UK HWRCs: Are They Fit For Purpose?

James Benn, senior consultant in Wardell Armstrong’s Waste Resource Management Group says Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) are a high value service, and asks if they’re currently fit for purpose in the UK

Research suggests that Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) are a high value service in the opinion of local residents. Despite this, not all local authorities have afforded equal priority to these services, meaning residents are faced with a postcode lottery in terms of service funding, accessibility of facilities, quality of service, materials collected and performance.

FCC Environment recently commissioned a YouGov survey exploring the importance residents place on HWRC services. Amongst the findings of this study were that spending on HWRCs attracts higher priority than complimentary kerbside recycling collections amongst the public, and that user satisfaction with the service available varied considerably by location.

The squeeze on local authority budgets remains a key challenge facing all public services. Under this backdrop investing money in HWRC improvements is not a realistic approach without stimulus in the form of incentives or obligations.

80% of respondents claimed to have used their local HWRC, with 64% doing so at least annually. This isn’t too far removed from current participation rates in kerbside recycling services, despite the additional inconvenience involved visiting sites, highlighting the importance of improving HWRC provision.

The squeeze on local authority budgets remains a key challenge facing all public services. Under this backdrop investing money in HWRC improvements is not a realistic approach without stimulus in the form of incentives or obligations.

Here, I look at how a strong central policy stance setting minimum service standards can help reinvigorate underperforming areas and address the service provision inequalities that exist nationally.

In this climate of austerity, it is imperative that as an industry we stand up for the merits of the well-liked and well-used services provided. Any investment in HWRC services are, rightly, subject to detailed scrutiny. Despite the clear merits of service improvements these cannot always be justified when competing for funding allocations alongside more emotive or urgent services.

This has led to a piecemeal development of HWRCs across the country where some areas have been able to develop best practice infrastructure, and others have failed to invest in service improvements at all.

Rather surprisingly, given cost pressures applied, the number of HWRCs in England has increased over the last decade by almost 10%, with over 700 sites operational in early 2018.

At a local level there is a disparity in access to HWRC services. For example, amongst the core cities, local accessibility ranges from 1 site per 98,100 residents in Leeds up to a single site for 329,200 residents in Nottingham. Whilst this does not account for cross boundary usage patterns and shared operation or funding of sites, or the quality of sites provided, it is a clear indicator that access to sites is governed by geography and local governance decisions.

Local authority waste services have changed vastly over the last ten years, as evidenced by changes to collection frequencies, collection charges and a flatlining recycling rate. However, relatively little improvement in the quality of services provided at HWRCs has occurred, indicative that the existing policy and regulation framework is not sufficient and hasn’t kept pace with service progress.

Developments of new and modern HWRC facilities, expanding the range of materials accepted, shifting focus onto re-use, improving operational techniques and the user environment have been driven by authorities and contractors where they can see the benefit in doing so, supported with best practice guidance from the likes of WRAP. These practices haven’t been universally applied, amplifying the gap between the best and worst sites.

Rather surprisingly, given cost pressures applied, the number of HWRCs in England has increased over the last decade by almost 10%, with over 700 sites operational in early 2018. HWRCs provide an opportunity for local authorities to enhance services and boost recycling rates at a relatively small cost when compared to kerbside collections – numerous sites boast recycling rates in excess of 90% covering a range of geographies and demographics.

In order to stimulate development, an alternative approach is required exerting greater pressure on local authorities. This can be done by specifying minimum standards and requires a coherent and encompassing central government policy supported by regulation and funding. Standards can be set to address and standardise site sizes and capacities, opening hours, staffing requirements, materials acceptance and specifications. Other best practice initiatives including re-use shops, multi-lane queuing approaches, repeat container provision and weather protection can also be promoted.

The recent Waste Strategy for England makes a start addressing these imbalances and challenges, advocating support and regulation for re-use activities at HWRCs, however stops short of committing to a required minimum service standard. It is, however, yet to be seen what these duties entail, and whether they will have enough teeth to stimulate improvements where needed.

Similar commitments to consult on charging for non-household wastes, as provided under the Controlled Waste Regulations, are included. As an industry it is essential that we push for these consultations at the earliest opportunity and help shape a vision for HWRC services in the future.

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