Ignore the many: Croydon’s bins cause a crisis

By - Wednesday 5th September, 2018

Does Croydon’s new recycling policy suit everyone?

Photo public domain.

When it comes to change there is an immutable truth: you can’t please everybody. Just look at the hot topic of the moment – bins.

Yet the need to improve our recycling rate has cross-party agreement and broad support across Croydon. We even used to be rather good at it.

The proportion of Croydon’s household waste that was recycled or composted climbed from only 14% in 2003/4 to a peak of 44% in 2012/13, the third-best rate in London. It slipped back to 42% in the last year of the Conservative administration, and has been in steady decline ever since. It is currently around 38%. The statement in Croydon’s recent Labour Party manifesto that in 2014 they felt this issue had to be high on their agenda and that “the Tories had allowed recycling levels to stagnate” was, well, puzzling.

Data from DEFRA via Local Government Association / ONS.
Figure author’s own.

Something clearly needs to change, and Croydon’s council has at last decided to act. The question is whether it is taking the right actions.

The underlying principle is that primary responsibility for sorting waste lies with residents. Some households are better at this than others. Lack of space, lack of knowledge and plain laziness mean that much recyclable material goes to landfill.

A good approach would have been to analyse the data, identify the problem areas and options, consult residents, debate in council and make an informed decision. Instead we got a ‘like-it-or-lump-it’ fait accompli, announced just after the May local elections.

Most properties will have three new bins, alongside food and garden waste containers

From 1st September most properties will have three large bins replacing the current one bin and two boxes, to sit alongside the largely unchanged food and garden waste containers. Different arrangements apply for flats and some others, but let’s concentrate on this main option.

Was there anything wrong with the status quo? A promotional campaign or some other kind of encouragement without changing the bins was a possibility, presumably rejected as having insufficient impact, although 44% was achieved by the Conservatives in 2012/13.

Admittedly the boxes had their faults: weak lids and the practicality that Veolia transferred the contents to bins before loading on to the refuse truck. Both resulted in waste scattered on the streets and the extra transfer step is inefficient. Bins solve these problems, but at the expense of flexibility (boxes are smaller and stackable). The size and number of the bins are also hard to beat for their sheer ugliness. But if we must have bins, how big should they be?

Which Croydon households fail to recycle – and why?

Here is where good information would help us. What is a typical waste profile for Croydon households? Which are the households that fail to recycle and why?

Without data one can only speculate. For most households, excluding the likes of flats and HMOs, I see the current landfill bin as oversized and the two boxes as undersized, although having a second or even a third box is a simple solution to the latter. One caveat: the cardboard boxes typical of internet orders require some effort to dismantle to fit in the box. It is thus easy to understand the need for a larger receptacle, to encourage those unwilling to put in the dismantling effort.

Retaining the current bin for something is sensible on the grounds of cost – but for what? Plastics and cans were chosen, with a new, smaller bin for landfill. Given the high volume but low weight typical of plastics and cans, if we must have only bins that is at least understandable. That leaves paper.

Why has this size of bin been chosen?

Here is where I struggle to understand. A smaller bin, perhaps the same as the new, slimmer landfill bin would seem sensible, even retaining the current box as a choice. Yet a bin similar in size to the old landfill bin has been chosen. Is the council aiming to encourage the lazy by providing a bin large enough to fit most delivery boxes with minimal crushing? Have they not understood the difference between weight and volume?

This is where we meet the uncomfortable truth that you can’t please everybody. Yet the council has chosen an option that hardly pleases anyone. Roughly doubling the space required to store the bins was never likely to be welcomed with open arms. The wide variations in waste generated by households mean that the majority will have at least one bin bigger than they need. For some houses, like ours, all three are roughly double our need.

Why weren’t residents given at least some chance to choose?

The sensible response would be to offer some limited choice, enabling residents to choose an arrangement to suit them. Labour chose to tell us what’s good for us and see how hard we complain.

Will this increase recycling? I certainly hope so. Could we have done better, achieved more with less stress, and without furthering Labour’s ongoing uglification of the borough? Yes, we could have.

But no consultation, no debate, no analysis, no options, no choice, is what we got. Think of that the next time that Labour trots out one of its slogans. Ignore the many, it’s what they do.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Alan Reynolds

    We are in Central Croydon Saffron Square block of flats. To what level of segregation do Croydon Council/Veolia want us to separate our waste? No guidance I have seen. Personally, we separate within our flat, into three boxes (+ rubbish) and I take in 3 bags to Purley Oaks recycling Centre – usually weekly. I can see that arrangement does not appeal to most but what can the Council/Veolia do to make life simpler for us flat dwellers?