Trust me, I know how annoying it is to care about our environment and see people destroying it. I spend hours every month picking up rubbish – mainly, but not exclusively, from the beach. I became a councillor to have more of a say in what happens with plastic in this country, or at least in East Devon. I know there are massive flaws in the system within the UK and the world, that have allowed councils to legitimately delegate responsibility of the end result of pollution by saying ‘we’ve done our bit’, which has led to some ‘recycled’ plastics ending up in developing countries, so we must constantly push to improve the system so that we can hold our heads high and know that we have done the right thing. Here in East Devon we track our plastic as far as we can in the system, and our dedicated team are fantastic at ensuring it is the best it can be. We have some fact-finding visits pencilled in for as soon as we are allowed to again post COVID, so that we can be instrumental in making sure that contracted processors are sticking to the high standards we need.
The council fully backs the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme which has been out for consultation and this will really improve the system. Find out more here.
With this in mind, I am trying to help change public opinions of the EDDC recycling collection service. I don’t want to do this by spending money on marketing and improving our glossy image. I want us to actually improve the service as well as encourage the public to see it as a team approach. Most of what is done is excellent and we are constantly in the top 10 recyclers, with the highest rates and the lowest per head rubbish statistics. However, often the very public bit – the collections – let the service down because of the complaints like ‘I pick more rubbish up after they’re gone than they took away’ and ‘there is more rubbish in our lanes since they started the collection than there ever was before’ and ‘I put out tidily and safe then the recycling guys arrive, empty the bins and just throw them on the floor’. All very valid points – but made on Facebook and only fed back to the team if one of us picks the posts up and does something about it – but all feedback that the council know about this acted upon- see below 🥴
So what should we do?
We had an issue this morning where our food waste bin wasn’t outside our house, so I went and looked for it and it was 3 doors down (and has a very clear number on it). Having a further walk around my road, I noticed that a lot of boxes from a back lane are all thrown together, and lids are skewed all over the floor.
This infuriates me because this is how lids get lost or broken, leading to further plastic in our environment and the need to order a replacement (but lids only come with boxes as they are all different sizes) so you have to get a new box too. All for the want of a bit of care. The partnership between the council and Suez was designed to stop this, but perhaps understandably but not acceptably this has slipped a bit in the past year. We are pushing this message all the time and we need to see this improve. One caveat though is time pressures – obviously the service needs to be done in the most efficient way, as any further resources needed for taking extra time will ultimately cost more money – and nobody wants their council tax to go up! As with all local government services, the balance is so delicate between doing the best service vs keeping costs down.
As a litter picker, I’ve been guilty of clearing up after the teams and not making a complaint, as I don’t like getting people ‘in trouble’. However, now I am sitting on the Recycling and Waste Joint Partnership Board between EDDC and Suez, and the complaint numbers get monitored and reacted to. These complaint numbers must be under a certain threshold for Suez to not be financially penalized. The numbers can lead to new training for the collection teams (as is about to happen imminently) and are taken VERY seriously. Crew behaviour effects resident participation so it is very much in the council’s interest to change things.
Crews have been struggling this last year. The number of qualified drivers has decreased because of the high pay offered by other industries for HGV drivers, that SUEZ cannot compete with, with the tight margins they operate within. Also covid ‘bubbles’ have meant that we have had entire crews isolating and having to be temporarily replaced by agency staff who aren’t as trained or as careful. Regulations regarding doors being closed on the recycling truck when it is moving etc have not been stuck to as they should have. The trouble with all of this is that we as the public see it all – it is hugely obvious to us when there is an issue, and we are very impatient to see it rectified.
Social media should take a little responsibility here too – if I post a negative post on a very public page, hundreds of people can read it and they store it away as another anecdote of a terrible problem. It may only have been one story that happened miles away, but it goes into the library in our brain that says ‘recycling teams are rubbish, I know somebody who…’ and we are all guilty of that I’m sure. People unhappy with a service are far more likely to complain than their happy counterparts are to praise, and that seems to be intensively so on social media. So we as councillors and the council have a really hard job to do turning around opinion – but we must start with retraining and accountability, and ‘owning’ the complaints and acting on them.
It’s worth mentioning here that the council make over 5 million collections every year, and no other service we run is as public facing. Every day the service is tested very visibly, and the missed bin rate is lower than 1%! 1% failure; in any other industry in the world a 99% success rate would be heralded as a fantastic achievement. Yet we know for the 1% this affects, this is a big issue. This is why I love being on the Recycling Board and why I will not stop pushing for the issues of container return, missed collections and crew behaviour to be improved, to help you all have confidence in our service. I hope if we do our bit to make things better, everyone can have pride in doing their part to think about the rubbish they generate. Reducing and re-using instead of consuming more and recycling as much as possible when you do have to throw things away.
If I can urge you to do one thing, it would be to officially complain about bad service you witness, rather than sticking it on Facebook. [or maybe put the odd comment supporting the work on social media! – that would make a nice change 🥴) To complain officially, (or to praise improvements and good customer service) and help to improve the service, vIsit eastdevon.gov.uk/recycling-and-waste and click Live Chat to talk to somebody about an issue you are having. You can also order new containers and sign up for the green waste scheme there. If you want to record a contractor complaint, either phone 01395 517528, email email@example.com or click eastdevon.gov.uk/customer-services/feedback-and-complaints (or email me and I will take it further for you).