Opinion: How we made fortnightly bin collections work in Cambridge

There have been horror stories on this site about councils suffering political disasters after introducing fortnightly bin collections. In 2005, Lib Dem-run Cambridge City Council made just such a change, and did so without any apparent political damage. At the time, I was the Executive Councillor responsible for the bins. Here’s how we did it.

In 2004, our doorstep waste and recycling service consisted of a black box for dry recyclables (paper, aluminium cans and so forth), a green bin for compostable waste (garden waste, vegetable peelings and the like) and a black bin for everything else. The black box and green bin were collected fortnightly, on alternate weeks, and the black bin was collected weekly.

The following year, we moved to a new system of alternate weekly collections. In week one, the black bin and black box were collected. In week two, the green bin was collected, along with a new blue box for recyclable plastics.

These are the key reasons why the change worked:

• The black box and green bin recycling system was well established. Residents had got used to recycling, and many of them found that their black bin was less than half full each week before we switched to fortnightly collections. This meant there was a substantial chunk of residents for who the proposed change didn’t seem like a big deal (and who were happy to get their new plastic recycling service). It’s much easier to establish an effective recycling culture first, then switch to fortnightly collections, than to try to bring it all in at once.

• We introduced the change in autumn, so that if we did have problems with uncollected or fly-tipped waste, at least it wouldn’t be lying around in the summer heat. Making these changes in spring/summer is just asking for trouble.

• We invested the bulk of the saving from moving to fortnightly collections in a new recycling service that was in high public demand: doorstep collection of recyclable plastics. This hadn’t been part of the original plan: it came out of a public consultation about how to go about implementing alternate weekly collections, in which we had taken the opportunity to ask some general questions about recycling as well. It turned out 78% of respondents wanted doorstep plastics recycling. I tasked officers with finding a way of achieving this for less money than we would save with the switch to fortnightly collections: to their credit, they managed it. This meant we weren’t just taking something away from residents: we were providing something they really wanted at the same time.

• The compostable waste collection was able to take all food waste, including meat and bones. As the compostable waste and general waste were being collected on alternate weeks, residents could still have food waste collected every week provided they put it in the appropriate bin. This enabled us to answer residents’ concerns about health hazards and pest problems arising from food waste being left in a bin for two weeks. (In fact, such concerns are massively exaggerated, but it’s always better to have a practical answer to peoples’ fears rather than just telling them not to worry.)

• I spent months working with key officers on examining and improving every detail of the new waste collection policy, making sure it was workable, practical, and robust, and took into account as many special household circumstances as we could reasonably manage. It only takes a tiny percentage of aggrieved residents to give the local press months’ worth of negative stories.

• We put extra resources into street-level workers to cover the first three months of the new system, recruiting temporary staff and making sure existing staff knew that dealing with bin problems was top priority.

• We communicated with residents in as many different ways as we could: a new council magazine, delivered to every household, dedicated to recycling issues, official letters and collections calendars, home visits to households who were having problems, a telephone helpline, articles in the local press, radio interviews and public meetings.

• We announced the proposed new system a long time – almost a year – before it would actually be introduced, and about six months before the next set of elections (local and general). This gave plenty of time for the local press to give us the inevitable shock headlines and scare stories, and for us to come back with reasoned rebuttals and explanations. By the time the elections came round, the press and public were pretty much bored of talking about it, and by the time we actually made the change, people were wondering why it hadn’t happened already.

• I discussed the issues at length within the local party, at executive meetings, local ward meetings, council group meetings and in the newsletter. The party ran informative Focus articles backing up the official council communications. It’s natural that your own colleagues and supporters may feel nervous about the political impact of these changes, or might be unconvinced that the changes are necessary: it’s a lot easier to get through the tough times if you keep them on side.

• We were always very clear about the fact that this wasn’t a money-saving exercise (and our investment in plastics recycling proved that point): it was about increasing recycling and reducing landfill, about achieving our own ambitious recycling goals and about avoiding central government penalties for failing to meet their, slightly less ambitious, targets.

It would be wrong to suggest there were no problems when the new service was introduced. Of course there were. You can’t make a big change to a fundamental service and expect 45,000 households to all cope with it perfectly from day one, nor can you expect to make far-reaching changes in a large organisation without some people making mistakes at some point. But because we’d prepared thoroughly, because we’d put a lot of effort into communicating with residents, explaining the changes, understanding their concerns and trying to address them, and because we’d put as much staff effort as possible into handling problems in the first three months, we found that the changes went through with far fewer problems than we had anticipated.

The political impact?

In 2005, after the decision had been taken but before the changes were implemented, we won the Cambridge parliamentary seat on a massive swing from Labour, and gained three County Council seats within the city. The following year, after we had made the change, we increased our majority on the City Council. Fortnightly collections didn’t win us these seats, but we managed to make the change without suffering a political penalty for it.

These are just the main points of a complex story, but I hope they’re of use to any Lib Dem councils that are considering going down this route.

* Iain Coleman was a Liberal Democrat councillor on Cambridge City Council from 2003 to 2006, and was Executive Councillor for Environmental Services from 2004 to 2006.

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9 Comments

  • You might not have suffered at the ballot box for this because places like Oxbridge are full of beardy-sandal academic types, not to mention lots of students, who probably were keen on their recycling in the first place. Lots of Green waverers too to win over. Very few Mail readers and Tories with quixotic hostility to the very ideas of recylcing and climate change.

    Out in the rest of the world there is sadly a greater degree of hostility.

  • Liberal Neil 6th Mar '09 - 10:50am

    The first district to introduce alternate weekly collections in oxfordshire was Tory run Cherwell – about as Daily Mail reading as you will find!

    I agree with the original article – it can be done as long as time and effort is put into planning, consultation on detail and explanation.

  • Isn’t only the recycling of Aluminium and Glass productive whilst all the others are merely bridges to nowhere.

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