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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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November 2013

Recycling schemes and value for money

Nigel Tyrell, Head of Environment for the London Borough of Lewisham, gives his views on recycling priorities.

Few would argue against the importance of increasing the amount of waste we recycle. In Lewisham, we are keenly aware of the appetite of some of our residents for more recycling to take place. Additional recycling services are hugely expensive, and it’s only right that Lewisham evaluates the environmental impact and value for money of proposed service changes. At the same time, council budgets are under huge pressure so it makes sense to make sure our limited resources have the most positive impact on our environment.

The EU Waste Hierarchy (shown in this diagram) dictates how councils should structure their services and focus their attention on the activities closest to the top of the pyramid. The importance of individuals producing less waste is obvious. Nationally, of course, recycling is given prominence as most authorities put a high proportion of their waste into landfill, and as these sites start to run out, recycling is a good way of diverting waste. Lewisham landfills less than most other authorities because we divert much of our waste from landfill to our local energy recovery facility, SELCHP (South East London Combined Heat & Power). This incinerator produces energy from burning waste.

There’s also a lot of resident interest in the borough for offering doorstep garden waste collections. How would this rate in terms of value for money and environmental benefits? It would cost in the region of £1.5 million to provide extra bins and trucks to collect garden waste on a weekly or fortnightly basis. This waste would need to be separately collected and transferred to an anaerobic digestion facility, for example, and turned into fertiliser and bio-fuel, which in turn, could run a generator to produce electricity.

So the end result of all this expenditure would be production of the same amount of energy that the green waste would produce if it were taken to our incinerator, only with fewer trucks, bins and traffic.

There are still some net environmental benefits of sending green waste to an anaerobic digestion facility, but it’s arguably better to keep this stuff out of the waste stream altogether and compost it in your own garden.

Collecting garden waste would really bump-up our recorded recycling performance statistics. It would be very popular with some residents (particularly those with big gardens!). The question is, does it represent the best way of using your money to deliver the most positive results.

How many bins? The decisions we rely on others to make

Guest blog by Lydia Le Page

Decisions have been made in our own interests about a host of things around us. How long our street lights are turned on, how many passengers this bus should carry, what food is served in our schools. We hope these decisions are based on sound science and evidence. One way to find out and ensure those making these decisions know they will be held to account is to Ask for Evidence. 

I was interested in the decisions our local councils make about their recycling polices. It seemed to me that conversations about domestic recycling usually consist of comments about how it varies from place to place, how many bins, how many times a week, do I have to take the tops off my plastic bottles or can I throw the whole thing in…

It’s all pretty confusing, so I decided to ask for evidence from ten local councils. I wanted to know how they decided on the recycling polices they used and if they based this decision on any scientific evidence.

It turns out all the councils are trying to reach UK recycling targets set by the EU but there is flexibility to take into account resources available in different boroughs. This essentially means local authorities decide for themselves how they’re going to go about reaching these targets. Some of the councils I spoke to had been in discussion with Waste & Resources Action Programme for guidance on the best way to meet EU targets – and then tweaked these to best meet their unique circumstances, because local authorities are all different. Some are more urban and quite small, and affected by things like glass recycling causing noise (tenement housing in Edinburgh), others are more rural and spread over a much larger area. What might be the best solution environmentally speaking for one area, probably isn’t going to be for another.

Councils did seem both open to testing schemes, and looking into expanding their current programmes. St. Albans trialled a separate collection of cardboard, which turned out to not be cost-effective for the amount of cardboard that ended up being collected given the size and light weight of the material. York is investigating if the collection costs of recycling food waste – currently very politically favourable - will be less than current costs of sending it to landfill. And Westminster have looked into recycling disposable cups, but don’t have the facilities to remove the wax coating on the inside – a necessary process for recycling. Cardiff are even doing ‘scenario modelling to forecast assumptions’ to help with the new EU legislation coming in next year. Oxford noted their kerbside separate collections before 2009 were limited in efficiency (spillage of materials) and labour intensive for the collectors. They rationalised their service to introduce co-mingled collection, and not only reduced the cost of recycling (saving £1.2 million) and improved working conditions for the collectors but saw a drop in the number of complaints from residents about glass on the roads, slow refuse vehicles and noise.

So what it comes down to is a balance between (in no particular order) what is cost-effective, practical, politically favourable, and aligned with residents’ wishes. I imagine different councils put varying weight behind each of these pressures to reach the final decisions on their recycling scheme. There were also very specific pressures for some councils, for example Edinburgh is prevented from supplying boxes to the World Heritage protected city centre housing (using bags instead) and has to apply for planning permission to put recycling banks on the streets.

I got the impression that it was taken as read that recycling was good for the environment. Dacorum Borough council even sent me an article from Popular Science Monthly published in 1919 which promoted recycling and good ways to re-use old items (such as bullets!).

