly pressed for more reassurance, asking if the paper would not be rendered useless or difficult to recycle by the presence of ground-in glass. He was again assured that this would be no problem.

The report to the meeting noted that Huntingdonshire already runs a scheme similar to the one proposed, but there glass for recycling is not collected from people’s homes.

I think the council is relying an awful lot on the contractor’s claims and promises. Clearly the situation in Ipswich shows that not all recycling companies can cope with glass mixed with other recyclables, so at the very least by adopting this system the council is reducing the number of possible companies to whom it can sell the city’s recyclable waste. This was not something discussed at the meeting.

Councillors noted that the city produces a lot of glass waste, particularly bottles from alcoholic drinks.

Is Co-Mingled Collection the Right Choice

Cllr Stuart Newbold, the Labour opposition’s waste spokesman spoke to say he was concerned that the council was going against best practice by moving to a co-mingled collection drawing attention to the fact that the advice from WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) was (when he’d last read it) to not go for co-mingled collection. In June 2008 WRAP was critical of system chosen by Cambridge City Council:

The report found that in the current market, kerbside sort schemes are more cost effective for Local Authorities than single stream co-mingled. However, two stream co-mingled collections where paper is kept separate, have similar net costs to kerbside sort schemes.

Co-mingled schemes had generally been thought to be cheaper to run but fare less well when the cost of sorting the material at a materials recovery facility (MRF) is taken into account.

Summing up on the major point of a co-mingled collection Cllr Rosenstiel said that the City needs more streams of recycling in order to increase its percentage of waste recycled. There is a limit, he said, to the number of streams which can be sorted at the curbside. He pointed to the increased automation within the waste industry, particularly within the Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) Facility at Waterbeach which he said had enabled the change.

Communication and Consultation

Another question Cllr Newbold raised was how streets would choose if they wanted the new bins or not. The plan for those who decide to stick with the boxes is that the collection lorry will carry an empty bin, into which the contents of boxes can be emptied before being tipped into the vehicle. Cllr Newbold (and later Cllr Baker) appeared to think that a decision to take the new bins or not would be made on a street by street basis; whereas I had interpreted what had been said and written to mean that individuals could make their own choice. I wrote to Jas Lally asking for clarification, he replied:

We will work with individuals as much as we can, however the consultations will be done on a street by street basis as we know what we collect from where. Once the information has been produced for communication with residents, I am more than happy to share this with you and obtain your feedback, if you wish.

Cllr Newbold also asked how the council planned to reach hard to reach groups, such as those living in flats and the elderly, he said that there was a need to do more than just produce Cambridge Matters Magazine.

Cllr Knightly suggested that placing labels on bins regularly was a good way to communicate with people.

Cllr Herbert supported Cllrs Newbold and Knightly’s suggestions relating to publicity. He suggested that the council should not take the “Lynda Snell” approach (Googleing suggests she’s a character in The Archers) of nagging.

Cllr Herbert wanted to ensure the council carried out real consultations with those on streets in which there will be a choice to be made. He and other councillors appeared to agree that sending a letter was not sufficient. I don’t know what is suggested, perhaps a visit from a council officer? Perhaps councillors themselves might go house to house and discuss the changes with residents on certain streets in their wards? There was little discussion about how to get people who don’t currently recycle to participate, and no comment on if and how the proposed changes would be expected to increase participation.

Waste Reduction

Cllr Wright spoke next to say that the council was not giving the reduction of waste high enough priority, she also asked if the council had considered options such as the on street recycling which had recently been introduced in Brighton. She also asked about the amount of revenue coming from the paper recycling contract, which is apparently lucrative but the consensus was it would not last.

Responding briefly on waste reduction, Cllr Ward suggested there should be laws preventing companies producing tat which falls apart. He tried to use cars as an example, saying there ought be a system of penalties for manufacturers if their cars needed to be scrapped within twenty years of being produced. Cllr Rosenstiel pointed out that his older cars used to rust very quickly compared to modern vehicles.

Cllr Rosenstiel said that the amount of waste being sent to landfill by Cambridge had been dropping, and that was something which really mattered. He said the amount of waste per-head figure was even more impressive.

Tetrapak Recycling

Cllr Herbert was particularly critical of the expansion to include tetrapak saying that the council should not perpetuate the myth of that industry – that it is recyclable.

Cllr Neale Upstone took issue with this, claiming the opposite – that Tetrapak cartons are recyclable, pointing to the fact that it used to be possible to post cartons back to the company which made them. Tetrapak’s own recycling website says that currently the recycling banks in Cambridge have facilities to recycle Tetrapak, these facilities were expanded by the council in December 2008. Tetrapak enables councils to provide such bins at recycling banks at no direct cost to the council.

