Recycling in Bristol isn’t working

OK – here’s the rant about recycling which I threatened earlier.

Tracey has already described her woes. For us, E-day happens on 8 August, but we’ve known it’s been coming for some months now. From that day, routine garbage collection moves from a weekly to a fortnightly basis. The present situation is already a shambles, and it looks like this:

In addition to our wheelybins, everyone in Bristol has a little black box, presented by our municipalia, which will take: paper, glass and metal, shoes and old clothes. It’s about the size of an old cardboard box. It’s just big enough to salve everyone’s consciences, but not big enough to be particularly useful in removing a significant amount of waste from a family household. For that, we’ve got the wheelybin. The little black box won’t take: cardboard or plastic. It is emptied weekly.

We are a household of four, including two teenagers. They consume huge quantities of food at the moment. Most of this food comes in cardboard or plastic packaging. None of this can presently be recycled. It accounts for about 3/5ths of our total rubbish, with a slight bias towards plastic rather than cardboard packaging. I also have a composting bin, which I use, but others in the family have been reluctant to use.

From 8 August, our wheelybins will be emptied fortnightly. The little black boxes will continue to be emptied weekly. In addition, we will have a little plastic bin for perishable food waste. And cardboard will henceforth be collected for recycling. But not in the little black box. It’s got to be left loose, by the side of the perishable food box. Presumably, it’s the responsibility of a different department from the black box emptiers. If it’s rainy, this will turn into a sodden mush. If it’s windy, it will blow all over the street. Nice.

Plastic will not be collected. The only plastic being recycled in Bristol is plastic bottles. To recycle plastic bottles, we must please make our way to the local Recresco bottle recycling skips. Our nearest is tucked away by an out-of-the-way bar in Clifton. I never go near the place – neither do most of the local residents. Even if we were so keen to recycle that we were to make the trip, most of households of more than one person will take our bulky plastic bottles in our cars about once per month. Probably thereby burning up more by way of fossil fuel than will ever be saved through the recycling of our puny little load. Households can also pay for a fortnightly garden waste collection service, if they can’t compost themselves.

Two of Bristol City Council's recycling partnersNow this is a bit of a curate’s egg: it encourages more recycling, but doesn’t offer effective solutions for its collection – and crucially, doesn’t offer effective recycling of plastic. This is the real bin-filler which could cause the whole waste-collection system to break down. This afternoon I was driving along the Muller Road – one of those areas first to experience this new regime. Overflowing wheely bins lined the route: a serious public health hazard. The rat population, already high, will benefit greatly (perhaps rats are going to be the great recyclers).

The policy is a shambles, driven by government targets which offer local councils financial incentives based on the percentage of household waste being recycled. Bristol have tried to get their hands on the money, without – it would appear – really thinking through what effective recycling really means. There is little evidence that the policy was thought through by anyone who lived in a largish household who was serious about the need to find a way to get everyone recycling – I’m reminded of the council’s policy on cycling (oh don’t get me started on that!). The bottom line is that effective recycling only happens when you bring the service to the end of the gate. Local mini “recycling centres” are an outdated approach which doesn’t take the matter seriously.

So here’s what I think they should be doing:

  1. All houses should have a recycling-only wheelybin, which will hold paper, cardboard metal and plastic. This will be emptied fortnightly. These will be the existing big wheelybins. We can cope that they’re not coloured green.
  2. All houses will have a general waste-bin – this will emptied weekly – new, smaller bins will be provided. Thus providing the incentive to recycle whatever is possible in the larger wheelybin.
  3. All these silly bottle banks and plastic recycling centres should be removed – save the money to pay for effective home-collected plastic recycling. Ditto the ridiculous black boxes.
  4. The garden waste collection should be more expensive – encouraging everyone to compost far more. Much better to rot it at home, then pay a lorry to pick it up to rot elsewhere.

Websites giving more information:

Bristol City Council’s Silly New Policy

A Helpful Composting Guide (yes, my compost bin is presently hot!)

