Conwy controversy shows how far we still need to go

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

Residents’ anger at the Welsh council’s move to provide monthly refuse collections reveals a lack of public engagement and failure of policy – not just locally, but nationally.

I was too young to remember the Winter of Discontent in the late 70s when widespread strikes across the UK resulted in household waste being piled up in public parks.

But you can bet when a council decides to boldly ‘go monthly’ for its residual waste collection service, comparisons will be made.

Sure enough, a quick scroll of my social media timelines has revealed much public disgruntlement at Conwy County Borough Council’s announcement to reduce the frequency of its refuse collections to every four weeks.

That’s despite the offer of weekly collections for food waste, nappies, incontinence pads, most recyclables including Tetra Paks, aerosols and batteries, as well as fortnightly collections for green waste, textiles and small electrical waste.

Are people really that lazy that they would rather go out of their way to fly-tip their waste than take a few moments to sort most of it into one of those recycling streams – which is right on their doorstep?

Fly-tipping, ironically, would create more of a public health hazard, but as long as it’s out of sight, out of mind, who cares – right?

Maybe you can’t expect too much from a nation that litters, and doesn’t seem to feel that bad about doing so. But that creates its own problems.

Rather than take individual accountability and ‘do the right thing’ when your local council tries to get you to recycle more, some will immediately look to burn their waste or dump it elsewhere.

Over the years, a lack of enforcement by local government on litter, on the everyday items people chuck into bushes or drop onto pavements, has unfortunately normalised such anti-social behaviour.

It will take some tough policy to reverse that trend. Tough policy, supported by adequate, long-term funding. But also education. And I think that starts with having a vision that the public understands and wants to buy into.

Let me explain further. Wales is consulting on a future 80% recycling target for household waste, and in order to achieve that, implementing more monthly refuse collections might well be necessary.

Last month, Defra official Chris Preston reportedly emphasised that the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy will focus more on recycling than on incineration.

For that to happen, a lot of dots need to be joined – producer responsibility reform, stimulation of secondary markets for recycled materials (all types of packaging, not just plastics), perhaps supported by fiscal measures, and a review of current recycling metrics – but also genuine consistency in how waste is collected across the UK, built around material value and, hence, prioritisation.

If only a few local authorities opt to offer a monthly refuse collection service, then that’s quite divisive. Some may be forced to due to the austerity climate, but really we should be thinking about the bigger picture here.

If monthly is the way to go to deliver a circular economy then let’s recognise for that circular economy to flourish, it needs consistency in bin colours, in materials collected, in collection frequency and so on. Basically, it needs to start with a UK-wide standardised collection approach.

We can’t afford to think of the circular economy as a fragmented, locally delivered service, which works in some areas but not in others. We need to start targeting the right materials, not based on weight but second-use value and carbon intensity.

We need to explain to the public why the economy needs those materials returned, and how their standard of living may benefit from this in the long run. We then need to re-engineer our recycling systems and infrastructure around those targeted materials.

This is the vision I’m talking about, and the vision I’d like to see outlined in Defra’s new strategy, with at least an indication of how it could be implemented.

A pathway, if you like, built around goals and timeframes. The public has a clear appetite for action on plastics – and I’m sure we’ll see measures to address this – but there is so much more to go for.

Food waste is the next obvious contender after plastics, especially when food poverty is on the rise in the UK – an issue that could intensify in the lead-up to Brexit.

This thinking goes beyond introducing universal food waste collections (which certainly would be helpful); it’s about moving food up the waste hierarchy for reuse and redistribution where possible, but here the industry could work with those upstream in the supply chain such as food manufacturers and distributors for direct community benefit.

When I next write this column, the Resources and Waste Strategy could have finally surfaced and everything may just fall perfectly into place. Fingers crossed.

Maxine Perella is a freelance environmental journalist

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