So it seems scientific evidence does have its place in these policy decisions, but we have to understand that there are many other pressures. As long as they are transparent about the process and are prepared to listen to what the public want - and the few councils I’ve spoken with have all been happy to help me understand - then I’m happy.

Ask for Evidence on recycling claims

Update 15/01/2014: Members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee put some of our questions on why there is such a wide variety of recycling policies throughout the UK to Environment Ministers during their inquiry into Waste Opportunities: stimulating a bioeconomy yesterday. Baroness Hilton of Eggardon pointed out that "Every single London borough has a different system for dividing up waste...." Environment Minister Dan Rogerson told the committee "We are absolutely clear that it is a matter for local authorities what is appropriate in terms of collection in their areas."


How often are your bins collected? How many do you have, and what kind of waste goes into each one? What happens to the waste and recycling once it’s been collected? And on what evidence or rationale – if any – do local authorities across the UK base their approach to waste and recycling?

With hundreds of different waste and recycling schemes in place, it’s easy to get confused about where we should throw our paper, peelings and packaging. Looking just at dry recycling schemes on the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) Information Portal, there are 404 schemes in place across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Four hundred and four – by our reckoning there are 434 local authorities in the UK, so that’s some impressive wheel-reinventing.

We haven’t trawled through these schemes to check if that’s 404 different schemes, but a quick glance shows the vast differences between the various local authorities in what they expect households to do with their waste.

You have to wonder about such variation in policy – why does Aberdeenshire accept foil in their recycling but York appears not to? How come Aylesbury Vale District Council accepts cardboard alongside their garden waste, but not food, whereas Harrow will take residents’ food waste with their lawn cuttings but not cardboard?

It isn’t as if waste management is an evidence-free zone – WRAP hosts reports on dozens of trials looking at the feasibility and impact of different approaches, and there are academic studies into how people can be nudged to recycle more. There’s the peer-reviewed literature to draw upon too, with journals dedicated to the (waste) matter – so how much of that research evidence finds its way into the kerbside wheelie bin?

Why should we ask about evidence on rubbish and recycling? Councillors of all parties across the country play a role in how waste is managed, it’s a key function of local government, and it’s right we subject it to some scrutiny. With billions of pounds spent on waste collection and recycling, and councils under immense financial strain, we need transparency on how this money is spent. Further, the way our waste is handled and recycling carried out could have significant impact on our carbon footprint and environmental pollution, particularly with a greater focus on reducing waste and in waste as a source of energy – but unless we know the evidence on which different waste policies are based, we can’t tell whether local authorities are doing all they can to help reduce climate change and pollution.

Perhaps each local authority carefully weighs up the costs, benefits and risks of various schemes, and evaluates randomised controlled trials of the different waste management options available to them to check which ones increase recycling or reduce landfill. Perhaps. Or maybe, decisions about which plastics we can and can’t recycle on a whim. It’s hard to tell, which is why we should all Ask for Evidence.

Ask for Evidence - read before you ask

Claims about what is good for our health, bad for the environment, how to improve education or cut crime appear anywhere and everywhere. Some are based on reliable evidence and scientific rigour. Many are not. How can you tell the difference, and what can you do about it? You can Ask for Evidence.

Anyone can ask questions about evidence, whatever your experience. You just need an inquisitive mind and a desire to stand up for science in public life. The more people ask for evidence, the more companies, politicians and commentators will expect to be asked and feel accountable for the claims they make. If they want us to vote for them, believe them or buy their products, then we should ask them for evidence, as consumers, patients, voters and citizens. If they have good evidence to back up their claim, let's see it - if not, they should be held to account.

How do I ask?

You can email the company, politician, journalist or official body making the claim – these days it’s fairly easy to find contact addresses or forms on websites. You can also use the Ask for Evidence postcard – getting something through your letterbox can stand out more than getting something in your inbox.

What do I ask?

When you Ask for Evidence, ask them about the science behind the claim: What kind of testing has been done (controlled, blinded tests; a clinical trial; lab studies on an ingredient)? What is the mechanism behind the science? Ask about the status of evidence for the claim: Has the research been peer reviewed and published? Has it been replicated? The answers to these questions should give you a good indication about whether the claims stack up.

Be polite!

The scientific process is impartial. You might begin a science experiment with a prediction on what will happen, but you don’t let your preconceptions affect the outcome. Neither should you let any misgivings you might have about a claim colour your ‘ask’. You might find there is suitable evidence to back it up so it’s important to let whoever is making the claim have the chance to show you their evidence.

It’s just as important to applaud the good use of evidence as it is to hold those misusing evidence to account. The Ask for Evidence campaign is about improving the expectation of evidence in everyday life – it’s not going to achieve that if people misuse it and cause a nuisance of themselves.