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Wendy discussed with us the food waste trial Northumberland has carried out, the support WRAP can offer a Local authority and the struggles of procuring the food waste equipment.  

Dr Wendy, you won the award for outstanding contribution to recycling which clearly demonstrates your passion for the topic. Can you tell me about how you became interested and involved in the area and in your current position?

My passion is waste, environment, education, and all the stuff around that. My first degree is environmental management and from that I've had various roles within environmental management, waste management, and education around waste management. My doctoral thesis was on the impact and benefit of waste awareness education on primary school pupils and teachers. I started working at Northumberland County Council just over three years ago as the Senior Waste Management Officer, again responsible for a whole raft of different things including education and communication. I look after, in line with our waste management company, HWRC sites, the Garden Waste Service, the glass collection trial and also the food collection trial and sit in the higher-level management of the food waste trial we have in Northumberland.

Northumberland are doing a trial around food waste collection. Can you tell me about this?

We decided to look ahead to the future, what will be coming. I know we're still sitting here, not quite knowing what the government are going to say, when the money will be in place. We thought rather than put it on the back burner, let's go with it and see how, how the food waste trial goes. Northumberland's quite a big county. We've got 160,000 households spread across quite a large geographical area. We have quite a limited collection of recyclables we currently collect at Kerbside and that historically is due to a long-term contract we have with Suez. We're tied into a 27-year contract as part of PFI, which is quite unusual.

Most local authorities have much shorter-term contracts so they can therefore chop and change every three or five years as to which items they collect from Kerbside due to their contractor. We haven't got that luxury. We're a little over halfway through the contract now, but back in 2009 when the contract started, recycling wasn't quite as up to date as it is now. Therefore, currently we have a very limited recycling range. The types of items we collect from kerbside include paper, cardboard, magazines, pamphlets, plastic bottles only, , aerosols. food and drinks can. We don't do recycle pots, tubs and trays, tinfoil, and tetra packs.

Unfortunately, we don't do quite a lot of the things that other councils do. We're acutely aware of that but we cannot simply afford to change the contract at the moment or change the MRF, until we are mandated to by government. However, having said that, we know that we're going to have to be a bit more up to speed, given the geographical context of Northumberland and what will be coming, we thought it was quite prudent to do a trial to kind of mimic or simulate what might then happen across the wider county. We received funding and it was put into this food waste trial.

Has there been any challenges?

Talking about challenges, we were meant to start it last July, and procurement was the biggest issue that we couldn't start on time. The biggest procurement issue was our food waste vehicle. A bit of context to it. When you transport food waste in a general waste bin, it's just classed as general waste. No concerns around legalities and how you transport it. Once you collect food waste as a separate entity, as food waste only, it then becomes animal by-product and has to follow separate laws around transportation of food waste. Therefore, you have to then buy a specialist vehicle or hire a specialist vehicle that doesn't have any sort of leak points or slops on the ground. For the trial we had to go out to procure this on a hire basis, which was an issue as we couldn’t get it in time. It was just post COVID coming out and they kind of the hangover from that. We didn't get our vehicle until November therefore had a six-month delay on the start of the project.

That's interesting to hear even at the trial stage you had an issue procuring your vehicle.

Yes, and that would be a challenge moving forward for everyone else. Because if all these different local authorities want vehicles at the same time and we waited six months waiting for one. Our projections show on our modelling, if we want to roll out food waste across Northumberland, we're going to need 30 vehicles. And that's just one county. So that's a big challenge for procurement.

We've been discussing that if everybody comes at the same time there will be a supply issues and the supply issue would be the same for the caddies and liners.

Yeah. That was again, quite difficult. We chose about four thousand eight hundred properties for the trial based in Morpeth, Bedlington and small villages around Morpeth. We provided residents with everything they needed, information leaflets, bins, inside caddies, rolls of liners as well. And talking about procurement challenges, most recently we've had to order our third lot of liners. And again, there was a big delay on that as well. They said they couldn't get the plastic liners to us. so we had to wait. I think it was about a month and a half, six-week delay, from the point of when it should have arrived to when they actually came, which was a bit frustrating for us. We were a little bit concerned that residents would either run out of liners and they’d have to go and buy their own or maybe lose heart a bit.

When did you start the trial and are you happy with the result so far?

We started in November last year with our lovely new vehicle. It collects four days a week, Monday to Thursday on a weekly rotation. We also collect from County Hall and two schools. I'm about to start a third school. Again, looking at the bigger picture, not just domestic collections, but also what it's going to look like on a commercial scale. Obviously, bigger bins, bigger bin liners. We're now sitting 10 months into the trial. Personally, I'm pleased how it's gone, how it is going. We are committed to continuing it. We are committed to having food waste collection across the entire county by 2026, just in two and a half/three years. We have 49% participation rate, which is far above national figures. We're going to ask for feedback on the service and try to push the service to those who have said no at the very start. We’re encouraging them to talk to their neighbours, see how easy it is, and it's clean, it's not messy, there's no rats, there's no vermin, there's no this, that, the next thing. And no matter if you only have a small bit of food waste, every bit counts.

