Essex recycling enforcement will have to come with ‘clear strategy’

Chelmsford Council has said it may be necessary to use enforcement to force people to improve recycling rates.

The comments from Keith Nicholson, the senior officer in charge of waste collection at Chelmsford City Council, raise the prospect of the council looking at fines on households.

But he told the city council’s overview and scrutiny committee on Monday, September 21, that such measures would be “tricky” and have come with a “clear strategy and communications plan”.

He added: “The key issue for Chelmsford is there is further scope to the level of non-recyclable waste that is generated by households in Chelmsford –  it is still above the Essex average – but it is fair to say that is more reliant on the attitude of behaviour rather than the system changes.

“There is a challenge there for households to play their part in bringing down the level of general waste.”

Trends in performance for Chelmsford over the last 12 years have shown a steady increase in the amount of waste being diverted to recycling streams.

In 2009/10 around 37.5 per cent of household waste was being put in recycling bins – in 2019/20 this has increased to 53.6 per cent.

In real numbers in 2009/10, the level of residual waste – non-recyclable rubbish – generated per household in Chelmsford averaged 628.65kg. In 2014/15 it averaged 539.26kg; in 2019/20 the average was 420.41kg; a reduction of a third over ten years and a 13 per cent reduction in the last five years.

Before the switch to fortnightly collections of non-recyclable waste in 2016, Chelmsford generated one of the highest levels of residual waste per household in the country.

Mr Nicholson said restricting residual waste capacity is a key factor in changing behaviour and achieving the highest levels of recycling and composting performance. And the most effective way of reducing capacity is to reduce the collection frequency.

The switch to fortnightly collections of non-recyclable waste resulted in a 15 per cent reduction in residual waste levels and a five per cent increase in recycling and composting rates.

However, levels of residual waste generated per household in Chelmsford remains slightly above the average for Essex, which is currently 410g per household.

Mr Nicholson said this was probably symptomatic of the still relatively generous ‘black bin’ capacity in Chelmsford, where 240 litre bins collected fortnightly still largely prevail.

The proportion of waste reused, recycled and composted in Chelmsford in 2019/20 was 53.65 per cent.

This exceeds the original strategy target of at least 50 per cent of material collected being recycled or composted. Ten years ago, in 2009/10, the recycling rate in Chelmsford was 37.59 per cent; in 2014/15 it was 46.16 per cent; equivalent to a 43 per cent improvement over ten years and a 16 per cent improvement in the last five years.

However, Mr Nicholson said that the council is operating at its optimal level and to effectively reduce the amount of waste heading to landfill – which costs taxpayers about £94 a tonne – residents needed to improve their behaviour and increase their own recycling rates.

He added: “There are two elements we are in control of.

“We could further reduce the black bin capacity – and that would have to be carefully considered because it has some other implications.

“The other thing we are in control of is to take enforcement actions for those who are not recycling and that would have to be carefully considered as part of an overall strategy.

“In addition to that we just need to continue with the education and promotion in trying to get the message across to give different ideas.

“We have a new Love Your Chelmsford website which has got a lot of information about green living and opportunities  for people to change their behaviour or do things differently for the benefit of the environment.

“It is more of the same. And gradually with the plastics and using that as an example there is increasing awareness and intent on consumers.

“But they need to be helped by probably legislation – backed changes on the producers and packagers to help get some of the packaging out of the system.

“It is all interrelated. The system changes are going to drive the level of reductions that we want, so the things we are in control of directly.”

He said if the council identifies an individual property that is not recycling then stagg we visit to offer advice and guidance.

“And that is the point I was making about enforcement,” he added.

“There may come a point in the future where if people continue to ignore advice and guidance and persuasion then there might need to be something that is a bit more enforcement-oriented.

“One or two authorities have started to have a look at enforcement. But it is quite a tricky area.

“You want to go into that with a clear strategy and communications plan and being clear what you want to get out of it.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter