The borough’s 25-year waste recycling contract with French-owned Suez will expire in 2023. That presents council chiefs and staff with an opportunity to shake up the way our garbage is collected – and what happens to it afterwards.
Kirklees Council aims to embrace a waste hierarchy founded on the four Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover. How that evolves over the next five years will largely depend on what’s in the Government’s forthcoming Environment Bill.
As far as the council is concerned, it has lofty ambitions to be the best performing waste authority in the UK by 2030.
Presently it’s one of the worst, with a household waste recycling rate of just 26.7 per cent according to statistics for 2019/20 released by the Government Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
That compares with an overall average figure for England of 43.8 per cent.
In recent years the council has been criticised for failing to match up to neighbouring local authorities, whose contracts allow for wider recycling.
The cause was the cheap Suez contract, signed under a private finance initiative (PFI) in 1998. Dubbed “visionary” back then, it recycled 34 per cent of the borough’s waste. That’s about to change.
The council’s new resource and waste strategy is being described as “a generational change for the authority”. What’s more, and crucially, it requires a significant buy-in from the public who will be asked to do their bit.
“The contract in 1998 was visionary,” said the council’s head of operational services, Will Acornley.
“It set out to do something that no other authority was [doing]: moving waste out of landfill into energy generation. It’s been incredibly good value for money.
“We’re talking about paying 50 per cent of what other authorities are paying for similar things. But it was at a point in time – and it’s a very long contract. The context has changed now.
“Some of that has led to frustrations and we have had some situations where the contract has dictated the outcomes that we wanted.
“We’re not focusing on the contract as the main plan of the strategy; we are flipping it [so] that the strategy is what we want to deliver and the contract will help deliver that. There’s a different nuance to it, but I think an important one.”
Senior councillor Naheed Mather, the council’s cabinet member for environment, said commercial sensitivities prevented her discussing the cost of the existing contract or any new one that would be put out to procurement.
However she confirmed that the authority is in negotiations with Suez and will work alongside it until the current contract ends.
She said: “This is going to be one of the biggest spends for a long time. We’ve got to get it right. We can not give it to our ‘friends’.
“We can not say we’ll go with the same [partner]. It has to be a procurement and when it goes out tenders will come in and they will be assessed.
“But currently speaking we are working alongside our contractor to make change that’s necessary to get us to that point.”
The new strategy, for which an outline business plan will be delivered in September, represents the culmination of four years’ work behind the scenes. Any future contract is likely to run for between ten and 15 years.
But for Coun Mather, Mr Acornley and their team, much of what they decide to do with our waste will be predicated on the contents of the forthcoming Environment Bill,
That legislation aims to make producers pay for the cost of collection and recycling or recovery of material, and promotes a “circular economy”. Consequently it drives innovation in packaging so the amount of waste produced is cut over time with no costs for the people collecting it.
Government will dictate what councils like Kirklees have to collect on the kerbside by certain dates as well as introducing other aspects such as deposit return schemes and a so-called “plastic tax”.
That means glass and plastic bottles could be returned to retailers – such as big supermarket chains – rather than to bottle banks or put in recycling bins.
Mr Acornley said: “What’s playing out in local authorities as a concern is [the question], ‘Would you rather put it in your bin for free or take it back to Tesco to potentially get some financial discount off your shopping?’
“You’re probably going to want to take it to Tesco, which means the material that goes in our bins is going to change, get lessened or get more difficult for us to deal with.
“Until we can see in black and white what the Environment Bill is, and [get] a lot of this detail filled out, that’s the uncertainty that makes us nervous.”
So what of that other blot on the landscape: the scourge of fly-tipping? The council has been slammed for reducing what can be deposited at municipal tips, prompting a surge in waste being dumped across the district.
Coun Mather accepts the council bears some of the blame but that the boundaries of the waste contract as well as cutbacks driven by the government’s austerity programme have also had an impact.
“It’s a combination of things. I would be deluded to say one or the other.
“But fly-tipping isn’t a unique issue for Kirklees; it is an issue up and down the country.
“We were pressed to the bone [by cuts] and we are beginning to invest. At the bottom of it all is behavioural change. It’s about pride in place. It’s saying to people, ‘It’s not acceptable. Take your rubbish home’. Try and think how you use your environment. It’s not only yours, it’s for all of us.”
The council’s response to fly-tipping is to encourage the reporting of incidents combined with enforcement, additional cameras, work to find solutions to hotspots, a pilot community reward scheme, providing greater access to waste centres and allowing more materials than ever to be dumped at its recycling sites.
Longer opening hours are planned along with a broadening of materials that can be dumped plus the funding of bulky waste collection as well as mobile household waste sites for residents that don’t have transport and so the council will go to them.
Mr Acornley said the council’s focus was to “help people make the right choices.
“After austerity there were changes made that were difficult decisions but they were balanced against maintaining other services including children’s and adult services.
“We perhaps did make it more difficult for residents to make those decisions. The focus on this strategy is that we invest back into the services and we make sure that it’s easy to make the right decisions for our residents. So there’s less temptation than there is now.”
More than 7,000 people participated in the council’s consultation around waste. What’s in the new strategy will be guided by that feedback.
The council wants to take greater responsibility for what happens to its waste and keep sight of audit, visibility and control. That means not shipping products such as paper and plastic film abroad but instead supporting the creation of a domestic market to recover energy from it.
Creating heat from waste is also on the council’s agenda. It wants to evolve from energy recovery to making heat from waste that can heat Huddersfield town centre and beyond.
It has a three-phase plan that initially includes the town centre, Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, and the area around St Andrew’s Road including commercial and industrial sites.
Phase two would involve piping heat to council-owned homes, with phase three pushing heat out as far as Cooper Bridge.
The household waste recycling centre on Emerald Street, said to have between 10 and 15 years of useful life left, will remain. Replacing it is estimated to cost around £150m.
Its lifespan will come to an end around the same time as the new contract, starting in 2023, runs out.
If there is then a need to build something the council may want to look beyond the parameters of Huddersfield town centre. That’s a conversation for another day – along with the question of creating an anaerobic digester to process food waste, which may end up being a county-wide project.
Coun Mather said: “My message has always been waste less, save more, save the planet.
“Within that you can expect the services we are promising to deliver, to get better, faster, and together we will go on that journey.
“We are working to make sure that our ambitions are realised and we are not just talking in bland statements; we are putting in place a whole range of processes: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.”