Mike Webster, London Community Resource Network

The UK’s waste and resources sector is now entering a new phase of maturity – a multi-billion pound industry employing thousands and recognised as a vital component of a future circular economy. But what was it like at the beginning – say 40 plus years ago when recycling and reuse was something promoted by a few lone voices against a majority that saw nothing wrong with landfilling most of our waste, and littering was more acceptable?

I have recently returned from a trip to the West African states of The Gambia and Senegal. Whilst in the Gambia, I was privileged to spend some time with Isatou Ceesay, founder of a revolutionary community recycling project, the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG).

Since 1997 she has been working with communities across the tiny west African state to address not only the environmental impact of unregulated waste disposal but also to provide income to what now amounts to over 100 women. She has hit that elusive sweet spot, providing jobs and livelihoods but also improving the environment.

Her mother thinks she’s mad. Why should she want to spend her life dealing with other people’s rubbish?

Well, she saw what those around her couldn’t – that the population was surrounded by ever growing mountains of waste, with a pressing environmental health need for better management of domestic waste, currently dumped in unregulated landfill or burnt in round the back of the house.

The impact of unregulated waste is manifold and well understood – from the environmental impacts on localised water pollution, disease associated with the blocking and flooding of drains, to the effect on air quality of uncontrolled burning of waste (largely plastic) and the impacts of landfill gas from uncontrolled landfills. This is before the visual disamenity of uncontrolled landfills is considered – important to a country like The Gambia where tourism accounts for around a fifth of GDP.

Isatou’s concern is primarily for those that deal with their own waste, and help them to do it better. Her key aim is to stop the burning first and foremost, leading with a message of waste prevention, particularly focussing on plastic, followed by promotion of reuse and implementation of recycling schemes.

The uncontrolled burning of plastic must be considered one of the great environmental health hazards of our time. It’s associated with a number of extremely harmful pollutants, from carbon dioxide, which affects mental function, to dioxins and furans that cause cancer and affect immune and reproductive systems, to volatile organic compounds that cause cancer and respiratory illness, as well as contributing to asthma.

In short, it’s a public health nightmare.

As our discussions unfolded, the fundamental urgency of her mission became clear as many of the municipal services taken for granted in the UK (including basic waste disposal) simply do not exist here outside of a few urban areas. It is entirely down to communities to deal and manage with their own waste. This is a common story across the developing world, with around 3 billion people living without any formal waste management system. The impact on health, environment and quality of life is unmeasurable.

But what does one do in a country where there is very little waste disposal infrastructure, let alone recycling infrastructure? Well, you create your own.

And in their four communities, NRIGG have developed entire life cycles for a range of common materials. They devised their own separation system, with organics, paper, plastic, metals and glass and developed, where it can, its own end markets.

Home composting training is given to those communities where schemes are set up, answering a demand for cheap, high quality organic fertilizer.

And then this is where the livelihoods aspect comes in. If a scheme couldn’t be set up in a way that weren’t self funding, and didn’t provide income for those that are managing them, then, with no outside support it just wouldn’t happen. So jobs are as important as the environment in it is to be sustained. There are some existing end markets for metals and these are separated and sold to traders, but with everything else, Isatou has had to come up with ways of turning the materials from waste into wealth.

Plastics are separated and stored to be up-cycled into everything from robust, long life bags, mats, purses. Rubber is turned into necklaces. Old cassette and video tapes are even woven into purses. This is combined with other non-waste activities, including honey production, production of waxes, creams and batiks. Even though these are non-waste associated, they support the women who can then continue to deliver and manage the recycling schemes.

These are also combined with a range of other saving schemes that help the women plan their incomes throughout the year, save for the 3-month “hungry gap” at the end of the year, when family farms aren’t producing, and develop their business skills. Sustaining community recycling schemes is perhaps the hardest part.