POSTSCRIPT: The only sensible thing I can see written on the web is on the local Green Party site, which shows the truly abysmal recycling record of Bristol, and comments:

It doesn’t help that the city has got itself in such a financial mess that it daren’t pay the price for decent recycling facilities, and it’s stuck with a contract that gives its waste contractor a virtual monopoly when it comes to new recycling initiatives. We’d like to see much more effort made to reduce waste at source; that means acting locally and nationally to cut down on throwaway goods, and to make sure that what there is can be easily recovered for reuse. Meanwhile, the council must take things like composting and plastics recycling more seriously, for starters.”

Meanwhile, in 2004/5, Bristol was sitting at 364 out of 393 on the County Council recycling league issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Sorry, have to stop now, can’t stop laughing …

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21 replies on “Recycling in Bristol isn’t working”

  1. Okay, well I can go one better, – a community centre and church which works with the community is not eligable for any of the new recycling stuff, neither will the wheely bin be collected if it contains any recyclable materials. Nor will they allow us to pay for the service.
    To use a contractor is roughly £400.00 pa which is okay if you have it.
    “But we have a lunch club for elderly… where will we put fod waste?”
    “Im sorry” replies bored 16 year old council secretary “we cant help you”
    And so the congregation come on sunday and take the rubbish away to various recycling/ home bins etc.
    God bless Bristol City Council

  2. Thanks for that helpful addition, Charity. It was not a point that I had thought of.

    Paul, the only point I can disagree with you on is the composting. we have opposite situation to you; with just the two of us we don’t generate much food waste. We also don’t have the space for it, nor can we justify the “green” garden waste bin. We only generate garden waste about twice a year when the trees are pruned and that doesn’t compost anyway. It is not worth our while to get the bin. Had it been free we could have come to an arrangement with the neighbours to get one between us and shuffle it up and down the road but the fees business makes that impractical.

  3. Charity

    That is truly an appalling situation, which again raises the strong suspicion that this is all about the Council making money from recycling grants, rather than trying to serve both its citizens and the ecological purpose.

    I reckon if you stood for council under the “Down with the Eco-Junta/Sensible Recyclers for Jesus” independent label, you’d get in like a shot. Let’s start a revolution!

  4. Rick – you’ve got a point about that. The answer is probably community composting, which the Council could promote, if it was really interested in recycling for ecological reasons. Trouble is, it might cost money to set up, and there aren’t lucrative grants available. I reckon Redland alone could have about four such sites – but each would need to be monitored to ensure appropriate things were being composted. They would have to be wheelbarrow-distance, otherwise see above on burning fuel to get to recycling centre. You can always put stuff in my bin!

  5. hear hear paul
    what i am wondering about is does anyone knwo what happens to the kitchen waste – it can’t be composted as you can not put cooked foodstuffs in the compost, my fear is that there is going to be some poor pigs somewhere made to eat all our kitchen scraps?
    Maybe we should follow the example of the women’s institue and take our packaging back or maybe the council house?

  6. forgot to add – in Barton Hill the council will not take any other rubbish than your wheelie bin and your black box, so no extra bags can be left for them. fine for us – a couple but a fmaily of four or more must really struggle,

  7. Here’s how we do it in my little town (15,000) in northern California, a rather more environmentally-aware area than most in the US. This is the latest of various incarnations over about 15 years.

    We have three “wheelybins”, all collected weekly by separate trucks/lorries:
    One for (hopefully rinsed out) plastic, glass & tins, cardboard, and most paper.
    One for all other household waste (2 sizes; smaller one costs less monthly).
    One for grass cuttings, tree trimmings (cut to 4ft or less), raked leaves etc (this all goes to the City for grinding and composting for fertilizing lawns & landscaping in all the parks and the golf course).

    All collected trash (except for the compost) goes to the Transfer Station, where the recycles are sorted and sent to where they belong, and the rest sent off to the landfill. By this means, our city has already reduced its landfill output to the goal the the State of California has set for several years from now. New state law requires fluorescent light bulbs and small batteries to be taken to a hazardous waste collection station, along with already required paint, insecticides, computer parts, etc. This is the only inconvenient part about our trash collection, but one doesn’t have to do it very often.

