Bin woes set to spill over into major national embarrassment

By Andrew Adie

Last week I watched the slightly depressing sight of our carefully segregated recycling all being tipped from individual sorting containers into a giant wheelie bin and dumped unmixed into the back of a refuse truck to be taken off for disposal.

Driver shortages have meant that the household waste recycling collections are being delayed, missed and in some cases (garden waste) suspended indefinitely.

HGV drivers who used to work on the local authority waste and recycling services are going to drive trucks for supermarkets and logistics firms who are paying more than £50,000 a year (in some cases) in a bid to plug driver shortages which are reported to now amount to around 100,000 unfilled HGV driver vacancies.

Brexit, Covid and soaring demand for online shopping have all been blamed to varying degrees. What is clear is that there’s no quick solution to the problem: You can’t recruit and train new drivers overnight.

The impact is significant for local authorities, with councils from Kent to Manchester, Dorset to Derby, South London to Slough and elsewhere across the country seeing increasingly irate headlines, heated twitter feeds and congested customer care helplines as residents vent their ire.

Some years ago, I spent several weeks handling the communications and reputational fall-out from the introduction of a new waste and recycling service in the South West of England. The service didn’t get off to the planned start and the series of challenges (from missed collections, to piles of rubbish, rampaging seagulls and irate pensioners) kept us working around the clock. It was a valuable lesson.

Refuse and rubbish may not look particularly exciting but if it goes wrong, wow. People get very, very angry. A local issue will turn into a national story, local politicians find themselves in the spotlight of national policy discussions and everyone has an opinion (generally negative) on those responsible for implementing the service (even if they’re not really to blame).

Which is why we are all going to be hearing a lot more about rubbish collections and bins in the coming weeks. The driver shortages aren’t going to go away and local authorities aren’t in a position to start matching rapid wage inflation.

As we get closer to COP26 it could also become a major international embarrassment. Images of carefully segregated waste, placed in green bins on the kerbside for recycling but then tipped into vast trucks to be taken off for disposal is going to play out incredibly badly when the UK is asked how its progressing on its journey to net zero.

It’s also going to play increasingly badly in the neighbourhoods of the UK as furious residents demand that their local authorities fix a problem that is not really of their making and arguably beyond their control. When it comes to bins, patience and understanding are in short supply.

Tired of the sight of festering food waste bin and with weeks of garden waste sitting as a fly magnet in our garden, we’ve invested in a home anaerobic digester. It looks like a wheelie bin but provides an insulated home for bacteria which allows them to naturally heat the unit to 50 degrees C, transforming them into Super Bacteria which eat food, paper and garden waste and transform it into nutrient rich compost.

Well, that’s what the advert said anyway. If only they ate plastic and glass…