But challenges remain. If the scheme could grow to such a point where containers of material could be bulked and passed on to the global market more material streams could be developed. Somewhat strangely it seemed to me, the major problem waste stream faced by NRIGG was how to deal with glass. In the UK, glass has always been considered perhaps the easiest of all materials to collect, but with no local end markets and a lack of scale to access global markets, it is a problem in the Gambia. This perhaps points to the need for small to medium scale technologies that can reprocess such materials – a gap in the market?

The other challenge is that of a comprehension gap by those who could otherwise help. The Gambian authorities seem  disinterested in delivering services outside a few tourist areas, with a focus on clearing material and dumping it in poorly regulated landfill, unaware of the massive economic and employment benefits associated with greater recycling. In a country where the average annual income is US$512, the economics of labour intensive sorting and reprocessing are surely more favourable?

And this is a scheme whose time has come. The need for better waste management is pressing, as urban populations grow, incomes increase and waste arisings grow, change, become harder to deal with and present a greater health risk. Plus there are jobs in it.

But the pioneering aspect is both the opportunity but also the challenge – once Isatou has convinced her mum, she still has to persuade an indifferent government and public. But it’s an exciting time – this is the start of something that can only grow.

So, how can you help? Resources to upscale are now vital. A vehicle to transport more materials, equipment to increase tonnages collected, even a larger sorting area and workshop are all needed.

If you’d like to help out, or get involved, drop me a line.

Mike Webster, mike@lcrn.org.uk                                                            London Community Resource Network

By Alex Murray, Community Coordinator for Collect Your Old Bed

In these days of modern recycling and effective council collection arrangements, we’d like to think we’ve moved on from the days when stained old mattresses lay dumped and discarded on street corners.  However, since 1 April 2014, more local councils across the UK announced plans to join those already charging their communities for bulky waste collection, leading to increased concern about fly-tipping in areas where disposal is needed, but can’t be afforded at local council rates.


From Free Collection to Fee Collection – it’s no April Fool!

There’s no standardisation of costs for bulky item removal across the UK.  Some councils which have been charging for a considerable time already put their prices up on the 1st April, whilst others, such as Luton council have replaced their free service with a £25 charge for up to three items.  Similarly, Wychavon District Council moved from offering a generous free collection service (two collections per year, per household) to a fee-required collection service.  Other councils, such as Eastbourne, have expensive charges of £50 for up to 3 items, in order to subsidise continued free collection for local pensioners.

What is bulky?

The term bulky item tends to cover those large household items which households may have trouble taking to local landfill themselves.  These include mainly furniture items such as:

  • Mattresses
  • Three piece suites, sofas and armchairs
  • Shelving units
  • Dining tables and chairs
  • Bulky bedroom furniture such as wardrobes and dressing tables
  • Electrical appliances such as fridges, freezers and washing machines.  Most councils offer completely separate tariffs for the collection and disposal of electrical items.

Big costs for bulky items

The costs for removal vary considerably between councils, based upon priorities, available resource  and things like the sprawl of the households they serve, and therefore fuel costs to reach them.  Understandably charges tend to be slightly higher in more rural areas, but by offering more items to be removed for the money can encourage neighbours to work together and cut costs for themselves and the councils.

For example, in the high peaks area of Derbyshire, the minimum cost for bulky item removal is £22 for up to 5 items, whilst in Wychavon the minimum cost is £19 for pick up and disposal of up to two bulky items only.

Some residents and their local politicians have expressed concern where councils are now charging for bulky item removal, fearing a resurgence of fly-tipping, the careless dumping of items in residential areas.  In many cases this may be the case but fly-tipping nationally does not appear to be on the increase at present.


However, for others, these new fees could end up benefiting many, including those households looking to dispose of their items, as where responsible (but low-income) households might previously have taken up free council collection, they may now seek free alternatives which fit ethical environmental and communal codes, such as:

Charity Furniture Shops

More and more charities, such as the British Heart Foundation and many local hospices and their related charities now have charity shops which deal solely in furniture donations.  As such, they offer a free collection service for suitable items and allow households to recycle their unwanted bulky items in a charitable as well as environmentally-friendly way.

