Waste in Birmingham: new opportunities for reducing and recycling

Charlotte Watkivs shopping at the Bullring outdoor market - CC Victòria Oliveres

Charlotte Watkivs shopping at the Bullring outdoor market – CC Victòria Oliveres

“Let’s try a whole year zero waste”.

It was Christmas 2016 when Bristolian Charlotte Watkivs, who currently lives in Birmingham, decided to make a change in her life. With her friend, Anna Jackson, they decided to break the habit of throwing things away.

From her shopping basket to her toilet cupboard, many little changes were made in an attempt to reduce the use of plastic, paper and food that would otherwise end up in a bin. “It’s about switching from disposable to reusable”, explains Charlotte.

“Everything has changed in terms of how I look at it, just to make sure I produce no waste. But, at the same time, I’m living just like I did before, it’s not like I’m having to compensate”, she says.

At the beginning, she thought it would be hard to keep a zero-waste lifestyle in Birmingham, and she had good reason. It is the tenth place in the country for the most residual waste generated in households.

Birmingham collected last year 719 kg of residual waste per household. According to data from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), it is nearly double the lowest local authority in the West Midlands: Statffordshire  with 384 kg per household.

This high level of residual waste relates to the bad position of the city in England’s recycling ranking. Birmingham only sent 24% of its collected waste for recycling on 2016-17, far from the national average of 44%.

The government set a target to achieve 50% recycling of household waste by 2020 for the UK, but the trend in Birmingham doesn’t point in that direction.

Last year, 5% more residual waste was collected than in 2010-11 and the recycling percentage decreased by 7 points. During the same period, the average performance in other populated cities improved whilst Birmingham’s declined.


“There is no reason why households in Birmingham won’t recycle as any other city in the world” says John Newson, from Birmingham Friends of Earth (BFoE), a campaigning group which asks for a more sustainable waste system.

What is different about Birmingham, from Newson’s perspective, is the collection system and the 25 years contract the city has with Veolia, the owner of Tyseley Energy Recovery Facility (ERF). This contract ends in 2019, what gives the city council an opportunity to change the current waste system.

A new waste strategy

Three years ago, Birmingham City Council (BCC) started a process to develop a different way to deal with its waste, which included a public consultation in summer 2016. Last October, the council issued a report on the drafted Waste Strategy 2017-2040, which is pending approval.

One of the objectives this new strategy pursues is to recycle and compost most of the waste or use it for generating energy (EfW). It also wants to eliminate the amount of waste sent to landfill.

The project appraised the option of “increasing the range of materials we [BCC] (and our partner organisations) collect separately from other waste, for example food waste and/or textiles”.

According to council data, there is a high percentage of materials in the city’s residual waste that could be recycled or composted, such as food waste (48%), paper and card (16%), garden waste (10%) and dense plastic (9%), but they are currently being burned in the incinerator.

Newson supports the idea of separate food collection because “when people see their food waste separated they change their shopping habits, so it’s waste prevention”. But Councillor Lisa Trickett, Cabinet Member for Clean Streets, Recycling and Environment, stated that “it is best to invest in education and awareness-raising to cut the amount of such waste”.

The City Council considered it would increase the costs but opens the door to future technology development that “may result in more cost-effective community based solutions for the treatment of food waste”.

Currently, cities like Bristol, Manchester and Coventry have separate food waste collections and achieve higher recycling rates than Birmingham. On the other hand, Liverpool rejected this measure on the same grounds as BCC.

Veolia Tyseley ERF - Google Maps

Veolia Tyseley ERF – Map data ©2018 Google

What the drafted waste strategy does propose is to mix different contracts instead of binding themselves together with a unique company, as it has been for 25 years with Veolia.

However, Tyseley ERF will still be an important part of the city’s waste system. The drafted strategy plans to upgrade the incinerator facility to keep “delivering value” from waste but in balance with promoting reduction, recycling and composting.

For John, these two objectives can’t be complementary. He would like to see the incinerator closed because “millions are needed to keep it running and it generates air pollution”. He thinks that if the recycling system was well designed, the ERF wouldn’t have enough residual waste to be cost-effective.

“The waste hierarchy is that you reduce, you recycle, and you compost. If we do all of these, we can dramatically shrink our waste problem”, says John.

“Recycling is a good place to start, but a bad place to stop”

Reducing is the core idea of the zero-waste movement, a group of people who think recycling is not enough. They put all their efforts into living without generating disposable waste.

“Recycling still takes a lot of energy and effort to break down those materials and make them into something new”, says blogger Charlotte Watkivs.

Tom Pell, who will open in Birmingham a shop without packaging later this year, adds that it is difficult to take all recyclable items to waste sorting plants because the collection system “is really confusing and things like light plastics often fly out of the bins”.

For them, the ideal is to find products or methods that can be used for a longer period. Charlotte puts the example of switching to disposable coffee cups, reading documents online and packing cutlery and a straw in our bag.

She admits “there is a lot of planning involved in terms of meals preparation and knowing the places you will go, but you get used to it.” For example, now she can’t get takeaway food from everywhere if she doesn’t bring her own box and must go shopping with her reusable bags and containers.

For John, it is a bit too much. “When we are out and about we can’t be always carrying all the containers that we may need”. That is why he asks for an improvement in the industry to make recyclable items. “We need a genuine disposable cup that can go into the paper recycling and won’t mess the system”, he suggests.

John Newson, campaigner with Birmingham Friends of Earth

John Newson, campaigner with Birmingham Friends of Earth – CC Victòria Oliveres

One of the challenges Pell fears about with the opening of his new shop, The Clean Kilo, is that people won’t go for the most convenient option. In his shop, costumers will be able to bring their containers or buy products in paper bags, akin to similar shops in London and Devon.

He hopes to combat this issue by competing with other supermarkets. “As we will be buying in such big amounts, we will get better prices”, says Tom. Also, he will allow consumers to buy only the quantity they need or they can afford. “You won’t have full bags laying in your kitchen cupboards!”.

Tom’s project has already received public’s support. This week marks the end of his crowdfunding project which made the shop possible and it achieved 129% of its initial goal. For Pell, it shows how many people are interested in changing their habits in the city.

Tom Pell, founder of The Clean Kilo shop

Tom Pell, founder of The Clean Kilo shop – CC Victòria Oliveres

Charlotte explains that she is actually saving money because she is shopping at the Bullring markets and doesn’t have to pay for the packaging. “I’m also wasting less food because I’m more conscious of portions”, she adds.

But not everything is in individuals’ hands. “The only way you can be zero waste is to be dead”, jokes Watkivs, “there is always going to be waste at some point. For example, the food that I get from the market arrived there in some way that I don’t know about”.

“I like to think that if I’m making a difference somewhere along the line, that is a reduction in waste somewhere, which is better than nothing”, says Charlotte, who considers herself an environmental activist.

For John Newson the importance is not in small actions but in spreading the word. “The important thing if you do something is that you tell other people. The effect isn’t that much if you didn’t take a disposable coffee cup, but if you do it and you tell other people, you are starting to change how people see things”, he says.

After six months in her cause, Watkivs realised there was a lot to talk about and started A Zero Waste Life blog with her friend Anna. “I learned from other people at the beginning, so I hope there will be things others can learn from us”.

Charlotte Watkivs, A Zero Waste Life blogger

Charlotte Watkivs, A Zero Waste Life blogger – CC Victòria Oliveres

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