Rubbish and its disposal looms large in the lives of households, and probably even larger in the consciousness of elected members and management teams in local authorities. English councils are set to spend £3.6bn in this area in 2017-18, accounting for around 8% of all council expenditure, at a time when councils are under continuing pressure to reduce costs because of austerity.
As if that wasn’t enough, councils need to meet an EU target of 50% of household waste to be recycled by 2020. From a peak of 45% recycled in 2014, reports suggest performance has been dropping away, making it likely that a significant number of councils will face fines for non-achievement of this goal.
The council website is the 24/7-available, single-version-of-the-truth vehicle for councils to communicate how they want residents to put out their rubbish. If they want to achieve the cost efficiencies of people getting things right first time, this is where they first need to focus effort.
Metropolitan districts, London boroughs, English, Scottish and Welsh unitary councils
As all householders know, ‘putting out the bins’ and separating and storing waste between collections has become not a little complicated, with a proliferation of bins, bags, and caddies coming into use. Added to this, every council does something different, even down to variations in the colour of bins used for the different categories of rubbish. With our question set we were looking to assess how clear councils are being about the key issues: what bins are collected when, what waste goes in which, what items will NOT be collected, and what happens when the householder gets any of these things wrong. Very often the upshot of a mistake by the householder will be a missed bin, something all parties want to avoid because of cost, inconvenience and dissatisfaction. Our survey covered just under half of all councils that do kerbside collections and found that 57% of them provide a good or very good service for this task, with some excellent practice revealed in our recommended councils.
Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2016-17 results
Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey
Better connected rankings
*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off
Putting the bins out has got a lot more complicated because of the need for councils to recycle more waste. The problem is, every council does it differently, even for the most basic of things, like what category of rubbish goes in which colour of bin. Here, for example, are the high-level arrangements for houses as presented by the first three London boroughs we reviewed:
Barking & Dagenham:
Grey bin - food and non-recyclables
Brown bin - paper & plastic
Green bin - garden waste
Black bin - general waste
Brown bin - food waste
Blue bin - mixed recycling
Green bin - garden waste
Green bin - for non-recyclables
Brown box - food recycling
Green box - paper and cardboard
Maroon box - plastic packaging, cartons and cans
Black box - glass bottles and jars
Brown bin - garden waste
Given that there appear to be almost as many arrangements as there are councils, with a variety of terms for describing categories of waste, we recommend that all councils start their rubbish and recycling pages
a simple overview that explains their kerbside collection system as if for a newcomer.
According to our survey, 88% of councils do provide such an overview, although the scope and quality of the content does vary. Editors writing these pages should recognise that people new to the area may be coming from very different rubbish/recycling regimes and may need to re-learn how to put out their bins.
The overview should explain the different types of bin/box/bags in use and the category of waste that goes in each; the collection cycle; where to leave bins for collection, and what happens if things are in the wrong container or rubbish is presented in an unacceptable way.
On this last point, too many councils put this information in the section about missed bins – when presumably it is already too late for the information to be useful to the householder.
When actively seeking an answer to ‘what will happen with extra rubbish not in a designated bag/bin?’ our reviewers were able to find the answer on only 58% of sites, and when we asked ‘Are the consequences of putting the wrong items into recycling collections made clear?’ only 54% of sites scored a ‘yes’ answer for this question.
Consigning this information to the ‘missed’ bin section and not putting it in the overview or other introductory pages will fail to prevent costly calls to the council when bins are missed. According to recent industry research, around a half of all residents still say that a phone call is their preferred method of reporting missed bins.
Even if information in the missed bin section does the job of justifying why the council isn’t going to come back for the bin until next time, its very likely to leave a dissatisfied resident less inclined to collaborate with the council’s goal of getting people to do its bidding when it comes to recycling. Much better to be upfront about this issue.
Where sites have no overview, or an inadequate one, visitors may find the only way of navigating to high level information about what goes in which bin is via links that say ‘blue bin’, ‘green bin’ etc. Because users can’t assume that eg green is for recycling or brown for garden waste, they will have to click through each heading in turn in order to find the information they are seeking. That means remembering what each page says, or for people in a hurry or with less good memories, having to click back and forth, which is extremely irritating.
Collectively, councils need to be less cavalier in their use of terms, like ‘rubbish’, ‘non-recyclables’ and ‘general waste’. These terms can mean different things under different recycling regimes, so unless/until there are standards established around these terms, if would make sense for editors to define how they will be used on each council’s rubbish and recycling pages.
Colour photographs of the different bins and containers are a really helpful addition to an overview page, particularly for people that haven’t previously come across some of the receptacles and are not sure, for example, what a food ‘caddy’ might be. Around half of the councils surveyed use this approach.
The ‘essential question’ in our survey (which must be answered correctly for a star rating above 2) was ‘Can I find details of my next waste collection through a postcode or street name lookup OR an easily usable map’.