Community Charity Collections

Similar to the charity collection services where your donated item ends up raising funds for the charity are the charity collection services where your donated item is passed on to a family or individual in need.  Many charities working with the homeless and disadvantaged arrange free collections and pass on items straight to families who are starting from scratch to create a home.

Freegle / Freecycle

Already a hit in the UK, Freegle is a nationwide group-based method for passing on a variety of household and garden items to others who might benefit from them.  It works at local community levels to put people offering items as available in touch with those needing them or by posting a request for items needed and seeing if anyone has one to give away.

Private Collection Companies

Many local areas also offer a growing number of private companies who run collection services for those bulky household items; including specialist collection companies for particular items, such as Collect Your Old Bed a newly formed business focused on the safe disposal of mattresses and bed frames or high street companies that will collect your old appliances to recycle when they deliver the new one.

Despite the obvious jokes about the 1st April launch of fees for councils’ bulk item collections across the UK, there’s a sense of black humour about whether council-run schemes will prove viable in the long-term and how the new costs will affect local households and communities in terms of the choices they make, particularly with such ready access to free and eco-friendly alternatives.

by Alex Murray, Community Coordinator for Collect Your Old Bed

By Phil Gibbs, Director of Pure Planet Recycling

Due to extensive media campaigns and advice from our local Councils, we should all now know to take our broken electrical items to a local recycling centre. You know, the place we used to call the “Tip” where we threw away items and didn’t think about where they ended up? In the case of that broken old vacuum or kettle, up until a matter of years ago, it probably ended up buried in the ground.  So now when we place that item into the container at the recycling centre, what happens to it and where does it end up?

The local recycling centre will store the broken/old electrical items in a large container until completely full in order to move as much as they can in one go. Transporting waste is both expensive in terms of money and C02 emissions, so a larger load moving fewer miles is the preferred option. Once the container is full it will be transported to a specialist recycling facility. In the world of electrical waste recycling this is known as an Approved Authorised Treatment Facility (AATF).

Contained within the electrical items are valuable materials that will help to create new products from the raw materials. The job of the AATF is to separate out these materials and recover them from the products. This is achieved by specialist recycling machinery in an almost automated step by step process.

Firstly electrical items are loaded onto a large conveyor, feeding the equipment into part of the site similar to that of a giant food processor. The electrical equipment crashes against each other within the machine causing it to break into smaller pieces which then come out onto another conveyor belt to be transported to the next stages. Now in smaller pieces the machine has to identify the different material types. Plastics are separated via air currents blowing them in one direction onto a different conveyor whilst ferrous metals are picked off by a strong magnetic current. Batteries and any other hazardous components are handpicked from the line for specialist recycling. All the while conveyor belts transport the separate materials for shredding as the last stage of the process.  As the materials are now in small, separate pieces, the job is done and they end up in separate containers. This can now be transported out as a product for reuse.

This type of specialist electrical waste recycling machinery produces recycling rates around 97%, which is great. They produce clean and segregated material streams such as cable, mixed plastics, precious and non-precious metals. Using these recycled materials for making new products is a lot more carbon efficient than using virgin materials.

Electrical items such as televisions and fridges that contain hazardous materials undergo a separate recycling process. They are still processed by an AATF but not within the same machinery. This is due to the hazards they contain which require separate processing. The end goal of recovering the materials they are made of is the same, just with a different process.

When you next take your electrical items to your recycling facility you are both helping to reuse valuable materials and at the same time helping the UK meet recycling targets. Currently only 1 in 5 electrical items are recycled, we must help to increase this rate. So please take your waste electrical equipment to the recycling facility and help give the materials that they are made of a new life.


