Whichever way you look at it, St Helens Council’s proposals for three-weekly brown bin collections have generated a lot of opposition.
First announced in 2017, the plans are currently on hold while the council focuses on the issue driving the decision – improving recycling and tackling climate change.
Coun David Baines took the decision to halt the plans – which include a revamped weekly recycling collection system – not long after taking over from Derek Long as leader of the council in May.
And in July, St Helens Council joined local authorities across the UK to declare a climate emergency.
As part of this, the council committed to reaching a zero-carbon target by 2040, bringing St Helens in line with Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, which declared a climate emergency earlier this year.
The motion, which was put forward by Labour’s Mancyia Uddin, promised to ensure all decisions, budgets and approaches to planning decisions are in line with achieving this target.
“Climate change is the biggest challenge we face as a society, as a species, and there’s no hiding place from it,” Coun Baines said.
“Recycling is one small way we can all play our part in tackling climate change.
“It’s incumbent on us to make sure residents have got the tools to do the job.”
Coun Baines admitted the new way of thinking is going to be a “culture shift” for the council.
One of the big changes the council has already taken in 2019 is to ban the use of single-use plastics.
Coun Lynn Clarke, cabinet member for environmental services, said it was “about time” the council did this.
Another key change was to expand the amount of plastics that can be recycled.
Thanks to an agreement between the council and waste management company Biffa, common items like yoghurt pots, butter and margarine tubs and plastic food trays can now be recycled in St Helens.
One of the key driving forces behind the shake-up of waste services is to help the borough reach a recycling rate of 50 per cent by 2020.
If it fails to do this the council risks EU fines being passed down by the government.
With the UK’s impending departure from the EU, it is not clear whether those fines will still apply.
The council has sought clarification from the government, but Coun Baines admitted it is “completely up in the air”.
Another key element to the revised recycling service is to reduce the amount of landfill collected from homes.
In February, the council launched an education campaign – funded by the Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP) – aimed at encouraging households to recycle food waste.
Households are provided with kitchen and kerbside caddies specifically used for the disposal of food waste.
This is then sent on to be used for all sorts of useful purposes, including rich farming fertilizer – and even generating electricity.
Last year, 3,000 tonnes of food waste in St Helens was saved from landfill.
Disposing of landfill waste is far worse for the environment but it is also 2.5 times as expensive as recycling.
Coun Baines explained: “It makes sense for us economically as a council as a society to recycle more.
“Landfill is clearly bad for the environment and costs us more money to get rid of. It costs council taxpayers more money to get rid of.
“So, it’s better for us economically to recycle, not only because of the fines we might get if we don’t recycle more.
“But it’s the right thing to do for the environment. It’s something we have to do more of as a society.”
When the plans were first mooted, the council chiefs estimated three-weekly collections would save the authority £1.4 million over seven years.
Coun Baines was on the backbenches at the time, with Barrie Grunewald at the helm, and he believes too much focus was placed on the cost-saving element, which may have had a negative impact on perceptions.
“When the three-weekly collections were first mooted and announced a big deal was made about the budget, and we’re doing this because of the budget,” Coun Baines said.
“It’s a bonus that it saves money. It’s the right thing to do for the environment.”
It is not the first time St Helens Council has struggled to communicate its plans effectively.
This was something highlighted by the Local Government Association in one of two reviews it carried out earlier this year.
One of the criticisms was that St Helens Council still struggles to communicate key messages in a “coherent and proactive way”.
Coun Baines believes the council was guilty of this when it introduced the changes to plastics in February.
At the time, the council proudly announced the move as a “ground-breaking agreement”.
And while it has had a positive impact on the borough’s recycling rate, Coun Baines thinks there are lessons to be learned.
“I don’t think we did a good enough job of getting the message out on that,” Coun Baines said.
“And that’s no-one individual’s fault, but we didn’t get the message out clearly enough that you can recycle more of your plastics now.
“So, we need to make sure the information given to residents is clear, to the point and widely available.”
