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Is reducing refuse collections the way forward for councils?

As East Devon and Powys councils introduce plans to join eight other local authorities across the UK in moving towards three-weekly residual waste collections, we take a look at the rationale behind, and potential impact of, the decision.

Recycling 

East Devon district council sees the shift as a significant step towards improving 2013/14 recycling rates of 44.75% and Powys council is taking steps to move them closer to its 2020 target of 64%.

The rationale is that cutting residual waste collections forces residents to carefully consider what can be recycled; and if reduced residual waste collections are accompanied by an increase in recycling capacity, the trade-off seems like a fair deal.

East Devon council, for example, plans to increase the list of materials that can be disposed of in commingled recycling boxes, meaning there should be a rebalancing of housing waste rather than an enforced cut.

Health and hygiene

A big concern is that standing waste will cause health, odour and vermin problems. The World Health Organisation recommends that waste be collected weekly in temperate climates like the UK, a suggestion that is supported by the National Pest Technicians Association, which warns that fortnightly collections can cause an increase in rat infestations.

These fears can be addressed by measures like secure bins to deter pests and making provisions for households with a high volume of contaminated waste – like nappies or medical waste – to ensure that quality of life isn't affected by the changes.

Costs

One of the biggest arguments for these changes is the savings they can deliver. Opponents argue that innovations like shared services and vehicle maintenance schemes, which have been successfully implemented by Bournemouth and Christchurch councils, are viable ways to make similarly-sized cuts.

Choosing one or the other might not be an option, however, as government cuts force individual councils to reduce spending by tens of millions – Powys council alone, for example, must save £27m over the next three years. As cost-saving measures are implemented, however, councils across the country must be sure to factor in the price of contingency plans to ensure residents don’t suffer.

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