Pioneering scheme rewards recyclers with high-street vouchers

Over the next year the number of people being offered Marks & Spencer vouchers and other incentives in return for recycling their waste is expected to hit the one million mark. You may not have heard of it yet, but RecycleBank looks set to spread fast.

RecycleBank started in the US, where it runs recycling and reward schemes in over half of all states, including Florida and Texas. Over the past year it has begun operating through two local authorities in the UK – Halton in Cheshire and Windsor and Maidenhead – and expects to have 10 councils signed up and operational within the next year, with another 10 authorities waiting in the wings.

"We have been told by some people that it is the best thing the council has ever done," David Burbage, a councillor inWindsor, says.

Recycling volumes have gone up 30 per cent in the five months since the project began. Residents put glass, paper, metal and plastics into a blue bin which is weighed when the bins are emptied. In return they get points worth an annual average of £135 per household. These can be redeemed in over 100 local and national organisations. Marks & Spencer is the most popular but, in Windsor, people can also go to local hairdressers, sports clubs, off-licences and all kinds of other outlets.

Steve Dye, a resident and convinced recycler, is enthusiastic about the scheme, both for its administration and for the small financial incentive.

"Everybody uses it on our street," he says. "Everyone has been really positive about it. It certainly keeps the road cleaner."

Since all the recycled items can be put in the same bin, there is no paper escaping from loose boxes when the wind blows.

Mr Dye, a business development manager, and his partner would have participated without getting the vouchers, but he says: "People look at the vouchers and use them. The vouchers may encourage people who wouldn't necessarily do it. I've used them at Marks & Spencer's. It is quite nice that we get rewarded."

Sue Igoe, chief executive of RecycleBank in the UK, feels the UK is ripe for this type of scheme. "It's going to take off at a far faster rate in the UK than it has in the US," she says. "The economics of waste are different. The States have cheap landfill."

In the UK, councils have to pay landfill tax of £48 per tonne, with that figure set to rise to £80 by 2014/15. This heavy financial penalty on councils is designed to change their behaviour. "It has proved to be one of the most effective drivers of recycling," says a waste industry insider.

The RecycleBank approach is a good example of the way central and local government are using carrots with the public, rather than sticks, in this area.

Right at the moment, it seems that sticks have gone out of fashion. Rubbish collection is a very visible council service, and politicians are not keen to face the backlash that might follow from charging. The present government is repealing laws that could have allowed local councils to give discounts off council tax or other incentives for keeping mainstream waste to a minimum.

The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management thinks this step is an unfortunate one. "We would like to see a reward for those who generate less waste," says Chris Murphy, deputy chief executive. "The RecycleBank scheme is very effective but it could be seen as being anti-minimisation."

On the RecycleBank scheme, the biggest consumers of packaging and other recyclable waste get the most reward points. Murphy says that "most of Europe and certain parts of North America" give local tax discounts or other incentives to households who put out low amounts of non-recyclable waste. "Why don't we, at least, pilot it?"

In the short term, it is unlikely that the UK will take this step. Eric Pickles, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, described the European system as a "bin tax" when he decided to squash it earlier this year. Murphy is disappointed. He says such schemes work well abroad. He adds: "More than half of us are reducing the amounts we are putting out." This would suggest that over 50 per cent of households could be better off if council tax discounts were introduced at some future date.

The debate is not over, however. It is quite possible that council tax discounts could be allowed by a future government. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced its intention to consult on changes which could enable councils to charge schools, hospitals and other organisations to be required to pay for waste disposal. And new powers of "general competency", going through in the Decentralisation and Localism Bill, are intended to give councils greater freedom over how they run their affairs in general.

Costs for dealing with waste disposal in an environment-friendly fashion are increasing, and councils will have to fund their investments from somewhere. The Environmental Services Association believes that between £10bn and £20bn will have to be spent on treatment and other facilities by 2020 if the UK is going to meet its legal obligations on biodegradeable waste.

In the past, councils have acted very rapidly to put up charges or change their charging structures once a few pioneering authorities have set an example. In the late 1990s, for instance, councils across the UK moved in a couple of years to introduce car parking fees on residential streets. Similarly, in recent years they have followed each other in putting up charges for home helps and in reducing the numbers of people eligible. If they are allowed in the future to trial council tax discounts, they could enter into it en masse.

In the meantime, we will all find ourselves thinking more about issues related to waste disposal. The RecyleBank examples are really a landmark in the debate that is going to continue for a long time to come. For instance, the council at Windsor and Maidenhead is now "looking at" the possibility of extending the RecycleBank idea to give rewards for households who reduce their mainstream, non-recycleable waste.

The greening of the UK

2010 could come to be seen as a turning point in terms of the greening of the UK. It seems to be becoming the year in which green issues changed from being the passion of a minority to being part of everyday life for most people.

In the future, far more of us will find that we can make savings by being environmentally friendly. And many of us will even earn our living in the green sector. For instance, installation of solar panels grew about 65 per cent in the first 10 months of this year, because the introduction of feed-in tariffs in April made it possible to pay for the cost of solar panels within a decade or so by selling energy to the grid. It is estimated that the solar sector alone could account for 30,000 jobs by 2014.

By the end of this year, the Government intends to publish details of its Green Deal home insulation scheme, through which it predicts that 70,000 jobs will be created by 2015.

All sorts of other green initiatives could create employment opportunities. The last government predicted that new carbon capture and storage technology, for instance, could lead to 100,000 new jobs in the next 20 years.

The green area will cover all kinds of areas that affect ordinary people, from car-sharing and electric cars to domestic generation of solar, hydro and geothermal power.

What we do not yet know is the extent to which these new opportunities will, like the spread of home-based internet, be the preserve of the middle classes at the outset. Or could they, like the uptake of the mobile phone, spread rapidly across society as a whole?

Further information

* Direct Gov www.direct.gov.uk/en/Environmentandgreenerliving/Wasteandrecycling

* Love Food Hate Waste (campaign to reduce food waste) www.lovefoodhatewaste.com

* RecycleBank www.recyclebank.com

* Recycle Now www.recyclenow.com

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