Wheelie bins – Camden’s response

Dear Debby,

Thank you for your letter of 4 November and the comments from the Inkerman Area Residents Association (IARA) concerning the changes to the recycling service and the use of wheelie bins. Sorry it’s taken me a few days to respond, as you know I had to catch up after a belated week’s “Summer” holiday in late October.

You ask what we were doing between May and October (and by implication I think why we were not better prepared with information). Pretty much the whole of the Environment Service was on 24/7 rotas to deal with the impacts of the huge additional numbers of people coming through the borough during the Olympics, and the significant disruption to waste and cleansing in large parts of the south of the borough. I’m pleased that most residents didn’t notice any disruptions to service – that was the point of much of preparation and efforts after all – but for many staff it meant a ban on Summer leave with families and some drastic extra effort, covering weekends and overnight. That did mean we have been less able to take forward preparations for this rollout. However, the current engagement feeds into the project that will finally be rolled out next Summer.

The decision to change the recycling service and use recycling wheelie bins for those properties that can accommodate them was taken at the 18 April 2012 Cabinet meeting. It was not in any way taken lightly, but in recognition that there are two key drivers that we simply cannot ignore.

Firstly, on an environmental front, we must reduce the impact of the waste stream by reusing and recycling as much of this as possible. I sense that this is a shared aim with your members, but that we have not yet made the case that this project will deliver on this agenda. The second driver is that we must deliver the most financially efficient system of dealing with everybody’s waste and recycling. The pressures on the public sector are far from finished and we know that there are significant additional cuts coming to local government finance. You will be more than aware that the Council has already had to make some cuts to services that have been very difficult. It would not be appropriate to be spending more on dealing with waste and recycling than we need to.

Some limited preparatory work on when exactly these changes could take place and the benefits realised was undertaken during the summer in partnership with our service provider Veolia. For consideration were the delivery timescales for the wheelie bins, changes to the IT systems used, the opportunity to bid for funding from Central Governrment (which had set deadlines we had to meet) and re-configuring the waste/recycling fleet.

In order to focus this change on the right properties we commissioned a wheelie bin assessment for properties north of the Euston Road earlier in the year– effectively a view of whether properties can physically accommodate wheelie bins. This was from the same organisation that assisted on the introduction of recycling wheelie bins in Southwark and more recently Haringey.

The feedback that we are now getting back from the questionnaire and community groups will be used to clarify exactly which properties are to receive wheelie bins when the new recycling service starts.

Just to give you an early snapshot from the first 1,000 responses (we have over 4,000 so far and it’s still rising) the biggest single barrier to recycling is that people feel that they currently did not have a big enough box or container (37%).

37% (also) said they would like the smaller version of the wheelie bin and will therefore be getting this size in July.

It’s good to hear that IARA residents feel that they already recycle as much as they can, but it’s clear that many residents do feel constrained by capacity and this fits with the picture from other places.

Incidentally, our analysis of the Camden “waste stream” suggests that 70% of it is recyclable, and it’s certainly not the case that many residents hit those sorts of levels. We would be happy to work with IARA members to see if anybody has really reached such fantastic levels, such champions deserve praise!

The wheelie bin study identified approximately 20,000 Camden properties as able to accommodate wheelie bins and as a result we have been contacting residents at those addresses about bin options and general recycling information. We also contacted a number of community groups across the borough including IARA so that we could also get views from broader context rather than just on an individual basis.

It was not intended that the community groups would complete the questionnaire, our intention was to make you aware that the exercise was taking place and to invite feedback from you as an organisation. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

The detailed data gained from the surveys and the more extensive information from the community groups will help us plan the container implementation strategy and the way we provide recycling communication and engagement work in the future.

I have commented on the main concerns you raised as they are listed below.

1.  The environment.  About 90% of Inkerman Area is a Conservation Area.  People care strongly about the appearance of their streets, and many people have chosen the area at least partly because they like the way it looks.  The scale and appearance of the streetscape is important to us.   Wheelie bins are hideous.

I won’t suggest that wheelie bins are a visual asset by any means, and as you know we’ve done a lot of work in Camden in trying to make sure that the public realm is protected and improved – our Streetscape Design Manual for example.

I’ve had similar concerns raised with me in the past about a range of things, from yellow lines to zebra crossings, to traffic lights to…well pretty much everything. These objections all have some truth – the visual impacts are undeniable – but the counter argument is whether these things serve a useful social function. I would argue that with wheelie bins we have one of those cases in the impact that this has on recycling levels.

I would note that we have previously had grumbles about the array of receptacles currently used, so it’s not as if there is no visual impact now. Arguably there is some merit in having more uniformity, and having fewer containers. I note that one of the points raised by a member is that of single occupancy households generating less recycling. I think we would suggest a shared container in that case where neighbours can agree.