Phil Gibbs is a Director of Pure Planet Recycling, an electrical waste recycling company for businesses. He helps promote the benefits of electrical waste recycling in the UK.

Olly Wright, Top10 Programme Manager, Keep Britain Tidy

As the government prepares to unveil plans to cut energy bills by £50, at the heart of the debate over the future of the government’s “green levies” has been the fact that uptake of home energy improvement through the Green Deal and Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) has been slower than expected. A variety of reasons have been presented for this – with critics calling the Green Deal overly complex and even financially uncompetitive – but its relatively narrow range of home improvement options could also be a factor.

At present both the Green Deal and ECO focus on home improvements with regard to heating and insulation, with no provision for electricity-using appliances. While improving Britain’s cripplingly inefficient housing stock is of paramount importance, excluding appliances from legislative incentives ignores the opportunity to reduce a sizeable chunk of household energy consumption.

Lighting and appliances account for 68% of home electricity use (DECC, 2013). Electricity is currently both more costly and more carbon-intensive than gas; a reduction in electricity use, therefore, brings relatively greater financial and environmental benefits.

Watts in the kitchen?, a recent report by Global Action Plan in partnership with the Department for Energy and Climate Change and BSH Group, called for a government subsidy for the most energy efficient appliances at the point of sale. This would help to tackle the main barrier to the purchase of “best available technology”: the relatively high retail price.

While it is not always the case that more energy-efficient appliances are more expensive (or conversely, that cheaper appliances are less efficient), the very best-performing appliances will generally cost more than an average model on the market. But how much more expensive are they? And at what point will they pay for themselves through reduced running costs, with or without a subsidy?

Using the Top10 Energy Efficiency Guide, we compared a top-performing washing machine, tumble dryer, refrigerator, freezer and dishwasher to both a market average model and a “budget” model (a cheap appliance with the worst permissible energy label) to examine retail price and running costs. Overall:

  • A top-performing machine typically costs around 35% more than an average model and is approximately twice the price of a budget model
  • Running costs are almost 40% less than an average model and less than half than for a budget model
  • The top-performing appliances combined would use over 900 kWh less annually than the worst-performing models – that’s around £130 or 25% of an average household’s energy use (Energy Saving Trust).
Comparison of purchase price and running costs of appliances

Comparison of purchase price and running costs of appliances

Assuming a year-on-year increase of 8% in the price of electricity (based on three-year price increases of the Big Six) and no difference in the life spans of the appliances (a generous assumption as cheap appliances will tend to break down sooner), the top-performing appliances would pay for themselves through reduced electricity consumption in eight years compared to the average models, and nine years compared to the budget models. A point-of-sale subsidy of £50 per appliance would reduce that to five and seven years respectively; and £100 per appliance would reduce it to just two years against the average models and five years against the budget models.

The efficiency of appliances has a big role to play in reducing the energy consumption – and resulting bills – of households. Some initiatives, like John Lewis’ move to display lifetime running costs of certain appliances, are a small step towards encouraging consumers to spend slightly more in order to save energy, and money, further down the line. But this option is not open to households on a lower income. Subsidies of higher-end appliances – at the point of sale or through a Green Deal-style loan scheme – would level the playing field and make the associated energy savings tangible to all households.

Simple comparisons such as those above highlight the extent of the role energy efficient appliances have to play in reducing the energy consumption of households. Every household needs to replace its appliances at some point, and buying the most energy-efficient appliances will save energy and money. Appliances represent a fantastic opportunity for the government to stimulate uptake of its incentives for domestic energy efficiency and make real progress towards a reduction in energy use nationwide.

Olly Wright is the Programme Manager for the Top10 Energy Efficiency Guide (www.top10energyefficiency.org.uk). Contact: oliver.wright@keepbritaintidy.org

By: Mildred Ho, Waste Watch

August 02, 2013

WEEE week is finally coming to an end. A huge thank you to our partners and for those who visited our information roadshows! We made appearances at the Asda store in Barking & Dagenham, Romford Market in Havering, High Street in Newham and High Roads in Redbridge and spoke with around 700 members of the public.  All four events went extremely well and we were very fortunate that the rain held off. It was a great pleasure exchanging dialogues and tips on reducing, reusing and recycling Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) with local residents.