What are the top three benefits for local counties to implement a food waste strategy?

For local authorities to implement a food waste strategy, uh, for recycling. So those ones that haven't started the journey yet, what kind of three things to focus on? I think, you know, thinking about waste disposal and the bigger picture, like I said, around carbon, we're still working out the carbon benefits of... AD versus EFW at the moment. But I think certainly, there’s a massive benefit from turning your food waste into fertilizer, into energy than it is just putting in the ground. I don't know off the top of my head how many local authorities still do landfill. I think as well, residents are savvier these days, in terms of what they do with their behaviours around waste management and disposal. In terms of resident satisfaction, and we seem to be doing the right thing, it gives the council good kudos. You know, we're at the forefront of food waste disposal. It makes residents also think about their behaviours around food waste. We are not at that stage yet however projections suggest you have a honeymoon period, where you get lots and lots of food waste, and then suddenly residents start going “Hang on a minute, this is money that I'm spending, I'm not using”. So again, that in turn changes their behaviour and thinking “how can I stop having so much food waste?”

However even though there is a cost-of-living crisis, we are seeing lots of food waste coming through. If that's one way we can help residents recognise what they're doing, then that's great. Another benefit is to start now, before we are told to do it by government and to get a feeling for it. We managed to gather lots and lots of data, not just about, the rounds, start and finish times, number of presentation rates, we've recorded how many rolls of bags they've asked for. If a certain household's asked for seven rolls of bags, we can ask what's going on here? And we'll go and knock on the door and say, you know, I'm really sorry, but you've asked for so many bags. Is there a problem? Can we help you out? Can we talk you through the process and how it, how we can help you? You can assist you in it. Having that preparation for what's to come, rather than sort of running in a bit cold, when we have to do it and running around like headless chickens going, where do we start? Using four and a half thousand household as test has allowed us to know what we can do this as a county.

Going through those challenges again, so the sort of three main challenges facing local authorities and you've, you've covered, obviously procurement, timescales, communication with the residents. Is there anything else?

On a windy day, the caddies can blow away, residents phone up asking where their caddy has gone? I have been discussing is there a way we can get a hook, so it hangs over the wheel bin rather than sitting on the ground? It's just small things that you don't think about really. When we first started the operatives on the wagon weren't familiar with how to tip that off into the, into the container so, we had a few issues with the food waste falling on the floor at the depot, but they were ironed out again. So it's just training, awareness, you can't tip off the same way as a different vehicle. It's just a bit of a skilled process. Apart from that, not really. We've had no complaints from our AD plant about contamination but that's something to consider and to get right. With the schools, we don't collect the food waste from where the kids sit. It's only at the from the kitchen. Only because kids are an unknown entity and they can throw in unknowingly their forks, their knives, their yoghurt pots, so we do try to manage that as best we can at the moment.

What advice do you have for local authorities that are struggling to start the standardization process and implement these changes.

I would. say sitting here 10 months down the line is actually easier than you think it's going to be. We did rely quite heavily on WRAP guidance and I'm not ashamed to say that Mike Gardner at WRAP was really great with supporting and sharing best practice on the best way to communicate to residents, what the best method of rolling out the scheme. If anyone's struggling, I would recommend they speak to WRAP about it. Each council has different challenges. Councils such in London or in a city like Birmingham. The challenges we have are on the opposite side of that coin, in that we are very rural, and economically, and even environmentally different. Is it worthwhile sending a vehicle out to remote areas for two properties? Possibly not. And the way again, as part of the trial process, we have been thinking about other options. So sitting alongside our actual food waste trial, we're doing what's called a hot, home hot composting trial.

We chose three rural villages not currently aren't serviced by our garden waste service. And it would be difficult to send out a food waste truck to them as well. As an alternative option we have provided, for free, a hot bin which basically it's a hot home composter. A higher temperature than a regular compost bin, which you can put in all food waste, garden waste, shredded paper, cardboard, and animal faeces. This sits in your garden, and over time it turns into compost. This is another option if we can't take the food waste service to the residents, we give them an alternative option to the use that put their food waste to good use. We're thinking about, how we can help everyone, not just those living in towns or large villages.

How did you engage with your residents within the trial?

The trial wasn't forced upon them, they were sent a letter saying food waste trial is starting, what's going to happen; that every week we'll ask you to collect your food waste. If you do not want to participate, please let us know. We gave them about 10 days to get back to us, so we could then record addresses of those who didn't want to participate.
We then went out with another letter saying it's starting, the week commencing and then delivered the food waste outdoor caddy, the indoor caddy, a roll of liners and also an information leaflet. It wasn't too complex. What food you can put in, what you can't put in, why we're doing the trial, what the benefits are to the environment and also to the resident. The first food waste collection started the week after the caddies arrived. We also ran a competition in the, in the area. There were four primary schools. We invited the primary school kids to name our vehicle. We picked a winner, and our vehicle is now called the Devourer. It was quite nice having the kids involved. We did an assembly and some of the kids in the assemblies, their families are taking part in the trial. So, they can maybe understand a wee bit more about, about the process too. So, it was good.

