Guest Column: Lewisham's Domestic Waste Strategy

Nigel Tyrell, Head of Environment, LB Lewisham on smaller bins, reducing waste, encouraging recycling and a new service for disposing of mattresses:

Brockely Central readers will be aware that the authority has been investing heavily in additional waste management services over the past ten years. Although ‘recycling’ is cited as the key activity in relation to sustainable waste management, Lewisham operates within a broader regulatory framework. The Waste Hierarchy (shown in this diagram) dictates how we should structure our services and focus attention on those activities closest to the top of the pyramid.

Naturally enough, our emphasis should be on reducing the amount of waste produced. That’s why, for example, the authority has allocated funds to replace the current 240 litre wheelie bins with smaller, 180 litre bins. We’ll be using most of these old 240 litre bins as containers for residents’ dry recyclables. So the aim here is to increase the amount of waste recycled, but reduce the overall amount of waste collected. We’ve done pretty well with this, over the past few years, the amount of waste produced per head of the population in Lewisham has reduced from 470 kg in 2005/06 to 430 kg in 2008/09. We’ve been encouraging residents to compost food and garden waste at home. Since 2004 we’ve distributed 7473 home composters. We know that this is one of the best ways of sustainable waste management, but this approach can distort how the borough’s performance is measured.

Despite improvements in our published recycling performance since 2002/3 when our recycling rate was 7.3% (latest reported figures for 2008/9 are 20.55%), you will be aware that Lewisham has been compared unfavourably with some other authorities. Recycling targets lump together garden waste and dry recyclables. Of course, some garden waste is very heavy, so if we decided to collect garden waste from the doorstep, our recycling performance would look a lot better. You will find, that if you were to strip-out the garden waste element from apparently higher performing recycling authorities, Lewisham compares very favourably. We’re also not able to include any of the materials that are recycled after they’ve passed through the SELCHP incineration plant such as ash and metal in the first 6 months of 2009/10 - 21,827 tonnes of ash and 1,249 tonnes of metal were recycled. We’re also not allowed to include any business waste figures in our recycling performance, so however many bottles, or however much cardboard we collect from Lewisham shops, none of it should hit our recycling figures.

Nationally, of course, recycling is given prominence as most authorities landfill a high proportion of their waste, and as landfill sites start to run out, recycling is a good way of diverting waste from landfill. Lewisham landfills less than most other authorities. With a landfill rate at around 7% (2008/9) Lewisham currently has one of the lowest rates in the country (compared to elsewhere in the country where rates reach as high as 83%).

It is claimed that having an incinerator in the borough is the key disincentive to increased recycling, but elsewhere incineration operates alongside high recycling rates. Germany, for example, recycles and incinerates a higher proportion of waste than the UK. Lewisham’s waste helps to generate (via SELCHP) electricity for London. Electricity that otherwise might have been generated using fossil fuel.

Additional recycling services are hugely expensive, and it’s only right that Lewisham evaluates the environmental impact and value for money of proposed service changes. Take garden waste (again) for example. There’s a lot of resident interest in the borough offering doorstep garden waste collections. How would this rate in terms of VFM and environmental benefits? It would cost in the region of £1.5 million to provide extra bins and trucks to collect garden waste on a weekly or fortnightly basis. This waste would need to be separately collected and transferred to an anaerobic digestion facility for example, and turned into fertiliser and bio-fuel, which in turn, could run a generator to produce electricity. So the end result of all this expenditure could be production of the same electricity that the green waste would produce if it were incinerated at SECLHP (only with less trucks, bins and traffic). Now that’s not an invitation to put green waste in your wheelie bin, and there are still some net environmental benefits of sending green waste to an anaerobic digestion facility, but it’s arguably better to keep this stuff out of the waste stream altogether and compost it in your own garden.

Collecting garden waste would really bump-up our recorded recycling performance. It would be very popular with lots of residents. It would have some positive environmental benefits.