In passing, I do think we have a shared cultural blind spot now about a significant visual impact from something else (arguably far more visually significant than wheelie bins), in our collective acceptance of the impact of parked cars.  It’s worth reminding ourselves that most households in the borough do not own a car, so the benefits accrue to a minority and yet we accept their impact on the public realm, in fact it often feels as if we barely notice it. It’s striking what we can get accustomed to.

Wheelie bins deliver a public good (more recycling) to balance against the visual impact. I won’t argue that there is not a visual impact, but it should be taken in context.

2.  Size.  The case for larger bins has not been made – or certainly not to us.  A number of residents have pointed out that the present arrangements are adequate for the amount of recycling they generate.  Even many of those who do not object to wheelie bins per se do object to the proposed sizes and say that even the smaller one is too big for bin shelters.

Thanks in part to your feedback we are now putting together stronger pieces setting out some of that evidence for groups and residents to consider – but we don’t have that fully drafted yet.

Where boroughs have introduced wheelie bins recycling rates have been recorded as increasing significantly.   According to a Local Government Association (LGA) poll in 2009 the use of wheelie bins as part of kerbside recycling services increased recycling rates. The report states recycling increases from authorities across the country that implemented wheeled bins as part of service improvements such as the introduction of new materials or moving to fortnightly collections, including:

•           Burnley 12% to 33%;

•           Mansfield 4% to 38%;

•           Worthing 25% increase;

•           Hastings 18 to 27%;

•           Bexley 37% to 50%;

•           Watford 13% to 41%, and;

•           Harrow 9 % to 43%.

Some recent feedback also from residents in Enfield:

•           84 % were either very satisfied or satisfied with the new refuse and recycling

•           64% thought their street was cleaner following the new service

•           86% agree that ‘That wheeled bins have allowed me to recycle more.

This is just a snapshot and we will circulate the wider case as it is completed.


3.  Selection of streets.

The surveying officers had to determine if a 240 litre wheeled bin could be located at each property without causing access issues for residents or collection problems. This meant being able to accommodate a bin that was on the property, not on street, and which did not block access. If the majority of properties in the street were able to have wheelie bins then the road was identified as suitable.

Incidentally I note the concern that wheelie bins on street will impact on ability to get past. There is no intention to store bins on street, and in terms of footprint the bins are no larger than the current green boxes.

4.  Practicalities and cost.  What savings will there be if there have to be different collections for wheelie bins, green boxes and garden/compost waste

There will be no increase in vehicles, in fact with the change to mixed recycling there will be an overall reduction in the number of vehicles used for that element of the service and associated savings. There will be one vehicle for the dry recycling (paper, card, plastics, glass, cans, food and drink cartons), one vehicle for the food and garden waste and one for refuse.  The refuse and food and garden waste services will continue as they are now with no change. The annual saving to the Council will be at least £330,000.


5. Residents are not opposed to mixed recycling collection; they are opposed to the imposition of wheelie bins without consultation or a proper explanation.  We think that, given your previous indications, we had a reasonable expectation of a proper consultation and the actions of Camden at this stage may well therefore be unlawful.

It is of course your prerogative to take any advice you see fit, but I don’t believe that there is any matter of law around consultation in play here. However, the more important point to me is the one you have already made about the adequacy of explanation. We know we need to get residents on-side and we haven’t yet managed that.

I take the point about how some people feel but I think there may be an unrealistic view of what consultation should be done. We never meant to consult on the principle of introducing a system of wheelie bins, and I don’t think I ever said we would. We have looked at the evidence of what works, environmentally and financially, and that’s not a matter of consultation. However, I agree that what we have not yet managed to do is to share that evidence – to explain – adequately to convince you. This is what we are now compiling.

What we are consulting about is where there is flexibility – preferences on colour to feed into a final decision on a single colour for the borough, and what size each household would like.   Views are being sought on the proposals from over 200 local groups. Not every Council would so consult.

We have worked on the assumption that residents will want to participate in something that increases recycling. However, as Councillor Jones has said in a recent email to you, if individuals wish not to have a wheelie bin then they can let us know at recyclingiseasy@camden.gov.uk, but we would ask residents to think carefully about this given the social and environmental benefits.

As a way forward from here we will be preparing the more comprehensive evidence base for sharing with you, and we will be happy also to share the emerging consultation results on what proportion of residents indicate that capacity is a limiting factor. However, what I would also suggest is that IARA consider taking us up on our offer of a meeting. I think that it may help to talk these issues through. We are, as Council officers, dedicated to providing the best service we can and with a very strong policy commitment to minimising environmental impacts and to delivering services efficiently and at low cost. There are real reasons behind what has been decided by the Council, this is not a decision taken lightly.

On the following pages are some responses to some of the more detailed points made, that aren’t already covered by the letter above.

I trust this is useful and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Sam Monck

Assistant Director Environment & Transport

London Borough of Camden