Time For A New Hierarchy?

Back in the 1980s there was a dramatic shift in the perception of waste. It went from being something that was simply disposed of to becoming a resource. This, in turn, gave rise to a disposal hierarchy and the “reduce, reuse, recycle and dispose” mantra that we are now familiar with.
Skip forward 30 years… whilst the UK’s perception of waste has changed, its approach to waste collection hasn’t. Even today, typical collection methods are steeped in the 19th century. Of course, there have been some changes, such as a diesel-powered truck replacing the grass-fed horse and cart, but waste is still manually collected from individuals’ homes, dumped in the back of a vehicle and transported to its point of treatment or disposal.
Given the pace of technological advancement across every other aspect of modern living, is this really how waste management in the 21st century should look? Do we really want the lasting memories of visitors to the UK, a globally competitive 21st century country – supposedly a world leader – to be one of black bin bags strewn across pavements?
There is also the question of space. Many cities are building at densities of 250 homes per hectare, with some parts of London developing 400 homes per hectare. At these densities, not only is the provision of sufficient car parking spaces difficult for developers to accommodate, but also the environment is compromised by the regularity of waste collection trucks. Space for sufficient bin storage is reduced, which means the ability to meet the need for waste separation with fortnightly collections becomes hugely compromised. Also, in areas where land values are high, but where apartments or tower blocks are not considered desirable, developers are utilising roof spaces to provide a garden, thereby eliminating traditional wheeled bin storage space.
Urbanisation is intensifying and the only way to accommodate a rapidly growing population is to build upwards, as opposed to outwards, which only places even more pressure on the UK’s waste infrastructure. So what are the barriers and why aren’t we addressing this problem?

The Stumbling Block

One of the key stumbling blocks is that the waste collection authority is not a statutory consultee to the planning process. This means that the local authority is rarely contacted until the developer, or even householder, requires a waste disposal solution, by which point it is too late to implement an alternative to bins. And, as is often the case post-development, the road infrastructure cannot cope with being serviced by large trucks, particularly if there is no turning circle, which means that heavy bins then need to be wheeled great distances by porters to where a truck can gain access to them.
So how do we change this? Quite simply, just as the disposal hierarchy has become commonplace, the UK now needs to introduce and adopt a waste collection hierarchy. At the bottom of this hierarchy would sit the physical handling of black bin bags and all the health and safety risks and smells associated with it. Manual collection by wheeled bins would be the next layer, but in this modern age collection operatives really shouldn’t have to haul around heavy loads, whilst negotiating traffic, to take waste to the collection truck only to then have to wheel it back to its designated collection point.
From a visual perspective (and as an aside), it’s ironic that a developer will spend thousands on designing and landscaping a site, only to then undo its good work by “bolting-on” poorly thought-out provisions for bins at the last minute, due to little consideration given to the collection of waste at the early stages. After all, how often do you see bins in a showroom?
The logical progression, as we move further up the hierarchy, would be automated wheeled bin collection, but this would be expensive, highly dependent on a number of external factors and variables and, arguably, dangerous. So, for the purposes of simplicity, the next layer of the pyramid would be underground waste storage and collection. It’s cleaner, more hygienic and enables waste to remain out of sight and out of mind. It also supports the diametrically opposed issue of a growing population combined with a reduction in developable land. Underground waste systems are commonly used in Europe and are in use in at least two London boroughs, with consideration being given in other boroughs across the country. However, whilst they represent an improvement over manual handling of bin bags and wheeled bins, they still depend on vehicles to visit each location and people to operate a lift to empty the container.
So, at the top of the hierarchy, the very pinnacle of the pyramid, must be a system where the storage and collection of waste is not only out of sight, freeing up valuable above-ground space, but also automated. Vacuum waste collection systems meet this specification. The waste is only handled and seen by the resident, who deposits it in an inlet from where it is transported to a main collection station under the power of vacuum as opposed to diesel, and where one bulk container, the equivalent of a hundred 1 100-litre large wheelie bins, is removed in a single collection.
Vacuum waste collection is now commonplace in many countries around the world. In South Korea, any development over 700 units must install an automated waste collection system in order to secure planning consent. Interestingly, the UK is arguably the slowest to embrace this approach.

Can We Do it?

Can this waste collection hierarchy be realised and, if so, how? I believe that it won’t be long before underground waste collection becomes de rigueur as space becomes even more restricted. Unlike the disposal mantra, which ultimately empowered those responsible for disposing of their waste and placed the ball in their court, a hierarchy based on collection is not in the hands of the public, but the hands of a collective that includes architects, planners, waste collection contractors and, of course, local authorities. And, in order for this collective to drive forward this hierarchy, there needs to be legislative change. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is now issuing guidance that development schemes where more than 50 1 100-litre wheeled bins are required, an alternative solution must be presented.
Ultimately, legislative change driven by central government is what is required. How this could look is very much up for debate. However, it could take the form of a tax rebate whereby homeowners using underground automated waste collection would pay less Council Tax. After all, manual collections would no longer be required, thus reducing the local authorities waste collection costs.
There are lessons to be learnt here from other countries, such as those in Scandinavia and Europe, where the rebate model has proven to be a success. Another option could see local authorities denying a developer permission to build extra floors if underground waste collection isn’t integrated within the plan. Not only would this approach make the waste collection hierarchy a real and tangible model, but it would also future-proof the UK’s waste management provision and ensure that its cities are as clean, sustainable and as visually appealing as they can be.
We can no longer continue operate in the same way based on the notion of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. At present, we still have the choice to make positive changes to the way waste is collected but time is running out, developments are being built all the time and the population is continually growing. I am a firm believer of change if change is due, even if it means not following the crowd. Sadly, in the case of the UK’s waste collection infrastructure, the opportunity to lead by example and be the pioneer has already escaped us. We now need to be the followers and emulate those in mainland Europe who have already paved the way when it comes to underground waste collection and succeeded, before it is too late.