Does Weekly Trash Collection Discourage Recycling?


Image credit: Net_Efekt, used under Creative Commons license.

The new Conservative-lead coalition in Britain may have won considerable green kudos by committing to 10% CO2 cuts across government activity in just one year, but they should by no means be confused with the Green Party. From getting grouchy over pay-as-you-throw trash metering, to concerns over what their Big Society agenda means for the fight against climate change, the party far from embracing sustainability whole heartedly. Now the Conservatives are looking to reverse a trend toward by-weekly, rather than weekly, trash collection. Yet the Government's own waste watchdog is warning that the move will slash recycling rates and cost councils' money. So what's up with that?

In the last few years, nearly half of the local authorities in Britain have moved to collecting trash every two weeks. As a UK citizen now living abroad, and one who left the country before the trend toward fortnightly collections really kicked in, I have spoken to many friends about the current recycling and trash situation in the UK. While my fellow treehugging acquaintances were generally supportive (research has shown that less frequent collections do boost recycling considerably), they were also candid about the fact that many others in the country dislike the less frequent trash collection—complaining about vermin, odors and fly-tipping. It is most likely that it is this opposition that is driving the Conservative's push for a return to weekly collections.

Nevertheless, as The Guardian reports, analysis by the Government's own waste watchdog, Wrap, suggests that a return to weekly collections for trash will lead to both a sharp drop in recycling rates and an increase in costs as councils are forced to keep more collection vehicles on the road:

"The analysis says that if weekly collections were reintroduced, the amount of paper, plastic and cans put out for recycling could drop by 30-46kg per household per annum. The amount of garden and kitchen waste put out for recycling could drop by up to 100kg for each household. If these figures are extrapolated across 48% of English households, this would involve up to 1.5m tonnes of recyclables being dumped in landfill - equivalent to almost 5% of England's household waste."

The report also indicates that the change would cost councils £530m (about US$800m) over the coming four years. At a time when this government, like many governments across the world, is making drastic cuts to other services, the idea of increasing costs on councils for trash collection seems counter-intuitive. Yet it has to be said that there will be a broad swathe of the population that would welcome such a populist move.

The whole situation puts environmentalists in a tough place. As a movement that is all too often painted as kill-joy, holier than though, and maybe even a little smelly, shouting too long and too hard about the evils of weekly trash collection risks only perpetuating such stereotypes.Yet there is no doubt that something has to be done about our all-too-casual attitude to waste. The sooner folks' realize that it is impossible to ever truly throw something away—everything has to go somewhere, and that somewhere will have consequences—the easier it will be to establish a truly sustainable attitude to waste. Let's just hope we don't alienate the public in the process.

More on Recycling and Trash Collection
Pay-As-You-Throw Metering Cuts Landfill Waste in Half in Months
Pay-As-You-Throw Coming to the UK?
UK Conservatives Get Grouchy Over Trash Metering
Bicycle-Based Compost Collection Turns Town on to Smarter Sanitation

Tags: Activism | Recycling | United Kingdom | Waste | Zero Waste

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