Nothing can be taken for granted these days

16 April 2020

When, in common with millions, I applaud the NHS every Thursday, my uppermost thought is what it must mean to be a doctor, nurse or care worker ‘on the frontline’. Although we may currently be ‘isolated’ as individuals, I can’t remember a time when we’ve been so connected to the efforts of others – and that includes many other critical workers, such as the dedicated people working for local authorities who ensure our bins are collected and emptied.

This particular perspective is not new to me because WRAP has worked in partnership with local authorities for many years on waste collections and recycling. Over the last decade, faced with budgets cuts nearing 50% in some cases, we’ve seen many councils and their contractors working wonders to continue to deliver these essential services. They show dedication, smart thinking, flexibility and a desire to serve. Add in the coronavirus pandemic and their stretched resources become even thinner. Waste collection and disposal authorities play a vital role in our society and we need them more than ever right now.

On the one hand, growing numbers of staff are unavailable for work and crews are adhering to social distancing as much as possible, often meaning fewer people in each collection vehicle. So adaptability is crucial – and by re-organising collection schedules and routes, reducing the frequency of collections or curtailing lower risk collections, such as green waste, councils will be able to deal with reduced numbers of operatives. On the other, locked down households are undoubtedly producing more waste, adding to the demands on the service. On top of that, most household recycling centres are closed, because travel to them is not an essential journey and many cannot be adapted to respect the need for social distancing.  There are anecdotal reports that this is leading to an increase in illegal fly-tipping. It’s a challenging cocktail.

Each local authority will find its own best path and that’s how it should be. But they aren’t doing it in isolation. For example, Defra has recently published non-statutory guidance on which type of collections should be higher priorities and which should be lower. The advice was published following comments from local authorities and the wider resource and waste sector, including WRAP. Not surprisingly, collections of residual waste, food and clinical or absorbent hygiene products were deemed high priority. Dry recyclables are deemed to be a lower priority, as low risk, and those councils still collecting them weekly have been advised to consider changing to fortnightly.

And, in another example of excellent partnership working, local authorities will soon have another tool at their disposal. In the next few days, they will be able to sign up online for the WasteSupport ‘virtual marketplace’. It allows local authorities facing crew shortages or other collection challenges to be matched to private waste collection firms with spare capacity. They may have such capacity because many of their core customers, commercial businesses, have been forced to close. At the same time, private waste collection firms can actively seek out councils in need of support. And the opportunities may be wider than just collections, with possible future needs including technical expertise, vehicle engineers or even PPE.

The online sharing platform has been developed by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), with the support of: Defra; WRAP; the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT); the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC); the London Waste & Recycling Board (LWARB); and – from the private operators – the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and the United Resource Operators Consortium (UROC).

I’ve deliberately included the list of contributing organisations because, during these unprecedented and uncertain times, it has been extremely heartening to see the willingness of organisations across the public and private waste collection sectors to work together in the public interest – and so speedily.

I fully endorse a comment on WasteSupport from the LWARB chief executive Wayne Hubbard, when he said: “When we come through this crisis, I hope we come out stronger as a sector, with new partnerships and open to new opportunities which will help us tackle the larger threat of climate change.” We must never forget the wider goals around sustainability.

Meanwhile, because COVID-19 related service changes inevitably take place at short notice and are unexpected, it is important that householders are given clear and timely communications about them. We’ve developed social media assets to help support local authorities in communicating key messages to the public during the COVID-19 crisis and these are available in our online Resource Library.

I am proud that WRAP can help in all these ways and particularly that we can contribute to the latest collective effort. Such extended partnerships will be vital as we all – and especially local authorities – help shape the evolving resource and waste landscape in the coming months.