Moving forward with waste collection services

Waste collections have been high profile in Edinburgh in recent weeks. Green Environment spokesperson Cllr Chas Booth outlines a Green way forward.

Who would want to work on the bins? It is hard, physical work, you won’t get rich doing it and any weaknesses in the service are visible straight away.

But there is no doubt that waste collection services are under a lot of pressure just now. Figures obtained by my colleague Steve Burgess in August showed that there were over 50,000 complaints last year, up by a third on the previous year. A further question in September showed that the complaints are spread throughout the year and throughout the city.

The response from the Labour-SNP council administration, while acknowledging that there is an issue to tackle, seems to be that the complaints are only a tiny minority of all collections. I have to say that, in my meetings with senior staff and with trade union Unite, that alibi has not been used. Residents who see overflowing or overdue bins, especially on a repeated basis, or who complain without any apparent action, are right to feel aggrieved and the service has to improve.

Unite are also right to point out that there is a funding backdrop to the problem with 9 straight years of council tax freeze and an increasing proportion of the waste budget going to landfill tax, although, again that is not to ignore the need for improvement within the funding available. And it is essential that we see an end to the scapegoating of workers. Whatever the source of the problem, and whatever the various solutions, frontline staff are an essential part of the way forward and need to feel that this is the case.

Getting the service right matters for the city. It matters on a day to day level as residents deserve a service which picks bins up on time, has the bins in the right place and leaves streets clean and tidy. And it matters because, like all councils, Edinburgh urgently needs the goodwill of all residents to dramatically cut the amount of waste going to landfill, by reducing what is produced in the first place, by repairing and re-using where possible, and by recycling the rest. That goodwill can only be earned if council services are seen to be working effectively.

So, with that in mind, I have set out ten key points, for review, which I think will make a difference. I look forward to hearing the Council’s proposals for improvement in due course, and underline that Green councillors will continue to work constructively with the trade unions, council managers and council leaders to improve the city’s waste collection service.

Green councillors’ 10-point plan for review of Edinburgh Council’s waste collection service.

1. Focus on waste reduction, reuse and recycling

Completely review the council’s waste reduction strategy, to ensure we are learning the lessons of other local authorities and pursuing best practice in relation to waste reduction, reuse and recycling. We must reduce the overall volume of waste the council has to deal with. Examples could include support for and expansion of re-use networks such as Freegle and social enterprises such as Remade;

2. Review routes and bin locations

Review waste collection routes, to ensure none are ‘unfinishable’, and all routes are planned with sufficient time for trips to the depot to empty. Also review the capacity, location and collection frequency of communal bins to ensure they’re in the right place. Work closely with waste collection crews and residents on this review – their perspective and input will be crucial to getting the routes right;

3. Continue to improve industrial relations

Recognise that industrial relations have improved in the years since the failed privatisation of the Edinburgh bins service, but more work is needed. In particular the council must work collectively and co-operatively with trade unions to ensure views of workers are included; review health and safety within refuse collection and review the ‘task and finish’ scheme to deliver a safe, efficient service which collects all our city’s waste on time and pays workers a fair wage for a fair day’s work;

4. Review expenditure and procurement

Review expenditure on the waste service in light of increases in landfill tax and other cost increases to ensure we are not under-investing in the service. Also review the procurement stream for waste vehicles, to ensure the waste service has the right working vehicles at the right time;

5. Roll out new technology

Noting that pilots of new GPS-based technology are coming to an end, the council needs to accelerate the city-wide roll out of this technology. Pilots suggest this system for planning and delivering waste delivery routes and tracking missed bin collections is quick, efficient and cost-effective and can significantly improve service delivery. It’s also essential that staff have all the training they need to use it;

6. Review customer service system and support for householders

Review the customer service system to ensure that householders are provided with accurate and up-to-date information on any missed bins and the reasons for those missed collections and an accurate assessment of when the missed collection will be picked up. The customer service system should be focused on solving the root cause of customer complaints, not simply addressing the symptoms, so we move to a ‘getting it right first time’ approach. We must also review the information and support that is available to householders, including reviewing the leaflets and information on the council’s website; reviewing whether the council can offer cost-price recycling and waste bins for flats and other smaller households;

7. Remove the threat of privatisation

Rule out any privatisation of the waste service, as a distraction from focusing on improving the service as a core part of what the council does;

8. Introduce new city-wide task force

Introduce a new city-wide, fast-response, task-force unit to respond to reports of overflowing or missed bin collections or dumping. This team would have an advice/enforcement role to advise householders on how to improve recycling, and the power to issue fixed penalty notices to those who deliberately and consistently flout the rules;

9. Review the environmental warden service

Review the environmental warden service to ensure we have sufficient wardens to catch and, where appropriate, issue fixed penalty notices to those businesses who abuse our waste system by using domestic waste bins to dispose of trade waste;

10. Introduce a consistent policy on “side waste” and review charging for special uplifts

Introduce, with the input and consultation of waste collection crews, a consistent city-wide approach to clearing rubbish put next to a bin (so-called ‘side waste’) and clearing any spilled waste from the areas around bins. This must be a pragmatic approach, recognising that in some cases side waste is a result of insufficient uplifts. Also review whether the charging regime for special uplifts is contributing to the problem of dumping, and pilot innovative approaches to the reuse and recycling of bulky items such as an annual ‘reuse day’.