It is important for us to reduce, reuse and recycle WEEE items instead of throwing them away with the rest of our household rubbish. If your unwanted items are in working order, why not ask relatives or friends if they would like them, donate them to a charity shop or even swap or sell them online. It might also be worthwhile repairing broken electronics. Just like the old saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

Although we are wrapping up WEEE Week, if you are a resident in Havering, you can come join us and bring your unwanted or broken small electrical items on Havering Small Electricals Recycling Collection Day happening on August 30, running from 10am – 4pm at Romford Market. Click here for more event details.

WEEE items contain toxins including mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium and beryllium which, if thrown in the general waste, can contaminate our environment and cause detrimental effects to wildlife and people. Many of these hazardous materials are neurotoxins and can worryingly get into our food systems.  It is essential therefore that we dispose our waste electrical items correctly and don’t put them in our waste bins.

To locate your closest electronics reuse and recycling centre, simply enter your post code here.


Figure 1 – Our Community Engagement Officer, Siddiq showing off our reclaimed sculpture made with broken computer parts.


Figure 2 – Francesca Morris is a keen 3Rs hero that we met during the Havering Roadshow. Her top tip on WEEE is to reuse connection plugs and wires.


Figure 3 – Event participant and IT- enthusiast, Gavin Wrendre Wilson giving thumbs up on our WEEE displays.


Figure 4 – Fatma Zahraa was ecstatic to learn about the proper disposal of WEEE items.


Guest blog by Toby Lattimore from www.acompostbin.com

What is compost?

Okay, so you want to compost but there are some questions flying around in your mind. Here are some answers which should help.

So why compost? There are lots of reasons to compost, here are just a few;
One of the main reasons why people compost is because it saves them money on growing and garden maintenance and it saves space in their bin. It also helps reduce greenhouse gasses in our environment, and effectively helps reduce landfill.

So how do you start composting? Well have a think about where you’re going to put your composting material. You need a space where you can put your bin. The composting bin can take on a range of forms as it can be plastic or wooden or you can make it yourself from materials with you have lying around.

It is important to remember that a compost bin likes a range of ingredients. You do not want too much of one thing otherwise what you’ll find is it takes a long time to compost down. Also if you use a range of different material in your composting it will have a healthy mix of nutrients for your soil and plants.

What can you put into your composting? Well there are plenty of things. Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you’re looking at what goes into your compost bin is to consider was it once living. If it was then it can be recycled. At this point it’s probably a good idea to not include meats. Meat attracts vermin such as rats and they’ll take it out of the compost bin and soon you will have an infestation.

Here are some great examples of the types of things which you can put into your compost. Think about including paper waste including cardboard, green waste, nutshells, dust from the vacuum, food, hedge clippings and grass cuttings.

A couple more things to remember. If any of the plant matter you are putting into your composting appears to have a disease or any kind of fungus growing on it then do not put that in. Also watch out for any human plastics and try not to add those. You can air your compost bin by turning it with a fork, but also make sure you keep the bin contained and preferably with a lid.

To find out lots more interesting facts about composting, visit our website at www.acompostbin.com

By Julia Roebuck, Waste Watch

LBR Bike repair

Ever taken a bicycle you no longer wanted to your local Re-use and Recycle Centre (RRC)? If so, you are not alone. Bikes frequently end up at the RRCs and although scrap metal is sent on for recycling, the potential for repairing bicycles and getting them back on the road is lost.

