Wednesday 6 January 2016

Is Brent Green Bin Tax a success?

Brent Scrutiny Committee will tonight discuss a report on the charge for Green Bin collections. In this guest blog Rik Smith considers the claims made in the report.

Since March 2015, Brent council introduced a £40 charge for households to have “green waste” collected regularly (ish) - before this point, most households had a green wheely bin which was collected weekly.

The Brent Scrutiny Committee agreed to review the impact of the changes to the “Garden Waste Service” (or known as the Green Bin tax by most residents) after 9 months of operation.

The green bin tax was anticipated to achieve the following outcomes:

A.    Deliver £378,000 financial savings
B.    Improve and extend the council’s recycling offer
C.    Reduce the amount of waste generated overall
D.    Better comply with the national waste hierarchy

It would be reasonable to expect cover these issues. The report can be found HERE

Overall, it’s not exactly the next PD James novel, but it does contain a significant amount of back slapping and a modest amount of retrospective learning - from the operational difficulty in dealing with ~20,000 requests to “opt in” and pay £40 for the waste collections.

In summary:
      A) was over achieved due to greater than anticipated sign up
      B) Brent will suggest that weekly blue bin (dry recycling) addresses this
      C) not clear – as I will explain below.
      D) dependent upon the outcome of C


Deliver £378,000 financial savings

Brent estimated that 17,000  (15%) of households would sign up to the green bin tax, in reality, 20,000  (18%) signed up. This lead to the council receiving £480,000, a £3 profit for each household that signed up over and above the original target This is a modest surplus per additional household, but may also explain why the coucil are already suggesting that the green bin tax won’t increase next year - or suggest that their poor estimations led to them overcharging for the service. Another interpretation is of course that Brent is getting shafted by Veolia.

I say poor estimation because the sign up was 3,000 more than the 17,000 estimated, that’s a 17%  forecast error. It’s in the councils interest to understate the forecast for the following reasons. Low forecast leads to:
      “higher than expected uptake” headlines, helping spin the introduction of the green bin tax in  a positive light
      Bonus extra cash if forecast is exceeded because the cost per household is set to recover costs over a smaller number
      Low probability of making a loss on the new scheme

Reduce the amount of waste generated overall

This is where spin on the green bin tax starts to wear a bit thin. It’s also worth remembering that at the same time as the green bin tax was introduced, we moved to weekly blue bin collections.

First a rather odd assertion, that moving from collecting the blue top bins (dry recycling) bins from every 2 weeks, to weekly would have zero impact - thoroughly implausible!

"It was also anticipated that the changes would have no significant impact on the council’s recycling rate. This was because it was predicted that the amount of dry recycling collected by the weekly service would remain the same”

I know before weekly blue bin collections i was regularly faced with an overflowing blue bin, so some residual cans or boxes went into the grey bin. If my experience is partially replicated across some of the 110,000 households then from April 2015 the council should expect grey bin (residual waste) volumes to FALL and blue bin (dry recycling) volumes to INCREASE - keep this in mind for later.

“whilst the amount of collected organic waste would reduce, it would be mainly displaced to home composting or to the council’s Recycling Centre at Abbey Road”

The rate of “organic waste” collected from households and recycling centres has fallen by 3,248 tonnes between April and October. This is equivalent to 72 kgs of organic waste for each of the 45,000 green bins that the council removed from residents. i’d estimate that to be 2, maybe 3 wheely bins FULL of grass or hedge trimmings. Composting this amount of green waste would require more than just a garden Dalek composting thing, and will soon mount up.

So what’s happening to this stuff if it’s not being collected? Yes some is probably being composted at home, but I’d argue the rest is going to landfill. However, the scrutiny report appears to ignore / gloss over this waste stream. The amount that goes to landfill is costing the council £82.60 for every tonne - this cost is glossed over and lost (and probably ignored) in the opaque mystery benefits stated earlier.

Furthermore, the report states

“... the service changes appear to have had a positive impact on the borough’s recycling rate, and have had no noticeable impact on residual waste (grey bin) tonnages”

The report appears to come to this conclusion with some very simplistic, and rather misleading graph below.

The blue bars are 2014, red bars 2015. The green Bin Tax was introduced on 31st March 2015 - so the very end of Q1.

The graph shows that Q2 2015 grey bin tonnages were more than in 2014 and that they increased by a greater amount between Q1 and Q2 in 2015 than they did in 2014. so I’d argue that there was an impact.

The GLARING omission is of course, Q3 and  Q4 2015 data. as a reminder Q2 is April to June and Q3 is July to September - arguably the time when gardeners would expect to cut the grass, prune hedges, weeding, and general maintenance in the garden during the summer. The exclusion of Q3 data in a report written to cover the 9 months from March is incompetent, but at worse it’s deliberately misleading. By the time the report was published, most of Q4 should have passed, allowing the council to make a reasonable estimate of Q4 volumes.

One data point is nowhere near enough data to draw any conclusions or make any decisions; instead more data should be presented.

Has Brent reduced the amount of waste generated overall? Probably, but only because some people will compost some of the waste themselves, even if all other green waste goes into the grey bin.

Better comply with the national waste hierarchy and does it now comply better with the national waste hierarchy?

Source LINK

Effecitvely, the idea is to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (then dump the rest) - in the process produce high quality (pure) recyclable material, and the smallest volume of landfill.

This is supported by the “landfill Tax” which is currently £82.60 and payable by councils and commercial producers of landfill waste.

The datum (singular data point) shows an increase in the amount of grey bin waste, and hides the impact in Q3 and Q4. it also hides the likely beneficial impact of the weekly blue bin collections and the likely replacement / uplift volume of green waste being diverted to landfill.

The diversion to landfill would be contrary to the national waste hierarchy, the fact these two events coincide make it very difficult to unpick the size of the impact of each on landfill waste, we can only look at the net impact.

in conclusion, there are a number of unanswered questions

1.     How much residual waste was produced in Q3 and Q4 2015 - and why wasn’t this included in this report?
2.     How much green waste did they estimate would be diverted to landfill by bin tax avoiding residents, and have they budgeted for this?
3.     How much green waste was collected in the 45,000 green bins removed from residents?
4.     Did the council intentionally under-estimate the green bin tax uptake, leading to overcharging residents?
5.     How does Brent’s performance compare to other councils in London and England that have introduced a similar Green Bin Tax?


Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as '£3 profit per household' as the council is not a business. That is unless, this additional money is going straight to Veolia...

In which case - is the Garden Tax really a Veolia Tax?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Rik, for your excellent analysis. I hope that you have sent a copy of your guest blog to the members of Scrutiny Committee.

Philip Grant.

Nan Tewari said...

A good opportunity for Scrutiny Committee to demonstrate that it knows the meaning of the word 'scrutiny'. Their task has ofo course, been made so much easier by Rik Smith giving out so many clues to get them off to a flying start......