The question is, does it represent the best way of using your money to deliver the most positive results? Our Waste Strategy has prioritised waste reduction and the increased use of existing recycling facilities, but also made several improvements in the way we deal with green waste. This year we established a number of sites around the borough where residents could bring their garden waste. This waste was taken and composted. Green waste from our parks and cemeteries is also composted. This year we collected and composted leaves from all of our public housing estates. Next year we intend to collect and compost all the leaves we collect from Lewisham’s streets.

The Waste Hierarchy frames our approach to the thorny issue of collecting bulky household waste, such as sofa’s and armchairs. Should Lewisham charge separately for bulky household waste collections? Has the separate charge for bulky household waste led to increased fly-tipping? Firstly, I think it’s important to refer to the service as ‘separately charged‘ rather than ‘free’. ‘Free’, as we know, is another way of describing a charge that is distributed through the Council Tax.

Charging for bulky household waste was reintroduced in Lewisham around April 2002. Charging had been suspended while the borough was building the new Reuse and Recycling Centre at Landmann Way. We currently charge £15 for 3 items, this charge has remained the same since 2002. During the period where charges were suspended, Lewisham’s household waste increased by 9%! This increase in household waste, in turn, pushed up our use of landfill and dampened our recycling performance. There was no drop in the amount of fly-tipping either. In fact, in the first year charges were re-introduced, fly-tipping actually fell. Colleagues in other authorities have reported similar problems with ‘free’ bulky waste services.

I believe that encouraging residents to think that the impact of waste is ‘free’ either financially or environmentally is wrong and encouraged a huge influx of waste from a variety of sources. There seems to be an infinite ability to generate waste to fit available disposal facilities. Anyone who has ever hired a skip and left it outside their house overnight and woken to find it filled with other people’s waste will know what I mean! Then there’s the attitude of, “Well it’s free anyway, why should I bother to wait for it to be collected, I’ll just dump it on the pavement”. I know that our good performance in removing fly-tipping has facilitated a similar attitude, but still, nowhere near the scale of the problem created back in 2001. Then we had increased fly-tipping AND a huge surge in household waste. It was also very, very expensive. We try to use your money to deliver the most effective waste management results. This approach is, we hope, demonstrated by a new service we introduced this month, which aims to deal with bulky waste, reduce landfill and increase recycling.

I was interested to see the comments on our work with local student, Tom Ashworth, and this service responds to some of the concerns about our bulky lumber service and fly-tipping.

You will be aware of the particular problem we have with mattresses being left on the streets of Lewisham. Over 6,000 mattresses were dumped on the streets between August 2009 and January 2010, which have up until now been sent to landfill. Lewisham Council is to become the first local authority to introduce a mattress recycling service to help Lewisham residents dispose of their mattresses in a convenient and environmentally-friendly way.

The new initiative will divert mattresses away from landfill . A local business, “Matt UK”, will be dealing with the borough’s unwanted mattresses. It decided to set up a mattress recycling plant when it realised it was handling up to 400 mattresses a day. The company recycles up to 97% of the contents of a mattress. First of all it shreds the mattresses and then the fabric material is separated from the metal into piles of foam, felt, cotton and polyester. The metal is sold to European Metal Recycling for reprocessing and the foam can be reused in insulation, while the felt, cotton and polyester can be reused in other textile applications. The material is then washed in an industrial washing machine at 40 degrees to remove any mites from the fabric.

This innovative scheme encourages people to dispose of mattresses responsibly, it diverts away from landfill, and it increases recycling in the borough. I think it’s a win-win for everyone.

To use the service, residents can obtain a special sticker from any local Lewisham library or from Lewisham Council's Access Point in Laurence House, Catford. The sticker is then placed on the mattress.

The mattress will be collected on the same day as scheduled refuse and recycling collections. Residents just need to make sure the mattress, preferably with sticker attached, is placed near their refuse bin the evening before collection day.

Councillor Susan Wise, the Cabinet Member for Customer Services, is please with this new service: “Lewisham's new mattress recycling service is a great idea, very simple to use and it's free. I would encourage anyone who's thinking about throwing away an old mattress to take advantage of this very useful new service."

I really hope that BrockleyCentral readers will recognise this new service as another useful step towards sustainable waste management. Let me know what you think (as if I needed to ask!).

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