Fortunately for east London residents, a new scheme has begun to ensure all bikes taken to any of the four RRC sites in the East London Waste Authority (ELWA) boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Newham and Redbridge are kept out of the scrap metal containers. The ELWA Bike Re-use Programme ensures the bicycles taken to RRCs by residents are saved from the scrapheap and made available for training programmes to teach local young and unemployed people the skills required to repair and maintain bicycles.

Shanks East London, who operate and manage the RRC sites, were approached by the Redbridge Council Smarter Travel Team with the initial idea for the project in 2011. As a keen cyclist, Julie Ward, Travel Plan Coordinator for Redbridge, was frustrated by the number of bikes discarded at local RRCs and hoped something could be done. Julie comments, “after visiting the Chigwell Road Re-use and Recycle Centre and seeing how many bikes were being donated, I was really keen to look into starting up a project where these bikes were brought back to life so that they could be used again.” In February 2012 the first collection was made from Chigwell Road RRC and the bicycles were taken to a bike maintenance workshop at the Salvation Army Church in Ilford. Guests from their night shelter volunteer under the supervision of a bike mechanic and learn valuable skills that will help them to find employment. As a result of the increased volume of second hand bicycles provided through the ELWA Bike Re-use Programme, the Salvation Army has been able to increase the number of bike repair workshops. The repaired bikes are sold back to the community at sales at the church once a month, providing access to affordable bikes for local people and funding to ensure the programme is self-sufficient.

In the heart of the Gascoigne Estate in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, the ELWA Bike Re-use Programme provides bicycles for a monthly bike exchange scheme run by Sustrans, a charity dedicated to sustainable transport. Damaged bikes are repaired by Trailnet volunteers in Essex and transported to the Gascoigne estate for the bike exchange once a month. The scheme has been running for 4 months and the results are phenomenal. Over 60 second hand bikes have been bought or exchanged by residents eager to find a bike for themselves or their children. Due to the success of the project, Sustrans have already identified another two community groups in Barking and Dagenham who are keen to host regular bike exchanges. Christabel Buchanan, Active Travel Officer for Sustrans comments, “The supply of bikes in this way has been invaluable to getting more people out and riding on the estate. Before we had such a great source of bikes from EWLA, we would have never met such a high demand for quality, affordable bikes.”

Finding new homes for the repaired bikes is an essential aspect to all four projects supported by the ELWA Bike Re-use Programme. Guaranteeing the use of the repaired bicycles has been factored into the training at the repair projects in Newham and Havering. For the young people enrolled onto the bicycle repair training at Motorvations, based in Romford, and Stratford City Academy the bike they repair is theirs to keep when it has been completely restored. Motorvations also embed a strict re-use ethos across their programmes, meaning no component goes to waste. If components can no longer be used, they are stored until they can be used in welding, carpentry or sculpture workshops to be creatively transformed into art pieces, planters, desks and more. At Stratford City Academy, bike maintenance workshops are a popular extracurricular activity and run each week. If students repair more bikes than they need, they are sold at local community events to support the enterprise programme.

Through the ELWA Bike Re-use Programme, over 800 bikes have now been saved from scrap to support four new re-use projects in east London, with benefits reaching far beyond waste reduction. Access to affordable second hand bikes provides opportunities for people of all ages to exercise regularly. Getting on your bike and keeping the car parked ensures a reduction of traffic on the roads, an important step towards tackling air pollution in London. Practical bike maintenance and repair training programmes teach local people new skills to ensure unwanted bikes can continue to be saved from the rubbish and put back on the road.

Waste Watch, Keep Britain Tidy (our parent charity) and local government representatives recently came together to listen to local people and work with them to develop solutions to reduce litter and improve the local environment.

Keep Britain Tidy is going through a challenging period of rapid change. Our central government grant has been discontinued and while we have funding challenges, we are hugely optimistic about becoming more accountable to our supporters (and future funders) – the British public.

This process is mirrored across local government as central government grants are cut and power or responsibility is devolved to a local level. We’re rising to this challenge and will have to change the way we work with citizens. This means going from delivering services for people, to working with people to deliver services more efficiently and effectively together.

