Only 22.5% of household waste is recycled and the city is heavily dependent on incineration
“There are a lot of things that you can’t recycle here,” says Claire Douglas, sitting on a bench in Birmingham’s Cathedral Square. It’s a sunny afternoon in May and the place is full of people enjoying the spring.
“Until five years ago I lived in Hackney and everyone recycles everything there, but when I moved here I noticed that very little is being collected.”
Actually, she is not entirely correct. Hackney is no poster child for recycling: according to Defra’s latest data, the London borough ranks 310th out of 338 English local authorities, with only 28% of household waste recycled in 2020.
But there is one thing Ms Douglas is right about: in Birmingham things are even worse.
The city ranks 335th in recycling, fourth from the bottom. And over the last decade, the recycling rate has fallen from 31.5% to 22.5%, bucking the national trend over the same period, which rose from 41.5% to 42.3%.
This minor rise was not enough for the country to meet the commitment made to Europe in 2008 to recycle 50% of its waste in 2020. The next target of 55% by 2025 seems even more unreachable in Birmingham.
“It’s not new that we have a low recycling rate,” says John Newson, lead waste campaigner for the environmental organisation Birmingham Friends of the Earth. “But it’s getting worse. We’ve been going down that league table
“The problem is how the city’s collection system is designed and organised. The council treats waste as rubbish, and that attitude has transferred to the public who sees waste as not having a value or a purpose.”
The recycling system in Birmingham
In Birmingham, waste trucks make two separate collections: one for dry recycling — paper, glass, cardboard, plastic, cans — and one for residual waste — all the rest. Those who pay £50 a year also get a third collection of their garden waste.
In 2020–21, over 463,000 tonnes of waste was collected, about 355 kilos per person — 15% less than the England average.
But residual waste, the waste that was not recycled or composted, was 695 kilos per household — 25% more than the national average.
In other words, although less waste is produced here, significantly less is recycled.
Of the residual waste — 77.5% of the total waste — 8% was sent to landfill and the rest was burned to produce energy in a huge incineration plant located in Tyseley.
Officially called Tyseley Energy Recovery Facility (ERF), the plant is owned by the city, but managed by the local subsidiary of the French multinational Veolia.
Tyseley ERF is Birmingham’s largest CO2 emitter: in 2020 it burned 358,063 tonnes of waste and produced 175,003 MWh of energy, according to its accounts report.
“It generates electricity and we get some money from that,” ” says Newson. “But we’re paying for a huge collection effort and losing all the value of what is burnt.
“Other local authorities do things very differently and separate the materials in a much clearer way. And some of them have got pretty good at it: those who don’t have access to an incinerator.
“There is a low recycling rate because there’s a high incineration rate,” he says. “If the council is not identifying any value in the materials, they are giving the message that it’s all rubbish.”
Veolia also runs the five Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs), located in Castle Bromwich, Kings Norton, Perry Barr, Sutton Coldfield and Tyseley. Residents can take their dry recycling materials there, which are added to those collected on the kerbside and sent to one of the company’s Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs).
Many proposals, poor results, a lot of improvisation
Waste management and low recycling rates are a hot topic for the council. In the last decade, several studies and reports from external consultants were ordered, neighbours were surveyed and many different strategies and plans were discussed.
But so far there have been no tangible results.
In 2017 the council drafted an ambitious Waste Strategy for 2040, with the idea of “developing a more sustainable Birmingham” in which the amount of waste is reduced and reuse and recycling are maximised.
The document acknowledged that there is “potential” to improve rates and that to do so it is important to increase the amount of materials that are collected separately.
It also sets out some targets where there has been little progress so far:
- To reduce the amount of waste produced per person by 10% by 2025 compared to 2014/15 (currently 3% higher)
- To eliminate landfill by 2040 (currently 6.5% of waste is sent to landfill)
- To recycle 70% of waste (currently 22.5%, almost 30% less than ten years ago) by 2040
The document also calls for an investment of £44.2m to extend the life of the Tyseley incinerator until 2034 and the “potential building” of a new Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) owned by the city “as opposed to procuring that service through the market”.
This project has not progressed so far either.
The management of the Tyseley plant and the HWRCs is central to any policy on waste and recycling. That is why the 2017 Waste Strategy particularly highlighted the importance of getting ready for the end of the £750 million contract signed in 1994 with Veolia.
It was the opportunity to take back control of the waste system for the first time in 25 years, renegotiate the terms or look for another provider.
“One of the key deliverables of the waste strategy,” the document points out, “is the requirement to have a procurement strategy that will ensure suitable contracting arrangements (or alternative delivery models) are in place ahead of the expiry of the current contract in January 2019.”
What happened two years later, however, was a major improvisation.
On 16 January 2019, one day before the contract was due to expire, the Cabinet hastily approved an extension until 2024, arguing that it had not had time to re-award the contract.