Neither focused in on the key question which is how will such cartons Cambridge City residents throw away into their new dark blue recycling bins will be recycled. The question isn’t an academic one of what is possible or not, it is about what will happen in Cambridge later this year. There are many processes offering partial recovery of the aluminium and paper elements within Tetrapak, and one Cambridge based company claims to have a process capable of extracting “100% of the aluminium present in the laminate”. The committee were not told how efficient the proposed Tetrapak recycling scheme will be either in terms of energy used for the separation or in terms of percentage recovery of reusable materials from the used packaging. Again this was another key omission from the officers’ report. The report did not contain an overall figure for expected recycling efficiency from the contents of the new bin either.

Old Recycling Boxes

Cllr Newbold proposed that the council ought to ensure that unwanted recycling boxes got collected. The Liberal Democrat proposal is to let people keep them, for whatever use they want such as storing recyclables inside, but to offer to collect them if people want them taken away, this would, according to Cllr Ward provide the council with a stock of boxes to resupply those still using them in the city for many years to come.

Cllr Herbert strongly supported actively collecting the old boxes from those being given bins, he pointed to the fact that Peterborough wheelie bins had been found as far afield as Bulgaria. He appeared to be concerned about the unused boxes remaining on the streets and around people’s properties. Cllr Herbert also suggested the old boxes had a value, saying we’d paid £2.50 each for them. Cllr Ward ridiculed this suggestion, asking who would pay money for them, “other local authorities” suggested Cllr Herbert.

Cllr Upstone said the council ought to consider that residents might go out and buy themselves new plastic containers to use for storing their recycling inside. He said the council ought consider the environmental consequences of the council holding lots of boxes in storage while residents bought new ones.

What Colour Should the New Bins Be?

Cllr Newbold asked what the pros and cons were regarding the light blue bin, he said that he had received representations which were on balance in favour of the light blue colour.

Cllr Ward responded by saying that one of the main arguments against the light blue was the potential effect on the street scene, he was worried about what groups like the Old Chesterton Residents Association might say.

Cllr Knightly stated his preference for the new bin to be brown.

Cllr Rosenstiel had quite a lot to say on the subject of the new bin’s colour. He said it was quite an important decision as they would end up having quite a visual impact on the city. He said the problem with brown was that in much of the country it is used for compostable waste, and given Cambridge’s high turnover of population this would be likley to lead to confusion so was not a good idea.

Other reasons for not selecting light blue included a clash with the colour used for trade waste, for example from Pubs, and the impact on the appearance of streets. Cllr Rosenstiel also said that darker colours where cheaper, due to the fact the colour of the undyed plastic didn’t have to be so uniform and light. He suggested we should not insist on colours which make it hard to use recycled plastic.

The committee took a vote on between dark and light blue, with only Labour Cllrs Herbert and Newbold supporting light blue, with all the Liberal Democrats going for dark blue.

After the vote between dark and light blue, Cllr Ward said he’d have voted brown, an option which he, as chair, had not put to the vote.

Other Comments

Cllr Raj Shah made his only contribution to the meeting asking if it would be possible to split the new bin, and gain some of the benefits of having a wheelie bin while keeping different types of waste separate. The council officer said that this had been looked at, however it was determined to be infeasible due to the extra expense of the required refuse vehicles.

Cllr Herbert described the new system as “Restarting recycling, ditching a system set up only four years ago”.

Cllr Herbert also asked questions about cardboard recycling, and about the costs of the new bins.

Cllr Wright asked some questions about the future, she wanted to know what opting for this system would mean in the long term, asking if the council was tying itsself into one way of doing things. The council officer said that many top performing local authorities were doing what Cambridge is about to do, and pointed to the fact that proposed option was very flexible and as technology improved other items could be added to the list of things which can be recycled in the new bins. The officer described Cambridge’s recycling processes as something which were evolving. Something which the officer said might come in the future was recycling for the City Centre litter bins, perhaps offering tourists a bin into which they could place their coffee cups for recycling.

Cllr Chirs Howell while not a member of the committee attended and sat with the public observing proceedings. Cllr Blair, who is also not a member of the committee, attended the meeting prior to the discussion of recycling for an item about Arbury Park, but did not stay for this item. Cllr Reid, Executive Councillor for Climate Change and Growth was also observing, she was to participate later in the meeting, but had arrived early.

Opportunities to work collaboratively with other local councils in the region were discussed.

Cllr Rosenstiel summed up saying that the new flexible system put the council in a good position to face the future of recycling.

2 responses to “Introducing Co-Mingled Recycling to Cambridge”

  1. I am not alone in wondering where the jokes are. In terms of Cllr Ward’s statements:

    • Was he joking about Cambridge residents drinking lots of alcoholic drinks which come in glass bottles? This is an important point as Cambridge residents want these bottles taken for recycling from their homes.
    • Was he joking about wanting products made more robustly so they weren’t thrown away so often, thereby reducing waste? I think the case for saying we have gone too far down the road of becoming a throwaway society is a good one.
    • Was he joking about the fact he would have voted brown?
    • Is he not worried about representations from the Old Chesterton Residents Association? – He and his fellow North Area Committee members appear to give huge weight to the opinions of that group

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