To kick this process off we conducted a citizen’s jury in Preston alongside our local authority network as part of a project called the Big Litter Inquiry. A citizen’s jury enables people to work with and question expert stakeholders to explore and set priorities (in our case for reducing litter), while developing practical ideas for meeting those priorities.

Sixteen individuals representing the people of Preston and the surrounding area spent two days together, initially developing their expertise and hearing different perspectives on litter before developing those ideas and solutions.

Litter continues to be a widespread issue, especially prevalent in more deprived communities. This is not just a problem for the environment but it also has a detrimental impact on people’s wellbeing and has links to the state of the local economy and costs local authorities close to £1bn each year to clean up.

Participants were shocked by the cost of litter and its environmental impacts, especially on the marine environment. Many people felt that we needed to shift our attention from cleaning to prevention. “Why are we wasting our council tax on street cleaning when it could be spent on other things like education or social care? People don’t understand the cost of what they drop,” one participant said.

The participants also felt more could be done by businesses, for example funding return deposit schemes for bottles and packaging. Finally, there was a clear feeling the government needed to demonstrate more leadership on improving litter and the local environment, especially as it can produce clear local economic benefits.

The second day looked at how priority needs could be developed into practical programmes or campaigns that local authorities and Keep Britain Tidy could deliver.

This included getting kids into good habits through working with parents, formal and informal education and after school activities. Another idea focused on building communities – for example by asking what if local neighbourhoods could win funding to spend on local community projects, chosen by the community for demonstrating improvements to litter in their community?

A second citizen’s jury is taking place in April in Croydon, south London and the ideas will be captured and developed further for local authorities, charities and other stakeholders, such as the police or local health and wellbeing partnerships, to utilise in the future.

The Big Litter Inquiry is only a first step to co-producing solutions and ideas with local people and our local authority partners simultaneously. We would recommend it to any local authority trying to change the way it works with its local citizens and with ever tighter budgets it is almost inevitable for changing the culture of how people and their council view each other and work together.

Most importantly it builds trust, leadership, innovative solutions where they are most needed, and at the same time fun for all involved.

Tim Burns is head of Waste Watch, part of Keep Britain Tidy

This article first appeared in the Guardian Professional.

Hi everyone, I work with Waste Watch in the Our Common Place project working with three estate based communities managed by the City of London. I recently joined a team of volunteer gardeners on the Golden Lane estate to help out an elderly resident with a bit of garden taming.

An elderly gentleman’s view from his flat on the Golden Lane estate on the northern boundary of the City of London was being obscured by some large Buddleia bushes. Tackling them wasn’t a task he’d be able to complete alone and another resident had asked whether or not the Golden Lane Gardening Group could ‘donate’ a few volunteers to help get his garden cleared.  A quick rally round of the Garden Group contacts and we had a team of five volunteers ready to help. After agreeing what we would do with the owner of the garden all we needed were some basic tools and warm clothing to be able to make a start.

The offending buddleia:

Within a couple of hours we had removed any rogue weeds and tamed the buddleia. We decided against actually removing it completely. Whilst buddleia is fairly pervasive it’s actually a very nice plant, which bees and other insects, important to biodiversity in cities, love come the summer when it’s in full purple flowered glory. Secondly, as a gardening group, it seemed wrong to go slashing and burning and removing all visible trace of fauna from the garden. Yes a view beyond the buddleia would be great but you don’t want a view of a concrete yard!

In the end then the vigorous cutting back will promote new growth in the spring and the next few years should see the garden with nice new growth whilst still allowing some sunlight into the flat. We also left a nice ground covering plant which might have been pulled out by more militant gardeners. Again, as it flowers nicely and spreads to cover the rather boring paving slabs, we left it to grow and flourish.

Biscuits were handed round and to finish we planted some bulbs and pansies to add some extra colour from now until early spring.

