In the first of a series of articles marking national recycling week, Aisha Iqbal talks to key figures about Leeds’s quiet green revolution, and its recycling roadmap.
IF recycling was a football league, then Leeds would be a solid middle-of-the-table performer – but it should be aiming for the top of the premiership.
So believes Friends of the Earth campaigner and regional head for the North Simon Bowens.
Leeds’s recycling rates have shot up dramatically in the last decade, and continue to escalate rapidly.
But, says Mr Bowens, the city has the resources - and the public will - to aim much higher.
Last summer, Leeds was regularly hitting above 50 per cent recycling - more than FOUR times the average rates achieved in 2001/02. Across the board, the city recycled almost 44 per cent of its waste, in line with the national average.
The city is already undergoing somewhat of a recycling revolution, it seems.
The rollout of alternate weekly collections, despite some early scepticism, has been a massive success, with 170,000 homes now served, and hopes high that 80 per cent of the city will eventually be covered. The move has helped divert 6,500 tonnes of waste from landfill since April 2013. As landfill tax costs the city £80 per tonne, that’s a saving of £500,000.
The maths is simple - the more we recycle, the more we save,
Government targets, led by European directives, are that all councils must recycle at least 50 per cent of their waste by 2020.
Leeds is well on the way to topping that target, aiming to achieve 55 per cent by 2016 and 60 per cent before 2020.
But although we are doing better overall than big-city rivals like Manchester and Birmingham, we are still behind many others, including West Yorkshire neighbours Bradford (51 per cent) and Calderdale (60 per cent). Calderdale especially has been boosted by its ability to recycle milk and drinks cartons, something Leeds currently does not do.
One UK council, Rochford in Essex, is already achieving 66 per cent recycling, and has weekly waste food collections as well as fortnightly recycling bin rounds. Several others are already over the 50 per cent mark.
But they are all left in the shade by Flanders, in Belgium, which composts and diverts a staggering 75 per cent of its waste materials.
Mr Bowens, who has previously advised Leeds City Council on its recycling policy, and whose group lobbied for years for doorstep green waste collections, says there is no reason why Leeds cannot reach that same level by 2020.
“If we go back 10 years, we were recycling something like 12 per cent of our waste,” Mr Bowens told the YEP.
“We’ve seen quite significant growth over the last decade. However there is a big disparity between local authorities, and we are still significantly behind some of the best practice in Europe.
“Flanders are recycling or composting three quarters of their waste. THAT’s the benchmark of what we should be achieving.
“Let’s not be the dirty men of Europe, let’s go for the 75 per cent – we can do it in six years.
“There’s lots of public support for it. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing it in Leeds, with the right level of ambition, of turning aspiration into action and delivery.
“We are mid-table. We are the Stoke City of recycling. We try hard but we could do better.”
He acknowledges many people work extremely hard in the city to push a greener vision.
But he is critical of much of the council’s approach, specifically its Cross Green incinerator project, which he believes was not the best option for the city due to issues like emissions and types of technology used.
Councillor Mark Dobson, the city’s cabinet spokesman on recycling and waste strategy, says Leeds has “come an awfully long way” on its recycling roadmap.
Recent changes like the fortnightly collections have allowed the city to be “more ambitious”, he says, and “we will get there” when it comes to targets.
He is confident the city’s new energy-from-waste facility at Cross Green - the Leeds incinerator - will help, because unlike a lot of centres, it will have front-of-house recycling and will burn, and convert into energy, up to 200,000 tonnes of household non-recyclable waste every year.
Despite heavy and continuing criticism of the project from some quarters, he insists it is “the right solution for Leeds”. “The selected technology was a result of a thorough evaluation of the options,” he said. “And the ‘alternatives’ most often referred to have a patchy track record of success.”
Coun Dobson acknowledges the logistical and landscaping issues which mean only 80 per cent of the city can be covered by fortnightly green bins. And he has been vocal in his disappointment at a failed bid for £13m of Government funding which would have paid for weekly collections of food waste across the city. Currently, only 12,500 homes in Rothwell have the facility as part of a pilot project. Hopes are still high that this part of the city’s recycling jigsaw will be filled in eventually.
Coun Dobson admits there are other “difficulties and challenges” - including cashflow - which will stop the city getting to its recycling vision quicker, but that “is not because the will isn’t there”.
“There is a lot more to do in Leeds and we never rest on our laurels, but the direction of travel is a very positive one,” he said.
“We have mixed our services, and focused really heavily on recyclables, and I think it’s starting to pay huge dividends. We have a great team pushing this agenda, but more and more it is public-driven. “
Referring to the previous public scepticism about fortnightly green/black bin collections, he said a lot of the feedback he hears now is ‘we weren’t sure, but it works’, and recycling as a concept seems to be embedded in the public consciousness.
Susan Upton is Leeds council’s chief officer for waste management, and has helped formulate much of the city’ recycling policy as well as guiding the operational side.
She says that in the context of the size, scope and diversity of Leeds, its current recycling performance is “fantastic”.
“Year on year, Leeds has improved by 2.5 per cent,” she said. “Last year, we saw that escalate to 3.5 per cent.
“We are matching our expectation, and we can confidently say that if you recycle it, we will deliver for Leeds.”
She says the city’s recycling infrastructure - its eight household waste sites, its range of ‘bring’ sites and bottle banks, its kerbside collections and its dedicated green materials recycling and sorting facility in Beeston - help ensure an efficient overall service which is improving all the time.
“We want to give people confidence,” she said. “We also want to make sure that quality material goes to reprocessing.”
Coun Dobson adds: “People were hoping that we would be getting our act together in terms of allowing them increased opportunities for recycling, and that is what we have done.
“It always comes with challenges. There are 760,000 people living in Leeds, and to change services is a huge logistical and strategic task.
“But we decided to lead from the front, and we are really rising to what the public demands of us.
“Everything we bury is costing us money. That’s got to change, because that money goes straight back into frontline services.
“But let’s face facts – down the line we have not got an infinite resource in terms of paper, cardboard, plastics - and we really do have to think about the future.
“I want Leeds to be an exemplar of good practice.”
Tomorrow: We go behind the scenes with Leeds’s green bins collections team.