A revised recycling service, including the three-weekly brown bin collections, was originally scheduled to get the go ahead in February 2018.
The item was pulled from the council’s cabinet meeting following an overwhelmingly negative response from the public, to allow further scrutiny of the plans.
One of the outcomes of this scrutiny work, which was carried out by a cross-party task force, was the realisation that the current recycling receptacles were not fit for purpose.
Coun Baines said: “When I became leader, one of the things I knew people would be concerned about is the possible move to three-weekly brown landfill bin collections.
“I decided it was not fair to ask residents to recycle more without the right tools to do the job.”
“I knew this was in the pipeline, the new containers, but it was the intention to have the new containers and the three-weekly at the same time and just move straight to it.
“I didn’t think that was fair on residents, so I decided to prioritise the new containers and put a halt to the three-weekly collections.”
A prototype of the new containers were finally unveiled in July.
The multi-box recycling system is being produced by Coral Products, based in Haydock Industrial Park, and has been hailed as the first of its kind in England.
Coun Clarke added that the council and residents through feedback from consultations and social media have helped shape the new receptacles.
“They’ve taken on board all of our requirements in terms of scrutiny recommendations,” Coun Clarke said.
“We’ve listened to residents and passed that information on and they’ve dealt with that and come up with this solution, which we hope will be really engaging for participation rates.
“It’s a local company employing local people. They’re doing a brilliant job and we’re going to be the first council in England to trial these new receptacles, so that’s quite trailblazing for us.
“It’s quite exciting and everybody’s really up for it.”
When the new receptacles were unveiled, the response from the public was rather lukewarm.
Residents complained they would not be able to manoeuvre the bin, due to its size.
But Coun Baines insisted the recycling containers will not be any heavier than residents’ brown bin.
He said the council will also be able to customise the receptacles to suit the household and provide a smaller one if necessary.
“It will evolve and can evolve, that’s what the pilot is about early next year,” Coun Baines said.
“They can change, they can be customised. They can be different for each resident.
“It’s up to each resident really, how they use it. We can work all that out.
“It’s whatever helps increase recycling, whatever works for residents – that’s what matters.”
The final version of the recycling receptacles is due to be completed by January.
As soon as they are ready, the council will look to begin the pilot, which will take place in the Shires Estate and Fingerpost areas of the town centre.
Coun Baines said providing the right information to residents taking part in the pilot will be “crucial”.
The council will also be listening to feedback from residents to help shape the revised system before it is rolled out across the borough.
A key challenge will be engaging with those who have not historically recycled.
This was one of the main reasons the town centre was chosen for the pilot, as it is one of the worst-performing areas in the borough.
“If someone at the moment isn’t recycling anything, then to start recycling is going to be a behavioural shift,” Coun Baines said.
“People are going to have to change their behaviour and that’s never easy.
“Some people just may not want to do it.
“That presents us with a challenge, but it’s a challenge for everyone and we all need to take responsibility for it.
“In my job as leader of the council I’ve got to give residents the right tools, the right information so there’s no excuse not to recycle.”
For now, the three-weekly brown bin collections are on hold, but that does not mean they will not happen sometime in the future.
The focus, Coun Baines said, is simply to recycle more and let that dictate future plans.
“I don’t have my heart set on two-weekly or three-weekly or four-weekly,” Coun Baines said.
“The question to ask is, are we recycling enough?
“Hopefully these new containers will be a success. The brown bins will become emptier and emptier and emptier because people will be recycling more.
“So, there will be no need to collect the brown bins every fortnight.”
Coun Baines said he is “confident” the containers are flexible enough to make the desired improvements.
If they do not, the council will continue its search for the right containers.
Coun Baines said: “I think they are much better than the current system we’ve got. I think they will make recycling easier for residents.
“Hopefully it will mean that we see recycling rates increase.
“That’s the most important thing because that’s what we’ve got to do as a society and St Helens has got to play its part in that.”