92% of councils got this one correct, with one or two that didn’t having the facility, but not in working order on the day our reviewer visited. A few councils are still providing bins collection day information in downloadable PDFs or over-complicated processes (Edinburgh’s stands out as being particularly complicated). PDF calendars are useful for residents who want to print the calendar and stick it to their fridge, but a postcode/address lookup is much faster, particularly for those on mobiles. Ideally councils might provide both.
Sometimes postcode searches led to results that either opened in a new window or tab with no easy links back to the service page, leaving the user relying heavy on a back button or searching for the previous tab.
We found very few using maps for this facility.
The biggest issue that this survey highlights is the need for greater clarity over what waste goes in which receptacle, and what to do about certain types of waste. In past surveys on waste and recycling we have tended to ask ‘Is it clear what I can/can’t recycle?’ In this survey we have moved to the more challenging ‘can in recycle XYZ (ie a specific item)’.
The questions we asked and the percentage of correct answers were:
• Is it clear whether or not I can put pet food in my food waste bin? 18%
• Is it clear whether or not foil containers can be recycled? 57%
• Is it clear whether or not paperback books can be put with paper/card recycling? 24%
The answers to these questions may seem obvious, but they are not. Take pet food. Many cat owners buy individual trays where you just peel off the lid because they do not like handling pet food. What are they to do with food left in the tray? They are most likely to sling the whole thing in the general waste/non-recylables – but that may not be allowed these days.
So do they scape the food into the food waste caddy? Most people are aware that pet food has different standards to food for human consumption, so might this matter when chucking it out? There needs to be clarity about these things. The only way to be sure there is not, is to test the website information with users. If testing is not possible, then maybe it is important to err on the site of including specific items in the lists.
We asked specifically about paperback books, because anyone who reads information about recycling knows that there can be issues with glue. Should residents assume that if directories are OK then paperback are too? Again, these things need to be spelled out.
We asked about foil containers because so many takeways are come in them. The information about what to do with foil containers was clear on 57% of sites. We could have asked about plastics or PVC, which is even more complicated - so complicated that a number of councils want householders to watch a video about what to do with different items. Some of these are fun to watch and even (Milton Keynes) incorporate a game as a means to ‘educate’ residents.
Watching some of these videos took us into territory we did not even touch upon in our survey, which is whether containers need to be rinsed or whether card contaminated with food (eg pizza boxes) can be put in the paper/card recycling. We started to wonder whether expectations about behaviour change are realistic, which is probably far outside the remit of Better Connected, but something that can presumably be evaluated using customer data from the different communications channels, including the website, together with other research methods.
Councils that did well on the ‘what can I recycle?’ question were often using comprehensive and well-presented A-Zs of recycling, and most importantly, publishing the important information on web pages and not exclusively in lengthy, file size heavy PDF guides. Not only are these problematic for mobile users who won’t want to have to download them, the standard portrait presentation of these guides don’t work well on most average sized landscape desktop screens either.
One of the most noteworthy shortcomings of waste and recycling pages revealed by this survey is the lack of information provided about progress towards the recycling targets that councils need to meet. Some councils give excellent details about what will happen to collected items but not enough of them promote the reasons for increasing recycling, or provide information about how the council is doing.
In our survey we asked Are there any statistics displayed on the rubbish and recycling pages about the councils' progress in meeting recycling goals? We were able to answer ‘Yes’ in only 24% of cases. Surely where behaviour change is needed, providing feedback on progress is essential?
Excellent range of information, presented in a very clear structure. Full details of the new (and rather complex) contract and arrangements for collections for those who want to study it.
Concise and comprehensive information about what can be recycled or collected as waste. Recycling promoted by a chirpy little DVD showing what to do.
Excellent explanation of what happens to recycling and to rubbish and how this benefits the community. Clear navigation to the essential information. Logical menus and accessible language.
Able to fulfil task very easy and quickly, content precise and easy to read. The 'What waste goes where' searchable product table is brilliant and really useful highly recommend this functionality to quickly search what goes in bins.
Excellent structure information was easy to find, the site layout was consistent.
Telford & Wrekin
Superb example demonstrating good information that is clear to navigate. Service level page visually helpful with clear headers and bin icons. One minor point try not to point the user to a 7MB pdf file of recycling as all the information is there within each page.
The Google search led me to a organised and well designed service landing page - loved the design and icons easy to locate task. The popular services homepage squares one clicked on extended to highlight the service page really nice feature ensuring that you find the right service without going deeper within the site.
Excellent example. Nice Refuse / Recycling Collection Lookup. Really sleek page interactions combined with clear content. 'The Amount of household waste we will collect' really precise and the bin problems section is really helpful. The extra Recycle and reuse A to Z is a good use of this functionality.