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A Magazine for Sheffield

Brown Bin Boogie

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Jim Spendlove

By October, most Sheffielders found new brown wheelie bins arriving outside their home. Changes are needed because UK household waste recycling seems to have reached a plateau. The Sheffield local authority rate of recycling, reuse and composting is dismally low at 29.6% of household waste in 2016-17, according to WasteDataFlow.

The new three-bin system is for every type of dwelling. The brown bins are for glass, metal and plastic - containers and tops only, not plastic pots, tubs, trays or plastic bags. Trigger sprays are OK, but not pump dispensers. Got that? The blue bins become paper and card only, and excess cardboard can now be squashed flat, tied up and left next to blue bins. And blue boxes? Retired, to become things like "planters, toy boxes and garden storage containers" - or we can, ironically, have them recycled.

The hope is to make efficiency savings of £750,000 per year. The changes were based on the experience of other cities. A three-bin system "captures more material from people," says Gillian Charters, Sheffield City Council's Head of Waste Management. She admits it's a matter of 'transitioning' people.

People slowly became aware of the need to recycle, but weren't nudged into separating their waste in Sheffield until 2010. Groups like the Scouts had previously been collecting waste paper. To recycle glass and metal, we had to travel, probably by car, to eternally overflowing recycling points. A Sheffield charity, Reclaim, pioneered recycling through providing employment to people with learning difficulties.

Now at least we only have one day of the week to memorise

The frequent changes since 2010 do seem a bit much. We've had green bins for garden and waste, planned for the whole city, then replaced by hessian sacks, then later withdrawn. Veolia now charges for this service. Blue boxes were added for plastic bottles, glass and metal, but in fact the hard-to-lift boxes actually reduced the amount of paper and card collected. The weekly system also went haywire, with some residents having to keep a calendar of collections on different days of the week. Now at least we only have one day of the week to memorise.

I feel sorry for the refuse collectors working for Veolia, criticised from all sides. I've also got sympathy for the Council - skint, and labouring under a trial-by-competition approach to policy development. If we could time-travel back to the 50s, some civil servant boffins could invent a decent, unified UK recycling system. Back to the future, the Council's contract with Veolia ends in August 2036.

Perhaps it'll be OK. This scheme may be better than the last, but a lot more could be done. Plastic residue is killing our seas and air quality is dire. The problem is global and approaches vary. Some countries sort their household waste into many categories and some have twice weekly collections. Others reduce waste by enforced deposits on containers, like the UK in the old days. In parts of Derbyshire, food waste is collected. In Leeds, aerosol cans can be recycled.

Recycling was normal in pre-industrial societies. This is just a small step in its reintroduction. When the Council commits to using totally safe materials, properly biodegradable, then I'll believe change is coming. Let's wait and see.

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