A few hours work from a few committed individuals was fun and rewarding for those involved. Indeed it was a clear example of how doing good can make you feel good. We’d also made an improvement to one resident’s quality of life. He waved us off smiling and very grateful.

As a result we’ll be exploring the idea of a more formalised ‘buddy scheme’ for the Golden Lane residents. Hopefully more residents can then start sharing their time and skills with others on the estate providing more opportunities for helping each other out. Keep an eye on www.goldenlaneestate.org for more information.

Eric Pickles, on the 22nd November issued a threat to local authorities that if they did not introduce weekly waste collections, funding from his department would be cut. These weekly collections of waste would, however be detrimental to the environment, society and the economy. The argument from Pickles’ has been largely based upon weekly collections being a fundamental human right. However, is Mr Pickles forgetting that with fundamental human rights come responsibilities?

To do so we need to start with the evidence (a term that has sadly been avoided in this debate).

Research by WRAP shows that if we forced all local authorities currently operating fortnightly waste collections to revert back to weekly collections it would result in lower recycling rates – expected to be a reduction of at least 5% in England. The same research shows this would be detrimental to both the economy – and the taxpayer, to  a tune of £530m in total over four years through higher disposal costs and vehicles etc, not including the £250m fund offered by Mr Pickles from the Department of Communities and Local Government as a sweetener for local authorities. Additional research from the Friends of the Earth demonstrates that recycling could provide 50,000 new jobs in comparison to waste disposal.

Overall this is clearly bad for the economy and the environment. But what about the argument for human rights? Human rights are commonly understood as “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”. To enable all people access to fundamental rights we also need to live in responsible ways – I would argue not only that access to a weekly waste collection is not a fundamental human right, but more importantly, it may be detrimental towards fundamental human rights in the UK.

Local Authorities across England are having budgets increasingly reduced and face difficult spending decisions often where vital services are competing for the same pot of funding. This means that vital frontline services provided by councils such as education, social care, support for the elderly, housing provision are under huge pressure and returning to weekly waste collections for local authorities would detract funding from other areas.

People often forget with rights also comes responsibilities. Therefore, based upon a human rights argument, would anyone really put – a weekly collection of waste above ensuring our fellow neighbours receive the care they need if they suffer from a disability or that the elderly receive support to heat their home in the winter?

These are the decisions that local authorities are facing and why they unanimously choose not to reintroduce weekly waste collections under Eric Pickles’ previous £250m fund that aimed do just this. Instead, they wisely applied for funding to improve recycling or invest in weekly food waste collections – beneficial for society, the economy and the environment.

There is another level to this argument which can be demonstrated if we look at food – the key concern of Pickle’s demands for “an Englishman’s right to a weekly collection of chicken tikka massala”.

In the UK, households currently waste over 20% of the food we buy. Weekly household food waste collections are proven to reduce food waste and increase the value from any food leftover. We have all noticed increases in the price of food recently – in fact a recent survey by Keep Britain Tidy showed that 87% of people were concerned today about the price of food. At the same time it is estimated that over 4m people in the UK are struggling to feed themselves and their families as the guardian recently reported in its excellent Breadline Britain series.

Food prices are increasing because of the pressure upon natural resources and the impact of climate change. Therefore if we all wasted less food and recycled more of it, the pressures upon the food system would reduce therefore making food more affordable to people. This is a clear example of how reducing and recycling food can support a fundamental human right: i.e. the right to food.

There is a simple solution to this debate and one we fully support at Keep Britain Tidy. We need to follow the lead of Wales and enable local authorities to introduce weekly food waste collections alongside good recycling collections. The food collected is sent to composting or to make renewable energy from which value is maximised. Leading councils in the UK have already been doing this, alongside weekly fortnightly collections, producing recycling rates of over 70%,  saving  the taxpayer significant money, helping  the environment and benefiting society.


Tim Burns, Head of Waste Watch, part of Keep Britain Tidy.