    The county’s Solid Waste Department used to offer a snap-together plastic latticed backyard composting unit, about 2x2x4ft, which I bought about 10 years ago for $35 (£18?) and is still in good condition, into which I have dumped all my vegetable waste for a family of 5. It always compresses well before the waste reaches the top of the bin. (Only drawback is that wasps like to nest there.)

    Don’t know how practical it is for a larger city, but we have had very good results. Hope you can find a satisfactory way.

    God bless you-
    Dana Ames
    Ukiah California USA

  8. Dana – that looks like a sensible way to do the recycling. I think similar methods exist in mainland Europe, including Germany. The same pattern: recycling without plastic isn’t really viable recycling.

    The Bristol Evening Post tonight featured a picture of a big rat. I wonder if they’re employed under contract …

  9. Paul – glad to hear that this issue is taxing even those of you in Bristol not yet living under the new regime!
    Your solutions are great if you live in a house with a drive and a decent sized back garden. However, many houses in central Bristol have next to no space out the front or back, leaving no options for a) more bins, and b)a compost bin of their very own. We already struggle to accommodate one wheelybin and a brown bin.
    Incidentally, what’s the deal with plastic bottles? I have heard a variety of rumours, including that they’re shipped off to China, and that they’re recycled but it’s not ‘green’ to do so! Perhaps they, too, are being fed to the same herd of unfortunate cyber-pigs that Gayle’s worried about…?

  10. 3/07/2006
    Re Bristol City council waste collections. Am in Easton and have just watched SITA workers collecting brown bin food waste and cardboard and seen the collectors put both together in the Refuse Lorry. How is the cardboard recycled when mixed with stinky rotting food waste? Please can someone answer?
    I am challenged.
    Do Gayles cyber-piggies like cardboard?

  11. What amazes me is that you all seem to take it for granted that it’s the council’s job to solve the recycling and environmental problems. Well it ain’t. It’s yours and mine. Paul, you say your family consumes a lot of food and “Most of this food comes in cardboard or plastic packaging”. Why? Do what the Green Party’s website tells you and stop generating the rubbish in the first place. My cooked food gets eaten, not thrown away. I have a tiny garden but keep a compost bin. Garden waste that I can’t compost gets saved for a monthly (maximum) visit to the recycling centre. My wheelie bin (the smallest size available) goes out every two to three weeks – but I think I can improve on that. I’ve given up shopping at supermarkets, so plastic packaging is minimal.

    As far as your household is concerned – you’re the ones who MAKE make the waste in the first place. The least you can do is take some responsibility for it.

  12. Ioan, I think you may have missed the key point I’m trying to make: which is one of public health, and the secondary one, which is of effective ecology rather than the salving of private consciences. To expand: cities involve people living together and sharing amenities, that’s why most of us no longer live in farmsteads. It is the duty of a municipal council, enshrined in law, to arrange for the effective collection of waste so that it becomes neither a public nuisance nor a health hazard. To this has been added, in recent years and with public support, the growing need to do this sustainably.

    Any council therefore needs to strike a practical compromise which will achieve the first aim and then increasingly, the second. In a city, they have to deal with people *as they are*, not *as they ought to be*. Therefore the hallmarks of a good recycling policy is that it is achievable by the vast majority of households, including those who for reasons of circumstances or laziness will be less than compliant. This is a balancing judgement, but not an impossible one to make. The present system in Bristol is not only impractical for many, it won’t be followed – and the result will be that the waste collection system will jeopardise public health.

    The reason I cite our household as an example is for two reasons. One – we’re pro-recycling, and yes, we do compost all our compostables – including all compostable kitchen waste as well as small amounts of cardboard. (As a home composter, you will know that you have to balance the high-carbons with the high-nitrogens, so the amount of cardboard you can put in is limited by the amount of high-nitrogens available). Two – we’re a teenager family unit, which still amounts to a high proportion of households in Bristol. We shop at a supermarket, which is the norm. For these two reasons, if the council can’t provide a workable solution for us, then they’re *certainly* going to fail with households which are less amenable to recycling: student lets, elderly, above-ground flats, etc.

