Following the furore on social media over the last week, Dan Slee, press officer at Walsall Council offered the following press statement on the question of the controversial recycling leaflets currently being distributed to homes in Walsall Borough. I’ll let you read it in full, and then I’ll add my comments.
Cllr Tom Ansell, Walsall Council cabinet member for environment, said: “It all boils down to asking people not to put the wrong things in their recycling.
“We’re really happy to put to bed some of the wilder speculation about the recycling and explain the situation at the moment.
“No we’re not ‘scaremongering’ to try and encourage people to leave out less recycling because our contractor can’t handle it. Far from it.
“We’ve changed the people who deal with our recycling because our contract came to an end and this new one represented the best agreement possible.
“Waste now goes to Casepack in Leicester to be processed after we carry out a provisional check at the Fryers Road site in Bloxwich.
“Just to confirm, they’re not struggling with volumes. Far from it. Their unit is running within capacity, as we understand it.
“Across the country anecdotally, councils are reporting that contractors are being much stricter in what they are allowing.
“In the trade things which are not on the list are known as ‘contaminants.’ That’s everything from TVs and blankets to food waste and nappies.
“Basically, we want people not to put things they can’t recycle into their recycling bins.
“New leaflets are being distributed to 110,000 homes with a very back-to-basics message of what is allowed. From hard won experience, adding detail on many items confuses matters. People don’t always heed the message that only white clean food trays can be processed. They’ll include coloured ones which are still dirty.
“Taking a hard look at things, in retrospect we could have used things like social media and press releases as well as leaflets and we’ll look to do this in the future.”
Whilst it’s good to see Walsall Council admit the utter botch they’ve made of this, there are questions outstanding, which the council taxpayers of Walsall deserve answers to.
It’s clear something has happened within the recycling service. Walsall Council was formerly sending it’s DMR – that’s dry, mixed recycling, the content of your green wheelie bin – to a massive facility in Aldridge, operated by Greenstar UK. An article from 2009 in The Engineer documents this quite clearly. Since then, it seems the contractor has changed to a company called Casepack, in Leicester. That means that rather than transferring such waste across the borough, it now goes all the way to Leicester instead. This doesn’t reek of efficiency, or indeed, environmental good sense.
It seems you get what you pay for, and nowhere is this more true than in waste handling. Walsall service users are no different to any others in the UK. There are those of us who sort religiously, and fret about what we throw in which bin, and those who don’t. The unthinking cause contamination – that is, they put stuff in the system that can’t be recycled. Walsall is fond of pointing out people have put TV’s and dirty nappies in the bins, but in reality, contamination mainly manifests as unsuitable plastics and very dirty materials. In services that accept DMR, like ours, the processors accept contaminants as a fact of life. Their systems are engineered to deal with them and it’s understood that you could only reduce the problem with draconian tactics. Contamination generally runs at a stable percentage.
On the whole it’s accepted that you can’t expect OAP’s and hassled mothers to distinguish between types of plastics, so any system has to be capable of dealing with undesirable content – and in good processors, the process is robust enough to cope. A good example of this is Walsall Council using the example of ‘black bags’ – black bags are made of the same stuff carrier bags usually are – extruded LDPE.. They can be recycled just the same, into a variety of stuff. What’s confused here is that the system doesn’t allow material packed in black bags, because it can’t easily be inspected, meaning they have to be pulled out and split open by hand.
Walsall appears to be coming under some pressure from their contractor to clamp down on contamination. Of course, sending out leaflets highlighting correct use of the service will help, but the information distributed, and subsequent conversations over social media have highlighted a whole bunch of stuff that can actually be reprocessed – like cardboard tubes, aluminium foil etc. – being left out. The only logical conclusion is that the authority are trying to make people fearful about what they place in their green bins, and reduce volume.
Of course, this won’t make the slightest difference to the service abusers. They clearly didn’t bother with the original leaflets, and won’t with this one. However, genuinely conscientious residents are now questioning what they can put in which bin, which will inevitably lead to an increase in recyclable material going to landfill. This is ridiculous.
Contamination also occurs when bins are left out, and neighbours and passers by throw stuff in the nearest bin without thought. It’s also been anecdotally reported that refuse operatives on the grey bin round frequently toss extra stuff from their bins into the green ones when bins are overfull.
When challenged as to why items were missing from the list of stuff that could be recycled, Walsall Council said that they wanted a ‘A back to basics list we’d like people to recycle’, which is plainly nonsense. It is normally in a council’s best interests to get as much material as possible recycled – they are fined for the amount of waste they send to landfill. For them to effectively discourage use of the recycling system in case of doubt, there has to be a prevailing motivation.
I’ve been contacted by three separate people internal to Walsall Council who all allege problems between the council and contractor of some kind. Obviously, I have to treat these with suspicion, but something clearly seems to be going wrong. Walsall has always had an excellent refuse and recycling service. To see it degraded in this way is tragic.
I would ask the following of Walsall Council:
- Why has the contract been taken from a local provider, to a less environmentally sensible solution of transporting waste to Leicester?
- Why are the council distributing instructions that give the impression that recyclable materials that were formerly accentuated can no longer be accepted?
- Can we not have a definitive and full list so we know what we’re doing?
- Why is your DMR contractor unable to handle the levels of contamination that your previous one was, which in reality are very hard to change and constant throughout the industry?
- Where is the evidence that industry-wide recyclers are getting more fussy, when in reality processes are getting better and better at dealing with unwanted material?
- Why are you continuing to distribute a leaflet that is causing such confusion, and why no press release correcting it?
This continues to be a huge public relations failure from Walsall Council. Residents are now more confused than they were before, and this can only result in a higher landfill penalty for the council in the long run.
Sort it out, please.