September 2009 heralded misery for householders as Leeds dustbin crews went on strike. Three years on the council argues the service is now forging ahead with improvements, as David Marsh reports.
FOR a city with an ambition to be greener and cleaner the images were not good.
Rubbish piled up on the streets and overflowing wheelie bins were a common sight in the autumn of 2009.
The city’s dustbin crews were in the midst of an 11-week on strike – the bitter dispute sparked by a new pay and grading structure drawn up to meet a national equal pay agreement.
It left bin workers facing wage cuts of up to £4,500 to their £17,500 annual salary.
The solution to the strike agreed between the unions and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition then running the council proved to be something of a turning point for refuse collection in the city. Union members voted to accept a deal that maintained their pay levels in return for increased productivity and modernisation brought about largely by reducing the number of collection routes.
In the wake of the strike, the introduction in 2010 of the council’s “route rationalisation” plan threatened to cause almost as much disruption as the strike as, by the council’s own admission, it highlighted a range of technical, management and data problems and left people across the city complaining that their bins were not being emptied.
But as the third anniversary of the strike approaches, Coun Mark Dobson, executive member for environment and the man charged with the task of driving the refuse collection service forward, believes the city has had the pain and now it is time for the gain.
He points to a series of improvements that have taken place over the last three years and says more are planned.
He said: “Trying to rationalise the routes showed our technology, management and data were nowhere near where they needed to be and we have invested in them significantly and it’s paying off.”
In 2004 there were 679 missed bin collections per 100,000 compared to a current figure of 92 per 100,000.
A target to recycle 40 per cent of the waste collected has been hit and now the council has an ambition to lift that proportion to 55 per cent by 2016.
“Given that we empty in excess of 2m bins a month the collection rate is a remarkable achievement,” said Coun Dobson.
“The change in the three years since the dispute has frankly been remarkable. We have taken seven routes out so we have staff working considerably harder.
“Hats off to the workforce that has delivered those improvements on behalf of the city. I have been out with the crews and I can say it’s hard graft and no picnic.”
Further reductions in the number of missed bins and more efforts to drive up recycling rates are just some of the things on the city’s refuse collection agenda.
Council officials are currently working on plans to introduce fortnightly bin collections to 40,000 households in a pilot scheme linked to longer term proposals to collect food waste from 254,000 homes across the city.
The pilot is due to start before March next year, although there has been no announcement about which neighbourhoods will be included in the trial. Once up and running black bins, which take waste destined for landfill and are emptied weekly, and green bins – for recyclable material and currently emptied monthly – will both be collected fortnightly. The pilot area is also earmarked for weekly foodwaste collections.
The council has submitted a £17.6m bid to the government to support the introduction of weekly food waste collections. If the bid is successful, food waste will be collected from homes taking part in the pilot before being rolled out to 80 per cent of all Leeds households.
The cash will be spent on 25 new vehicles to collect food waste, 254,000 bins and kitchen caddies for residents, a new depot for the collection trucks and two new gas refuelling stations. The council already has one gas refuelling station and one of its 70 recycling and rubbish wagons is powered by biomethane, which has shown a 60 per cent reduction in harmful carbon emissions compared to traditional vehicles. Earlier this year the council agreed to buy eight more biomethane-powered waste trucks.
As well as being cleaner and greener, the council is confident purchasing the trucks will save the authority money.
With the cost of biomethane less than diesel, gas-powered bin wagons that would collect recycling from homes across the city would look to protect the council from increasing fuel costs.
It has been estimated introducing food waste collections to 80 per cent of households would create 100 jobs as more staff would be needed to crew the vehicles. A decision on the bid for funds is expected later this year.
It would also boost the city’s recycling rates. Over 8,400 residents in Rothwell already have their food waste collected and turned into compost every week. Their recycling rates are almost double that of Leeds households with standard bin services.
The food waste collected in Rothwell is currently sent a facility that turns it into compost. The council says other options for treating the waste are being explored. Opening up other opportunities for the council to reduce the environmental impact even further.
Coun Dobson said: “The Rothwell pilot has shown there is a willingness among the public for us to collect food waste but financial restrictions make it difficult for that to happen. That is why the £17.6m bid is so important.
“Food waste collections open up all sorts of possibilities. If we get into anaerobic digestion we could convert the waste into bio fuels to run our vehicle fleet.”
Three years on from the strike the unions also appear to be on board with the changes the council is trying to make.
A Unison spokesman said: “We are working hard with the council to help them achieve they changes they wish to make while at the same time securing decent pay and conditions for our members.
“Since the dispute we have worked with the council to reorganise the service and it’s an on-going dialogue.”
Coun Andrew Carter, Conservative group leader, said: “The simple fact is all the changes that were supposed to have been delivered following the strike have not taken place.
“The projected savings and service improvements have not been delivered in full.
“Some householders are still experiencing problems with their collection even now. I don’t think anyone can claim all of the improvements have taken place.”