    Now you also mention lifestyle choices: yes, we shop at the local Sainsburys – because my wife and I both work in time-demanding jobs. Without a doubt, we could adopt more ecological approaches to food packaging, by shopping daily and cooking from raw materials, but that would mean one of us giving up our jobs. I know some elderly people who still do their daily food shop as earlier generations did. This went hand in hand with the life of the housewife, which has largely now disappeared. Instead we have the supermarkets, with their costly packaging, and convenience food.

    You can’t build a practical municipal policy on telling people to change their lifestyles fundamentally, particularly by giving up the supermarket culture. This might be a move which market forces might slowly bring about in future, but presently would make a costly (in human health terms) experiment in hippy economics to be rolled out across an entire city. I repeat, I’m not against recycling – I’m very much in favour of it. I just want to see one which is going to work properly. This one won’t. Instead the City Council will fail on both the duty to remove waste, and the growing duty to do this sustainably. 0 out of 2.

  13. The supermarket we use has a plastics recycling bin in the carpark, so we don’t need to make an extra petrol or time guzzling journey to use it. We usually take 2 – 3 weeks’ worth at a time. This alone means that a family of 4 now hardly fills 1/2 wheelie bin, as most of the rest goes on compost pile or into the black box.

  14. We avoid big supermarkets as much as possible, but use our local Somerfield, which does not have a plastic recycing point. Therefore we’ve started to use a mulk delivery – very eco-warrior, if reminiscent of the 1950s! However, as the rise of the supermarket has meant far fewer customers the service is expensive and limited – 3x weekly – and once again no good for those who go to work every day at a normal time (i.e. by 8am) as the milk gets to us around 8:30.
    We are also lucky (depending in your point of view!) in living near the Gloucester Road – one of the last proper High Streets in the country, with greengrocers, butchers, bakers and probably a candlestick maker. We also have one of those fab scoop shops, so reducing costs and packaging in one fell swoop. All of this takes time, OK as I work part-time but no longer feasible for so many people. Particularly as most of you have to travel miles to find a high street in the first place, due to the stupid shopping choices we all made a decade or more ago. I feel that we as a family are doing our bit, and we’re delighted that recycling is high on the agenda for the city. What an opportunity! And yet – what a disappointment! So yes, I take Ioan’s point: but where do those of us who find this infeasible go now?
    And – doesn’t ANYONE know about the plastic bottles?

  15. In case anyone wants to see … I have cut and pasted the response I got from Bristol City Council when I emailed for a quick moan about the charges for the new green bins [which I have ordered – no choice unless I want to make loads of trip to dump – big garden, several compost heaps plus shredder, but can’t compost 100% of garden waste and wheelie bin collection about to be cut in half] I asked for information re. the environmental studies on which they base their decision not to have a kerbside plastic collection … I am not impressed with the reply … HAPPY RECYCLING!

    message from council … a bit strange in places …

    I am sorry you are not happy with the new Garden Collection scheme. The statements made are simply to confirm that providing schooling is a statuary responsibility of the local authority, providing garden waste is not. All residents of Bristol benefit one way or the other from services such as roads, community centres libraries and schools. Nobody else benefits from a garden waste collection service besides the household that it is supplied to.

    At present there is no kerbside collection scheme for plastic bottles/packaging and there are no plans to introduce a scheme in the future. It is not cost effective for Bristol City Council to endeavour to collect plastic bottles in a kerbside collection for a number of reasons. The most immediate of these being the purchase of a fleet of approximately 25 collection vehicles followed shortly by increased staff & training costs.
    Additionally, there are difficulties encountered with sorting and storing the collected material, along with increased fuel costs/ pollution caused by the vehicles having to return to the depot to unload more often than at present.

