The following is a short history, largely from my perspective, of household waste recycling since the early 1980s. It highlights the role of community sector groups, which, in recent times, has often been over-looked and the leading role of some local authorities.
By the 1970s, the throwaway society had arrived along with supermarket retailing and convenience food. There was little recycling of household waste but growing concern about environmental issues and the growing waste from modern lifestyles.
The start of modern recycling
The first bottle bank in the UK was launched in 1977. This followed Friends of the Earth’s (FoE’s) bottle dump on Schweppes in 1971 and a decline in the use of returnables. Save-a-Can (1982) and paper banks followed, as did the start of modern kerbside collections.
Until the early 1970s, up to half of local authorities collected waste paper, many using trailers towed behind refuse trucks (1). But these stopped as small local paper mills shut and the trailers caused safety concerns.
Bristol City Council were amongst the last to stop their paper collections in 1980. Bristol FoE challenged the decision and agreed to take over the collections using three tipper trucks given to them by the Council. As described in one of my older reports, the collections expanded under the umbrella of Avon FoE and with job creation funding through the Youth Opportunities Programme and then the Community Programme (2).
Community sector recycling collections also took off in other areas, including Brighton, Cardiff, Eastbourne, Middlesborough, Milton Keynes, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Portsmouth, Stafford, Tavistock and Walsall (2).
The community collections asked for paper to be put out in bundles, tied with string, or in bags and some also took bagged cans and rags. Tipper trucks and vans were commonly used for collections, with some using second-hand milk floats and horse and carts were used on some rounds in Bristol.
Local authorities became active on recycling again in the 1980s, with notable officers initially being Jeff Cooper in London and Geoff Wright in Leeds. The first with the job title of recycling officer was Pete Mansfield, who was appointed by Richmond-upon-Thames in 1985. Jeff focused on recycling skips at what were then called Waste or Civic Amenity Sites (now Recycling Centres) and Geoff and Pete focused on recycling bring banks in car parks.
The Community Programme was ended in 1988 and most of the kerbside collections established came to an end. A notable exception was Avon FoE, who, led by Dick Perry, Jane Stephenson, Andy Cunningham and Andy Moore, were able to continue in a much leaner form with other funding support and guaranteed prices from a local paper merchant (Clarfield Limited, owned by Nick Francis).
More local authorities appointed their first recycling officers, who included Lewis Herbert in Cambridgeshire, Sarah Wild in Oxfordshire and Colin Kirkby in Cardiff.
FoE had become increasingly active in recycling, including through the UK 2000 Projects Unit launched in 1986 as part of a government initiative working with a number of community organisations and chaired by Richard Branson. FoE’s flagship project was a partnership, called Recycling City, which was sponsored by BT and worked with industry groups and four selected local authorities. Recycling City was established by Trewin Restorick and I took over as National Co-ordinator in 1989, when Blue Box kerbside collections were launched on the outskirts of Sheffield.
Also in 1989, a community group, Wyecycle, launched their new collections for a range of dry recyclables in a small village in Kent, uncompromisingly led by Richard Boden, who later told me that he had been initially inspired by my 1987 report for Cambridge FoE (2).
Several local authorities launched their own kerbside collections in 1990, including Bury, Dundee and Leeds (working with SWAP, then managed by a former member of FoE’s Projects Unit, Chas Ball) and Milton Keynes (3).
Government legislates for recycling
1990 brought significant opportunities. The new Environment Protection Act required collection authorities to produce Recycling Plans and disposal authorities to share their savings from waste diverted to recycling through credits. A government White Paper on the environment, This Common Inheritance, introduced a poorly defined target to recycle half of recyclable household waste by 2000. A later clarification claimed (falsely) that only half of household waste was recyclable and so the target was to recycle 25%.
More local authorities launched new kerbside collections, including Adur (working with packaging companies), Cardiff (as the second Recycling City and building on a community sector scheme), Kensington and Chelsea and Sutton. And I joined the growing ranks of new recycling officers, first in York (1990) and then Bath (1992).
Bath City Council had established a partnership to fund Avon FoE’s monthly collections in the city and was keen to achieve the 25% recycling target, which had been set by the city’s MP, Chris Patten, when Environment Secretary.
In Bath, following a series of trials in 1993, we developed the stillage system for kerbside sorting. I proposed the use of bespoke stillages, which we had seen used for comingled collections in Cardiff, and sized and designed their layout with vehicle bodybuilders, alongside Andy Cunningham from Avon FoE. The new collections won the first national recycling award at the 1994 LARAC Conference and we hosted visits to view our collections and responded to enquiries from many local authorities and community groups in the UK.
