Join the conversation on waste reform

By Kieron Williams | 18 March 2024

If we asked most of our residents what the council does for them, the first thing most people would say is ‘collect the bins’.

And while that’s certainly not the only thing we do, with councils providing more than 800 different services locally, it is the service residents will judge us on first. In London, boroughs support a population of 8.9 million people, who all rely on waste services for their homes, their businesses and their communities.

In October 2023, the Government announced reforms to improve recycling and reduce wastage across the country. While it is positive to see Government recognise the benefits of simpler recycling for all, this brings additional burdens for councils, with no associated funding.

Local government is keen to make it easier for residents to recycle their waste responsibly, prioritising reuse where possible. However, in many urban areas such as London, where so many residents live in flats with little space for multiple bins, improving our recycling rates is a challenge that requires innovative solutions.

Currently about a third of residual waste in London is food waste. This is partly due to food waste recycling not being available to all homes and partly because people do not have the space to do effective food waste recycling. Existing infrastructure and funding levels do not go far enough to support such a huge and busy population.

The majority of London boroughs believe the new burdens capital funding allocations for food waste collection are not enough to achieve the government’s objectives. Not only this, but the allocations that have been calculated vary across boroughs and do not take into account the demand in each individual area. Analysis conducted of just under half of our member boroughs has revealed at least a £20m funding shortfall, though we expect this figure to be much higher in reality. This is a national issue too, with recent figures from the District Councils Network revealing district councils anticipate an average shortfall of at least £210,000 to fund new vehicles and containers.

We have written to Defra to urgently review the new burdens capital funding allocations. Given the tight deadlines and stretched funding available to make reforms, we are asking for as much flexibility as possible in their implementation, including local discretion on residual waste collection frequency.

Boroughs want to achieve efficient and quality recycling across London as quickly as we can. But the reality is there isn’t enough money for us to do so. Recent analysis by London Councils shows that boroughs will face a shortfall of at least £400m in the coming year, brought about by skyrocketing demand for services, spiralling inflation, and many years of insufficient government funding.

Despite these real limitations, London is doing what we can to champion recycling and waste reform and there is enthusiasm from our residents too. It is fantastic that London currently has the lowest residual waste per capita in the country. Boroughs are also innovating to meet London’s unique recycling challenges. The new FLASH (flats above shops) project is one great example of this. Historically, flats above shops lack outside space for bins, meaning recycling is complex and in some cases, impossible. The FLASH project, trialled by Waltham Forest, Islington, and Hammersmith and Fulham, in partnership with ReLondon, is meeting this challenge by increasing the service provision for affected residents as well as updating and adding new signage.

But there are further opportunities to be had if Defra works with local authorities to secure the funding, flexibility and time needed to successfully implement simpler recycling reforms. We encourage other local authorities nationally to join the conversation on waste reform and share any innovative solutions that are helping to make a difference for our residents.

Waste collection is one of the oldest council services and remains one of the most universally recognised. During the pandemic, waste collection teams saw an outpouring of support from residents as they resolutely carried out their work in the most extraordinary times. Investment, innovation and local knowledge are needed to ensure reforms result in a more user-friendly service and increase recycling rates.

Kieron Williams is London Councils' executive member for climate, transport and environment

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