The Cabinet ignored concerns from the Resources Committee, which a week earlier had called off the decision saying that it risked wasting a large amount of money and potentially giving Veolia an unfair advantage over other competitors.
“The council basically didn’t prepare for the end of the contract, they didn’t put in place any sort of alternative,” says Cllr Julien Pritchard, from Green Party. “And they didn’t even do a proper contract to continue it, because the extension was an emergency one.
“Because of that last-minute extension, they have been since quite resistant to changing anything for the current contract negotiation. They say it will take longer than five years to build things like anaerobic digesters or other alternatives so their only option is to do a new contract procurement, which extends it again and keeps the incinerator another 10 or 15 years. They haven’t really used the time that they’ve had to look beyond 2019.”
The negotiations were kept secret by commercial sensitivity, but according to the council’s public figures, the new contract with Veolia up to 2024 is for £87.5 million.
Food waste is key to improve recycling rates
In November last year, Parliament passed the Environment Act, establishing a legislative framework to tackle the climate crisis.
In the section on waste, the Act calls for weekly food waste collections, which are expected to be mandatory from 2023.
So far, only half of England’s local authorities meet this requirement — 160 councils, according to data from Wrap’s LA portal.
Birmingham City Council is not one of them, although a 2016 survey showed that 48% of the city’s residual waste is food waste.
The link between food waste collection and recycling rates is clear. According to an analysis of Wrap and Defra data by Birmingham Eastside, all 20 councils with the best recycling rates by 2020–2021 have separate food waste collections, while among those 20 authorities with the worst recycling rates, only four do.
This is not a new issue for the council.
In 2010, a report commissioned by the city from Enviros Consulting detailed among its key findings the need to prepare for food waste collection, which requires specific infrastructure:
“In terms of future planning in Birmingham there is a need to consider the waste types, for example […] food waste which the authority may wish to plan for managing in the future and the type of facilities which the authority may wish to focus on planning to accommodating, for example anaerobic digestion.”
Ten years later, however, the “Route to Zero Action Plan” published by the council in December 2020, admitted that there was no funding planned for food waste collection and it would have to be raised if legislation made it mandatory:
“The change to collection of food waste will require significant investment (containers, vehicles, increase in staffing etc.) which BCC does not currently have funding for as a non-statutory requirement.”
“In my view, we need to commit to providing food waste collection as soon as practicable,” says Cllr Julien Pritchard. “But there are no plans at the moment, nothing concrete. The council’s line has always been: ‘We’ll only do a free waste collection if the government tells us we have to and we won’t do it just off our own back.’”
At the time of publishing this article, the council had not officially responded to queries about the city’s low recycling rates, the reason for extending the life of the Tyseley plant until 2034, when separate food waste collection will begin, or whether there had been any progress on building a proprietary Materials Recycling Facility.
Lack of information and fly-tipping
“I think recycling is very important, but sometimes it is a bit confusing, because they don’t tell you properly what material you can recycle,” says Henry Williams, a cleaner supervisor who lives in Edgbaston.
Like Ms Douglas, he too is spending some time in the sun, sitting on one of the benches at the Cathedral Square. “The council should tell you more about recycling.”
A citizen survey conducted by the council in 2016 revealed that people understood the importance of recycling, but clearer information was needed as well as “more regular communications, engagement and education regarding waste management.”
Mr Williams says that, however, what bothers him most is fly-tipping. “It’s actually disgusting. Where I live, they put outside every day fridges, mattresses, stuff like that, because they don’t want to pay to get them removed. But that cause a lot of problems, like rats.”
Although Birmingham is said to have one of the highest fly-tipping rates, it is difficult to make an exact comparison, because the council’s statistics are based on customer reported fly-tips only and do not include incidents reported by its own staff, as is the case with most other local authorities.
According to Defra’s data, the rate in Birmingham for 2020–21 was 19.9 fly-tipping incidents per 1000 people, which puts it slightly above the national average of 18, but in a significantly better position than other major cities such as London (42.7), Manchester (26.8) and Liverpool (48.6).
Not far from Mr Williams, Jamie, a young city employee wearing a fluorescent orange bib, uses his litter picker to pick up an empty crisp packet from the grass. He stuffs it into a grey bag he carries with him and continues to walk around the square, cleaning the litter.
That’s what he does every afternoon for six hours. “It just depends on the day and the weather, if it sunny like today and it’s crowded, it takes me about 30 or 40 minutes to fill a bag,” he says. He also changes the bags in the rubbish bins in the square when they are full. In all, he collects about 30 bags per shift.
If you ask Jamie why he thinks people throw rubbish on the ground that he then has to pick up, he says he is not sure why they do it. “I think they just don’t care. I don’t generally see older people doing it. It’s always teenagers and young people,” he says.
Then he ties the bag in a knot and before leaving it with many others on the corner of Temple Row, where a truck will pick them up later, he adds with a smile: “It does annoy me. But I suppose it also keeps me on the job.”