Once proven, the Bath stillage system was widely adopted within a resurgent community sector, with many groups starting to work with and under contract to local authorities. This included ECT Recycling in West London, which was ably managed by Andy Bond, Rhona Coutler and Steve Sears. The stillage collection system was also copied by several private sector providers, including SITA (now Suez).
Kerbside sort collections with boxes and stillage vehicles had lower capital costs than alternative comingled (mixed recycling) collection systems using wheeled bins, heavy compaction vehicles and central sorting systems; but the kerbside sort collections were also more labour intensive and physically demanding on collectors.
Avon FoE and especially ECT Recycling picked up a growing number of local authority collection contracts and other groups established themselves in their areas, such as Emerge in Manchester, Mid Devon Community Recycling and South Molton Recycling in Devon, Newport Wastesavers in Wales, Camden Community Recycling and Islington Waste Savers in North London, and Bryson Recycling in Northern Ireland.
Waste management companies also gained more collection contracts, with some favouring comingled collections with higher capital investments but lower labour costs. It could be easier to increase the productivity and return gained from a capital intensive approach, which could also be less challenging than managing a larger workforce.
In October 1996, a Landfill Tax was introduced as the UK’s first environmental tax by the Conservative government. Initially, the standard rate was £7 a tonne and £2 for inactive waste. The standard rate increased to £10 in April 1999 and an escalator introduced to increase it by £1 each year until it was £15 per tonne from April 2004. From 2005, the escalator was increased to £3 per year, and, from 2008, to £8 per year, until the standard rate was £80 per tonne in April 2014. This took the total cost of most landfill, with tax, to over £100 per tonne, and the Landfill Tax has been increased by inflation every year since.
Landfill Tax proved to be the strongest driver to increase recycling in the UK and, once the £80 tax was in sight, to also increase the incineration of waste with energy recovery.
As a result, over the late 1990s and 2000s, recycling became a mainstream service for local authorities, with a wide variety of collection methods in place, based on the use of sacks, reusable bags, boxes or wheeled bins.
In 1999, the first Beacon Councils were launched by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to share best practice, which for “dealing with waste” were Bath & North East Somerset, Bexley, Project Integra in Hampshire, Hounslow, St Edmundsbury, Stockport and Wealden.
Fortnightly refuse, food waste and community sector decline
During the 1990s, a few local authorities tested alternating fortnightly collections for recycling, organic waste and refuse. Castle Morpeth started a small trial in 1993 (alternating organic and refuse) and another trial in 1997 (alternating recycling and refuse). Eastleigh in Hampshire launched a trial in 1996 (alternating recycling and refuse) and successfully rolled out the service borough-wide in 1998. Daventry ran another very successful trial in 1998 (alternating organic and refuse), which was rolled-out district-wide in 1999. The recycling rates achieved by the alternating collections were significantly higher than achieved by others with similar services but without the fortnightly refuse collections.
In the early 2000s, more local authorities adopted alternating fortnightly collections and found big benefits from increased recycling and resultant savings on refuse collection and disposal.
Also in the early 2000s, interest grew in collecting garden waste for composting and a few service providers started to consider the potential of collecting food waste. Some collected food and garden waste together, but, when doing so, the main contribution appeared to come from the garden (4). Two of the first to collect food waste separately in the UK were the Isle of Wight and WyeCycle. The Isle of Wight only collected 15kg per household served per annum, whereas WyeCycle achieved 72kg with just a third of the 1,000 households covered participating (4).
Through a project I managed, Avon FoE secured funding from the SITA Environmental Trust for trials to test different methods for collecting food and garden waste in Bath & North East Somerset in 2001 (see reports 1987-2003), but we were initially delayed by restrictions on the separate collection and processing of food waste that were introduced following a serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Avon FoE’s project had been prompted by the quantity of food waste found in refuse from composition studies and a realisation that home composting would only divert a limited amount. Another key driver was the European Landfill Directive, which required big reductions in biodegradable waste sent to landfill and for Member States to consider setting up separate collections.
Not long after, ECT Recycling also launched collection trials for food waste through the Organics in West London (OWL) project, which started in November 2002. I understand these followed a study tour to view food waste collections in Italy organised by Dominic Hogg of Eunomia.
Statutory recycling targets were set for local waste authorities in 2003/04 and 2005/06, which encouraged most to improve their services; but some also to chase recycling tonnage apparently regardless of the net benefits. A few appeared to pay little attention to reject levels of contaminants at their MRFs or whether it was the best option to provide free garden waste services, when home composting had greater benefits and a charge could be made for collections.
In April 2003, I joined Somerset County Council to work with Somerset Waste Partnership (SWP) as Recycling Development Officer. In August 2003, Avon FoE sadly went into receivership and their collection contracts, including for four Somerset districts, were taken over by ECT Recycling.