    We have decided to expand on the number of plastic bottle ‘bring’ recycling sites across the city, with the aim of having a site within 1 mile of every Bristol resident. These are typically located in supermarket car parks and are able to accept all rinsed out plastic bottles. Further details of the location of these sites can be found on the council website

    If you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact me

    Yours sincerely

    Ms Babs Lewis

    Customer Service Officer

    Customer Services Centre
    Neighbourhood & Housing Services,
    PO Box 595,
    Brunel House,
    St Georges Road,
    Bristol, BS99 2AW.
    Tel: 9223838 (8.30am to 8pm weekdays)

  16. @judith

    In principle Babs is right, they do not have a duty to collect garden waste. BUT it is a problem of their own making. When we first came here there was the round bin which the guys heaved over their shoulders into the truck. In those days you were not supposed to put garden waste in them else they would refuse to collect them (that’s why they were called refuse trucks 🙂 ). When they introduced wheely bins they said (and I wish I had kept the leaflet) that you could put anything in there except builders rubble. There may have been a few other exclusions but not many. They explicitly said that you could put in garden waste. If that facility had not been made available we would not be complaining as much now.

    As for the remark about kerbside collection of plastic – they will be doing it whether they like it or not. Even with a facility within a mile, many (most?) people will not use it, they will dump their plastic into the fortnightly black wheely bin. Because of the shortage of space they will use various methods to compress it.

    The reply is also rather disingenuous. What odds does it make to the transport having to collect the hugely heavy local recycling containers compared with a mobile kerbside compactor?

  17. Hello Paul

    In reply to yours: I didn’t miss your key point (which you kindly explained again), in fact I was largely in agreement with the points you made. But there did seem to be an element of mote-and-beamery about your reply.

    My key point (and I stick to it) is that any scheme will succeed or fail largely according to the measure by which individuals cooperate with it. I’d say the council have done reasonably well in raising the profile of recycling, and softening people up by reducing our allowance to one wheelie bin per household (no additional bags).

    What I thought was disappointing about your ‘rant’ :o) was that you said that 3/5ths of your refuse was plastic and cardboard and you appeared to think that it would be necessary for either you or your wife to give up a ‘time-demanding’ job to become refuse management officer for your household. I hope your job doesn’t require much creative thought or imagination if that’s the only solution you can think of for cutting down on YOUR household’s waste.

    Ideally all recyclable plastic should be collected, and I’d guess in due time it will be. It’s not a huge landfill problem because it’s light, and it’s tonnage not volume that counts. But it also shouldn’t take up a lot of room in your bin if it’s properly flattened. The cardboard will be collected (except Tetrapaks – booh!). Most of it is the thin ‘cereal packet’ type of card and will go in a plastic carrier bag, like the paper (and yes, will get wet, like the paper, if it rains). The boxes that have to be flattened and put beside the black box are presumably the large, corrugated kind which you don’t have every week unless you’re constantly replacing your consumer ‘durables’.

    I suppose I’m less idealistic than you: I don’t expect any council to come up first time with a new, Rolls-Royce, service for anything – it’s not in the nature of the beast. But I did read the article in last week’s Bristol Observer which quoted a S Glos spokesperson as saying that after some ‘teething problems’ their fortnightly waste collection, which was introduced in 2004, is now working smoothly.

    As far as the health hazard is concerned the Bristol council person at least had a moral point (even if a counsel of perfection) in saying that nothing going into the wheelie bin should be a health hazard since organic material should go into the kitchen waste bin with a secure lid (God! I can’t believe I’m spending a Sunday dedicating myself to this topic – except that I’m individually fanatical about it, and know that most other people aren’t).

    I DO agree with your points. There will be problems. I DON’T agree with your attitude which seems to be that we all stand back and chortle at the council (or perhaps rant a bit more) when the whole thing goes disastrously wrong.

  18. I think most of us would want the whole thing to go RIGHT …. and it won’t be funny enough to have a laugh if it doesn’t. My street looks worse than ever with an increasing variety of bins and boxes overflowing onto the pavement but I haven’t got my green bin yet, despite chasing the council several times. A friend in Southmead tells me that all his carefully separated recyclable stuff went all together in the same truck last week, but I hope these are ‘teething problems’ which will be overcome. Meanwhile, I do seem to be spending far more time than seems healthy concentrating on how best to dispose of every small scrap that I no longer need or want. I’m all for recycling but I don’t want to develop a new form of OCD. I found myself trying to wash a small piece of plastic that had been wrapped round a runny piece of cheese. I worry that the bin will smell horrible after two weeks in the heat, so I keep spraying it with disinfectant. A bit sad, eh? Anybody out there got and using their green bin successfully yet?

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