Ian Matten, parks and waste manager at South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse councils, is a man who clearly does not enjoy being in the limelight.
“I drew the short straw on this interview,” he tells me ruefully. But if anyone deserves to toot his trumpet, it is Matten.
South and Vale (as the two councils like to be known in their joint capacity) have been in the top three spots of the English recycling league table for the past three years. In November 2014, South Oxfordshire topped the official league table of England’s local authorities by recycling nearly two thirds of its household waste (65.7%), while the Vale of White Horse came third with a recycling rate of 65.3%. It was the first time South Oxon claimed the top spot, after coming second every year since 2009.
These are impressive achievements and I am in the councils’ offices at Oxford’s Milton Park to find out more about the team behind the figures.
Matten admits straight away that his experience of waste services is quite limited, despite having worked for Vale of White Horse Council for 30 years.
“My background is in grounds maintenance,” he explains. “I’ve always looked after the Vale’s parks and grounds, but then in 2010 there was a number of people leaving the council, along with various restructuring,
so I was asked to look after waste as an interim cover and then requested to carry on. I’ve been involved in waste since 2011 and it has been a real eye-opener and a steep learning curve.”
We commiserate with each other over how the waste industry is changing on an almost monthly basis.
“It’s a very complicated industry as there are so many changes,” opines the waste manager. “Plus, everyone is affected by waste in one way or another and there’s always something to get to grips with. On a personal level, and when on my own time, I am inclined not to let people know the area in which I am working,” he adds with a twinkle.
South and Vale offer their 110,000 residents alternate weekly collections of refuse and dry recyclables in black and green wheeled bins, along with weekly food waste collections (indoor and outdoor food caddies) and fortnightly paid-for garden waste collections. “We also offer a bulky waste collection for items such as sofas, fridges and freezers,” continues Matten.
South and Vale councils have a shared waste collection service with Biffa, the councils’ maintenance and waste contractor. The relationship began in 2010, initially for seven years, and is reported to have saved the councils an estimated £1.2 million. Unsurprisingly, the contract with Biffa has been extended until 2024.
“This is a long way off and means we have got nine years’ worth of services ahead of us. This will give us stability and enable us to work closely with Biffa. In fact, we work very well with them and they provide a good service,” states the waste manager.
The contract with Biffa also includes the waste management specialist managing a transfer station, running a dedicated call centre, as well as handling local recycling education and communication activities with South and Vale residents.
What happens to the materials collected by Biffa?
“Our food waste is taken to Agrivert, where it is put through the anaerobic digestion process, and the co-mingled recycling goes to Biffa’s waste transfer station before being transported to their bigger MRF in Edmonton, North London. The residual waste is taken to the new Aardley facility, which we have to call an energy recovery facility,” says Matten with a grin. “This is the first year it’s been opened and it works really well. Our waste is not going on to landfill and everything is running much smoother with a quicker turnaround.”
The waste manager is obviously pleased with the decision to go down the co-mingling route. “We’re collecting good quality materials and, in order to keep the process as simple as possible, we let the MRF do the sorting. Instead of giving residents four to five recycling boxes in which to separate their dry recyclables, everyone puts their items in the bin and it goes to the MRF, where Biffa sorts it out. We’ve done our assessment and found it to work,” continues Matten before commenting: “It will be interesting to see the first authority that doesn’t meet TEEP [Technically, Environmentally and Economically Practicable legislation].”
Customer satisfaction rates highly on South and Vale’s agenda.
“When we decided on the wheelie-bin option and co-mingled route, people raised concerns, but the satisfaction rate from our residents (currently 85%) shows they like the service. We carry out a customer survey every two years, which looks at lots of topics, including waste collection, and we’re very keen to listen to people’s ideas and are always looking at ways of introducing new services.”
Indeed, from 7 September, residents in South Oxfordshire will be able to recycle small electrical items and clothes/textiles that aren’t good enough for charity from their homes.
Matten again: “We’ll collect textiles in separate carrier bags that aren’t good enough for charity, such as torn/worn out clothes, curtains and bedsheets, along with their green bins, while small electrical items like toasters, kettles, irons, hair-dryers, small electronic toys and radios will be collected in carrier bags along with their residual waste bins.”
The waste manager emphasises: “We still want people to send good quality unwanted clothes to charity so others can benefit from them. Our residents are keen recyclers, so we want to help them recycle even more.”
When asked to explain the secret of South and Vale’s recycling success, Matten says simply: “Keep things simple (read that for the operational side of waste collection including the choice of wheelie bins and alternate weekly collections) and communications.”
The latter is something that is taken very seriously by Matten and his team.
A sunny Outlook
“We use all possible methods to communicate with our residents. In the South we produce a magazine called Outlook, which is a good tool, and we also send out leaflets along with council tax information. Then there are bin hangers and bin stickers, and we also promote the service on the back of car park tickets. We try and use as many different mechanisms as possible.”
With a rather wistful note, Matten recalls when the Oxfordshire Waste Partnership was still running. “We used to bounce ideas off each other and join in campaigns in the various districts, and even though the partnership no longer exists – it was felt it had achieved all it set out to do – it has been a real benefit and helped us set up the communication services. There was a cost but it has paid off in the long run,” states Matten firmly.
However, while there is no doubting the level of effort that goes into South and Vale’s communications with its residents, it doesn’t face the same challenges of, say, an inner-city borough with a multi-cultural and often over-crowded population. Matten readily agrees, although he stresses: “The whole service is about communications and on-going communications to keep residents informed and, with people moving in and out of the area, to keep them informed too.”
What does the waste manager think about England’s plateauing recycling rates? And where do local authorities go once rates have reached a certain level?
“That’s a difficult one,” he replies straight away. “The main thing is for manufacturing companies to produce less and fewer components. At the moment, it’s too easy for people to throw things away. How can you force them to stop doing that? Fine them? Are we putting too much food into packets? There is no reason why you shouldn’t have four apples in a packet instead of six. We see a lot of untouched food being discarded.”
Once again Matten returns to the importance of communications: “It’s about educating residents and encouraging them not to buy more than they are going to use. At the end of the day, recycling rates are going to plateau and will get to a point where there is nowhere else to go. Here at South and Vale, we are closer than others to that point.”
What does the future hold for South and Vale’s waste management services?
“We will continue with the service we’re providing – emptying 12 million bins a year – and try to look at ways to increase recycling by introducing new services. We will also be looking at ways to improve the service; for example, looking at different refuse collection vehicles. Essentially, we work in partnership.
“I have a monthly minuted meeting with the Biffa team, but am probably in daily contact, so we work extremely closely together. Directors meet on a quarterly basis with councillors so that everyone is involved at every level.”
After which I leave the parks and waste manager to his day job – something he is clearly very relieved about.