Soon after I joined SWP in 2003, a big opportunity arose from the third round of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA’s) National Waste Minimisation and Recycling Fund. I contributed to SWP’s application to improve recycling collections throughout Somerset, including to introduce new food waste collections and fortnightly refuse collections in three districts, which was successful with one of the biggest awards of over £6m.
Good results had been achieved by the earlier food waste trials in Bath & North East Somerset (30-50 kg/hh/yr) and West London (35 kg/hh/yr), although still not as good as achieved by WyeCycle in their small collection area. I was confident more would be achieved by collecting food waste weekly alongside a new fortnightly service for refuse.
SWP were the first to roll-out separate food waste collections on a large-scale, starting in Mendip and South Somerset in 2004, as part of our new Sort It service, with weekly recycling and fortnightly refuse. It was instantly a big success, with recycling rates doubling and refuse halved. Taunton Deane followed in 2005 with the same result.
The average district-wide food waste yields achieved were 83 kg in Mendip, 89 kg in South Somerset and 96 kg in Taunton Deane (all per household per annum).
Initially, refuse fell less in Mendip (being 20% higher than in the other two districts), which was attributed to the larger 240-litre refuse bins already used there. 180-litre refuse bins were introduced as the standard size in other Somerset districts, which had used refuse sacks prior to the introduction of Sort It.
In 2005, SWP won a number of awards for the new Sort It and separate food waste collections, including the best local authority initiative at the National Recycling Awards, which were then part of the LARAC Conference. Again, I found myself, this time with SWP colleagues, hosting numerous visits to view our collections and responding to enquiries from many local authorities and community groups in the UK.
WRAP took an interest in Somerset’s food waste collections and I was invited to give a talk to their Rotate team in April 2005, which was followed by a visit to view our collections in September 2005. In 2006, WRAP started to promote and provide funding for separate food waste collections, which have since been adopted by many local authorities in the UK.
The financial crisis and credit crunch in 2008 was a turning point, that had a growing influence in succeeding years.
In 2008, ECT Recycling got into financial difficulties and were taken over by May Gurney, who themselves were later taken over by Kier. Other community sector recyclers have also fallen in recent years, including Mid Devon Community Recycling in 2009, WyeCycle in 2013, South Molton Recycling in 2015; but EMERGE continue in a different form and Bryson Recycling and Newport Wastesavers have continued strongly.
The decline of the community sector should be a cause for regret, especially after it’s contribution to the emergence and growth of recycling in the 80s and 90s. There may have been many factors involved, including lack of financial strength and overly tight margins on contracts, bad luck, the loss of a pioneering spirit as recycling became mainstream, and local authorities and procurement rules becoming challenging gate-keepers to new contracts. Hopefully, necessary lessons have been learned by those that remain.
The community sector employed many good people, who were keen to improve recycling and try new things. Thankfully, many have found good homes to continue their work in the wider recycling world, and some of the original spirit lives on. And, as stated, some of the community sector still continues and some of their enterprises have moved forward in new ways, such as Resource Futures and Resource Media.
New solutions needed to increase recycling
From the late 2000s, austerity was starting to bite, with local authority funding and government support for new recycling initiatives reduced. At the same time, waste managers had to suffer political attacks led by Eric Pickles (Conservative Party chairman and with responsibilities for local government), who claimed we were acting like “bin police”, forcing hard-working families to use slop buckets and failing to provide a weekly service to remove rubbish. Eventually this died away, but the campaign caused unnecessary public doubt about the value of recycling.
From Somerset’s perspective, the fuss was mostly uninformed nonsense and national political posturing. Our weekly recycling and food waste collections, with a fortnightly refuse service, were accepted by most people and the extra recycling welcomed. We undertook satisfaction surveys throughout the county, which showed that 75% of respondents thought our Sort It service was better than previous arrangements and only 5% or less thought it was worse. Local Conservative Councillors were frustrated but could do little to stop the attacks from Pickles and national newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.
Rather than just making cuts, one response to austerity was to seek to do more with less. Somerset had already showed one way forward by combining officer teams and having a local authority partnership to award and manage contracts. This seed had been planted long before austerity during a best value review in the early 2000s. The original Somerset plan was to improve efficiency by joint planning of county and district functions as well as saving money through joint services. However, when new efficiency savings were needed, the Somerset partnership became a model for others to follow, but the savings had already been banked in Somerset and so new responses were needed. These included reduced opening hours at Recycling Centres, some site closure or entry fees, charges for non-household waste, such as building rubble, higher charges for garden waste collections, the closure of our education programme (SWAP) and savings on our staff budget, including one redundancy and letting other staff or vacancies go.
During the coalition government from 2010, support to advance recycling largely stopped and English recycling rates started to plateau, despite the ever-growing costs of waste disposal, which could be avoided by increased recycling. The only positive developments were weak requirements on reporting from sorting facilities, moves to increase consistency and common materials for kerbside collections and welcome aspirations to move towards a circular economy from the European Union.
