The Front Line

A decade of austerity has left cash-strapped local authorities with difficult spending decisions, says FCC Environment. But while waste and recycling provision is indeed a front line service, should it be prioritised for investment or targeted for more savings?

FCC Environment commissioned a nationwide YouGov poll of more than 2,000 adults to determine just how important waste and recycling services are to people up and down the country. The findings reveal some interesting patterns and highlight the importance of household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) to people’s recycling attitudes and behaviours.

Steve Longdon of FCC said: “With Blue Planet 2 and China’s ban on the import of mixed plastics keeping recycling in the headlines, consumers are more deeply engaged in recycling than ever before. As councils reduce HWRC provision with shorter hours and site closures, permit schemes and charges, it’s worth considering where the value for residents actually lies.”

The YouGov survey found that:

  • four out of five respondents have visited their HWRC, and almost two-thirds visit at least annually
  • among household types, rubbish and recycling services are valued more highly by young adults and large families
  • after road maintenance, the vast majority consider HWRCs the most important environmental service provided by the council
  • people want more HWRCs, with longer opening hours and with a greater range of recycling options.

Steve Longdon added: “With a new Resources and Waste Strategy due out soon, this research on behalf of FCC Environment shows that HWRCs truly are the front line for recycling for the majority of people and reducing these services further could significantly affect recycling performance, at a time when the Circular Economy package is determining ever higher recycling rates.”

A Priority For People

The YouGov survey asked which from a list of common services they thought their local government should prioritise spending on. After social services (32 percent), emergency services (19 percent) and education (18 percent), recycling and waste (including HWRCs) was voted the fourth priority service (nine percent). This placed it above building and planning, support for local businesses, libraries and pest control.

In fact, for the 18-24 age group, waste management was the third highest priority (with 17 percent considering it a local government spending priority, compared to just 10 percent for social services). For full-time students in this age bracket, 21 percent said that their council should be prioritising investment in recycling and waste. This might be because student accommodation lacks storage space, and a high turnover of residents in shared occupancy can lead easily to the build-up of waste.

Families with three or more children also valued these services very highly. Twenty-four percent of respondents in these homes felt that was and recycling services should be a local government spending priority, positioning it at the top – above education (21 percent), social services (20 percent) and emergency services (13 percent).

The YouGov poll asked respondents to prioritise individual environmental and street scene services for local government to prioritise spending on. Road maintenance was the stand-out winner (44 percent), followed by HWRCs (19 percent) and recycling collections (11 percent). After these came the upkeep of public parks and gardens, street cleaning and street lighting. 

Across all age groups and social grades, HWRCs were the most popular environmental services spending priority after road maintenance. Larger families with three or more children found recycling collections more important than HWRCs, but all other household types considered HWRCs a higher spending priority.

Popular and well-used community assets

Nationally, four out of five respondents have visited their local HWRC. The lowest level of use was in London, with only 58 percent saying said they had ever visited their HWRC, whereas for all other regions usage was between 75 percent to 84 percent of respondents. 

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of those surveyed visit their local HWRC at least once a year, and among those who do visit their HWRC, the most common frequency is between twice a year and once a month.

People in social grade ABC1 tend to visit their local HWRC more frequently than those in the C2DE band, with 62 percent saying they visit twice a year or more, compared to 52 percent among less affluent households.

People in social grade ABC1 tend to visit their local HWRC more frequently than those in the C2DE band, with 62 percent saying they visit twice a year or more, compared to 52 percent among less affluent households.

In Wales, almost 1 in 5 (19 percent) survey respondents reported making weekly visits to their local HWRC, whereas elsewhere such frequent visits were reported by just to 3-7 percent of respondents. Predictably, family size has a significant impact on HWRC usage. A quarter of families with three children or more visit their HWRC every week, compared to just five percent of the total population.

While 41 percent of 18-24 year olds never visit their HWRC, a surprising 17 percent of this age group go every week, dropping to three-four percent for all other age groups. Possible explanations might be that younger people buy more online (so have more packaging to get rid of) or have less storage space.

Demand for growth in HWRC service provision

The survey asked which, if any, of the following would you like to have available in your local household waste and recycling centre? Options included:

  • longer opening hours
  • no fees when dropping off large items
  • fewer restrictions for larger vehicles
  • the centre to recycle a higher percentage of waste than it currently does
  • more recycling options (ie, the collection of more items to be recycled).

Feedback showed that residents want more from their HWRCs. Keeping the service free, even for DIY waste and larger items, was the most popular response (34 percent, increasing to 42 percent among over 55 year olds), followed by longer opening hours (30 percent). Accessibility was also raised frequently in the “other” category, with people asking for more HWRC sites and improved layouts.

Recycling facilities at HWRCs are also at the top of people’s agendas, with 30 percent wanting their centre to recycle a higher percentage of waste than it currently does (30 percent), and to offer more recycling options, ie, to collect of more items to be recycled (30 percent). In the younger age group (18-24 year olds), this rose to 44 percent. This was also by far the most important thing for larger families with three or more children, 55 percent of whom wanted a wider range of materials to be recycled from HWRCs.

Overall, feedback about HWRCs was positive, with comments such as “Ours is already brilliant”, “Excellent as it is”, and “I’m really happy with my local centre”. 

Other comments also highlighted the popularity of charity re-use areas, and “More options to buy stuff that’s okay but still being thrown by someone else”. 

Steve Longdon from FCC said, “As an industry we intellectualise all of this looking at capture rates, recycling rates, off-taker rates but for the public it’s a basic service and sometimes breaks down very simply, as put by one respondent, “Honestly I just wish my glass recycling could be picked up with the rest of the rubbish, rather than having the walk of shame it to the centre every time I’ve had too much wine.” 

“Light-hearted maybe but it cuts to the heart of how we need to simplify the whole system to make it easier for households and our hope is that the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy will do just this at all levels, not just door step collections.” 


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  1. A very interesting survey that does underline the importance of HWRCs.
    It is clear that cost saving measures by LAs could target HWRCs as an easy target.

    Rising costs and funding reductions are the reasons that cost saving is required, but what is missing from this article is the reason why LAs have inadequate reserves to call upon.

    I believe the main reason for this is that there are no Governmental rules on how collections are organised nor what should be sorted for recycling.

    An example of this is packaging waste collection, sortation and recycling. As there are no Governmental rules, the (apparent) lowest cost option rules. Sorted plastics, glass, paper/board and metals all have a value to the relevant industries, but co-mingling means plastics are contaminated with broken glass, as is paper/board giving a potential low value to these industries.

    Also the mixed broken glass is of less interest than colour separated material from Bring Banks.

    Steel and aluminium cans are easily sorted and have been for many years as the metals has a value to those industries.

    Consequently, more is likely to be landfilled than recycled at an addition Landfill Tax cost rather than a revenue (compared with sorted materials).

    If LAs at least had separate collection for glass and insisted on proper sortation at MRFs, the revenue generated by sale of sorted materials to recyclers would go part way at least to covering increased costs in other LA service areas.

    As is said by Mr Longdon, we need to simplify the whole system to make it easier for households and our hope is that the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy will do just this at all levels, not just door step collections.

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