Did residents take to the trial easy?

Yes, however we did get a few people who then afterwards said, I don't want to take part. That's completely fine. But again, for our data set, recorded the reasons why people didn't want to take part. It might well be they didn't have enough space. They lived alone and didn't think they had enough food to put in to warrant it, or they already had a home composter, so again, didn't think it was necessary or other reasons. That was quite useful data, so we can work out reasons behind noncompliance. And since then, it's just been business as usual. Every week, people are now into a pattern of placing their food waste out for collection. When residents are running low on liners, all we ask them to do is to sacrifice one liner, tie it to the handle of their outdoor food waste bin, and the crews can then see they need more liners, and they receive a replacement roll.

This next question that came up in a recent webinar from another local authority and they'd asked about, the life cycle of the caddies. What happens to the caddies? Can they be recycled when they come to the end of life or do they just end in landfill? We just wanted to see if we could get an answer to that one from your perspective?

We chose black caddies. Well, first of all, because they're cheaper, that's the bottom line. They have different colours, but the black ones worked out much cheaper. I imagine it's much like a bin, like a regular bin. They can be flaked down and reused. Yeah, yeah. That's probably, I'm probably speaking without a full knowledge of this, but I guess maybe that's a question to ask of the companies. I can't see why it wouldn't be flaked down and reused. In terms of, again, with the caddies we've found, the ones that go outside have a locking lid, again, to try and prevent vermin. And we've had a couple of damaged bins, which we've replaced.

Can you tell me how you did your procurement? How would you see a procurement organization such as YPO could support with this?

From our perspective, we were very much across department procurement exercise for this. Fleet had to procure the vehicle, which isn't unusual for the bin fleet anyway. But they had the real headache, the delays to take delivery of the hired vehicle. Caddies and bins were procured through my team. But again, it was quite a lot of negotiation.

So, do you do that direct, you did that directly yourself then with some suppliers?

Yeah, we did. And the issue with that was, we got the first quote for July delivery which then expired prior to getting our vehicles in place. We didn't want to commit to buying thousands, so it took a little bit of negotiation because they were saying, plastic prices have changed in the last three months or so. And that was a bit of a pain, that took a bit of negotiation. Um, the price actually of the liners has come down. So again, that says, so we're talking the procurement of the vehicle, one company, the caddies, and we used a company called Cromwell Polythene for the liners.

They're one of our suppliers on our framework. Yeah, so YPO, for instance, have, could have done all that for you because we've got the services and all that already in place. It'd have saved you quite a bit of time and resource, we could have done, we've got the vehicle framework, caddies and the liners as well, all in one place that's what we're set up to do.

Then my given advice is use YPO. Save yourself a headache!

The next question is around WRAP, because you mentioned WRAP a few times have you any latest advice of when there might be some budget available for local authorities.

No, sadly not. We're all sitting waiting and it's just frustrating. I think I speak for everyone, every local authority saying no, we're just sitting waiting and it's, we see, we as a council have committed to go ahead with it from 2026. So yeah, we don't know yet about that funding and about whether they'll be able to help us with the procurement etc.

From your involvement with LARAC, have you any advice for other local authorities, around getting involved with LRAC if they're not already or maybe just kind of remind us what LARAC do and how they can support local authorities. LARAC is the leading voice for local authorities, sort of waste and resource management.

Northumberland County Council have been a member of LARAC for a long, long time, and I now sit on the Exec Board. The reason I got involved with LARAC on an exec basis is that back in 2021, I was nominated and won the Outstanding Contribution to Recycling at the LARAC Awards in recognition of the work that I'd done around waste awareness education. It's a really strong organization that supports local authorities to be better informed around waste awareness issues and recycling issues, um, sharing best practice. They've got a great website with a network area that you can ask questions of all the other members.

But again, we have a conference every year that's really well attended. I think this year it might even be oversubscribed. And it's an excellent networking event. We have representatives from DEFRA, we have keynote speakers, we have a whole raft of different workshops and programmes that we can then use to inform other local authorities. On the evening, again, there's the awards ceremony that celebrates best practice in the waste industry and I think it's great, personally, to be recognised for what we're doing. We do our day-to-day job and, you know, it's nice to know actually what we're doing is making a difference. And to go to these award ceremonies, network and chat to local authorities is a great opportunity to share best practice. It's a really great network to be involved with. And anyone who's not a member, I'd urge them to find out more information.

 

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Dr Wendy Fail

Senior Waste Management Officer
Northumberland County Council