Showing that more is possible, the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland continued to actively support recycling and, as a result, their recycling performance has overtaken the stagnating levels in England. By 2015/16, Wales had one of the best recycling rates in the world at 60.2% and was still improving, beating England on 42.4% (see: Recycling – Who Really Leads the World; Eunomia, 2017).
With continued austerity programmes and local authority funding cuts, recycling communication budgets have commonly been reduced. In Somerset, on top of the loss of our education team, the waste partnership’s communication budget was halved and halved again (a cut or saving of about 75%) and we had also lost funding support previously available through WRAP and the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme. We did the best we could with funds remaining and it may not have had a significant effect on support for recycling, but it also signified lower importance being given to recycling and restricted our ability to test and build on new methods to reduce waste (which could also save on long term disposal costs).
Despite the setbacks, progress continues, especially with improvements to design, techniques and technology. Two of the most interesting developments in recent years have been the Romaquip Kerb-Sort collection vehicle and trolley boxes, which were inspired by Eric Randall at Bryson Recycling, working, respectively, with Romaquip and Straight. The Romaquip vehicle and trolley boxes are both shown in photos on this page, with some further comment.
A positive result of austerity has been a willingness to consider what may have been regarded as challenging but still worthwhile solutions, such as 3 and 4 weekly refuse collections.
There had been suggestions for some time that the frequency of refuse collections could be further reduced, especially with further improvements to recycling services. In Somerset, we started to seriously consider less frequent refuse collections in 2013, along with other service improvements to increase recycling. After some delays, we launched a trial for three-weekly refuse collections, alongside other options, in 2014, which was the same year Bury, Falkirk and Gwynedd rolled out their three-weekly refuse services. I understand that the first UK authority to trial less frequent refuse collections was Banbridge District Council in Northern Ireland, who started in January 2014, but it was not continued following local government reorganisation.
Now at least 15 local authorities in the UK have adopted 3 or 4 weekly refuse services (see: reports 2003-17). I have contacted many of these and all report that most households manage fine with the new collections and that they have increased recycling and reduced disposal costs, allowing significant savings.
Another progressive option which has been resisted by politicians in the UK, although it is common in other developed countries, is for ‘pay as you throw’, so households are charged for the amount of refuse they put out for disposal. Studies have shown this can be very effective at encouraging householders to avoid waste and to recycle more.
(1) Christine Thomas (1981) – Recycling Opportunities for Neighbourhoods and Communities; Alternative Technology Group Paper, Open University
(2) David Mansell (1987) – A Waste Recovery Project for Cambridge; Cambridge Friends of the Earth
(3) David Mansell (1992) – Recycling Plan for Bath; Bath City Council
(4) David Mansell (2001) – Study of Kerbside Collection Options for Organic Waste; Avon Friends of the Earth
The history above, as the title implies, is partial. It focuses on the kerbside sort or multi-stream approach to recycling collections, which, according to WRAP statistics, were operated by 22% of local authorities in England in 2016/17. 35% operated two-stream collections and 53% operated comingled collections. The situation was similar in Scotland but in Wales, where the national assembly has adopted a collections blueprint, 59% of local authorities provide multi-stream kerbside sort collections.
A WRAP report shows the English situation had changed from 2008/09 when 45.6% of local authorities had kerbside sort collections, 25.8% had comingled, 10.5% two-stream and 18.0% other scheme types. In Wales, at the same time, 73.4% of local authorities provided kerbside sort, 6.7% comingled, 13.4% two-stream and 6.7% other.
The choice of collection systems has been hotly debated over the years. Some, but not all, waste management companies have tended to prefer comingled. The community sector strongly preferred kerbside sort. The Resource Association, representing UK reprocessors, favours kerbside sort but prefers to focus on the importance of material quality, although has recently called for a ban on the collection of glass co-mingled with other materials. Different consultancies have appeared to favour all three approaches. Local authorities have also favoured different approaches and often stick with the choice they have invested in already. Clearly, there has been a trend to move to comingled and two-stream collections, but there are some recent reports of a few now moving to kerbside sort. WRAP attempted to come to an objective view in a 2009 report and, as a key factor, noted the quality of materials from kerbside sort is higher. WRAP concluded “that kerbside sort systems offer reliable material quality and lower net costs for council taxpayers”, which are “capable of capturing the same volume of material as co-mingled schemes”. Also that “there is no evidence that their operation – properly explained and justified – is unacceptable to householders” and that “there appear to be no unmanageable health and safety considerations”.
The reports page on this website provide some information on two stream and co-mingled collections, but, if interested, in these methods, other sources should be sought.