Confessions of a Political Animal

November 13, 2009

A Waste of a Post


London waste being transported to landfill

I’m aware that waste management is not the sexiest topic around (that’s what I call a Cillit Bang opening sentence – BANG! And half your readership’s gone). I doubt anyone but the local party hacks even read my mild criticisms of Greenwich moving to a weekly bin collection. But like it or not, with decreasing levels of landfill available, and tougher central government recycling targets, this is going to remain a political hot potato for some time to come. And as there seems to be a bit of a market out there for blog posts with graphs, here’s a blog post with graphs. About rubbish. In London.

Last week, DEFRA released waste statistics for England for 2008/09, which can be accessed here. The overall story is at least moderately positive. Total quantities of household waste being produced in England have fallen below 25m tonnes for the first time this century. Indeed, the drop of just under 1m tonnes compared to 2007/08 is remarkable, and may indicate an unintended impact of the recession. The key question is whether this decline can be sustained as a recovery kicks in. The figures for 2008/09 represent a drop of 3.8% from the previous 12 months, and 3.0% down from 2000/01. The up-front figure for tonnage being recycled has continued to grow, although more slowly this year than in most previous years. 37.6% of England’s household waste is now being recycled, compared to 11.2% in 2000/01. The government has a target of 40% recycling by 2010 (I’m unclear if that’s 2009/10 or 2010/11), so isn’t a million miles from achieving that.

London, on recycling at least, is letting the side down somewhat. For 2008/09, just 29.2% of its household waste was being recycled, and whilst that compares favorably with the 9.0% it was achieving in 2000/01, the rate of progress has been notably slower than in England overall. There are, of course, a number of factors behind this, which hopefully the graphs below will help us to explore. Note: Please click on the graphs to be actually able to read them.

Waste production chart

Our first graph demonstrates the huge disparity in terms of waste production between the various London boroughs. Overall, London is ahead of the national trend in terms of reducing waste production, being down 8.4% from a peak in 2001/02. However, it remains a relatively high region for production, and the figures above demonstrate the polarisation of responsibility for this. Between the lowest producer/capita (Camden) and the highest (Barking & Dagenham), there is a 65% difference. On the graph above, inner London boroughs are marked with white columns, making it clear the dominance of the outer London boroughs in creating waste. Only two of the twelve inner London boroughs breach the city-wide average: Greenwich, which has in parts many of the characteristics of an outer London borough, and Lewisham, which doesn’t really have that excuse. It is also notable that the bottom four outer boroughs (Haringey, Ealing, Brent and Croydon) are those with relatively high population densities. Broadly speaking, the more space you have, the more waste you seem likely to produce – maybe we, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Interestingly, there isn’t any real correlation between wealth and waste production – the top producers include a mixture of wealthy boroughs (Bromley, Hillingdon) and more deprived boroughs (Barking & Dagenham, Newham).

To a limited degree, the production of waste can be offset by an intelligent disposal strategy on the part of the local authority. Both from the point of view of the conservation of natural resources, and the simple fact that we are running out of acceptable sites, landfill cannot form a major part of any intelligent strategy. Reliance on landfill renders London non-self sufficient in terms of waste disposal, with most waste having to be transported significant distances for disposal. Nevertheless, a little over 50% of London’s waste still ends up in landfill.

Landfill chart

The graph above again demonstrates the disparity that the London-wide mean disguises, with the percentage of waste being sent to landfill varying from 3% (Greenwich) to 83% (City of London). Unlike waste production, there is no clear inner/outer divide here, but it is a little harder to draw firm conclusions on this, given that 21 boroughs use waste authorities to provide their disposals, with data being aggregated by disposal authority. Not, of course that the impression should be given that everything that doesn’t end up in landfill is recycled. Some of those with the lowest landfill figures, Greenwich included, have relatively high dependence on incineration. That’s a whole new set of politics and pros and cons that I don’t intend to get into here.

The final chart is probably the most interesting (if you’ve got this far), showing both borough’s comparative recycling rates and the historical movement over the past ten years.


Recycling 1998-2008

Again, that disparity, with 2008/09 recycling rates ranging from 16.4% in Lewisham to 50.7% in Bexley. In general although not exclusively, the worst performers are inner London boroughs, accounting for 7 of the bottom 10. To some degree this is understandable – higher density housing makes it much more difficult to introduce a comprehensive sorting system – multiple wheelie bins are very much a no-no. A more transient population makes resident education that much harder. Not that this excuses some of the poor performances: truly inner London Lambeth achieves a recycling rate in excess of 30%, whilst semi-inner Greenwich and outer-but-with-many-inner-London-characteristics Newham are is amongst the four three boroughs that have already exceeded the 40% target (alongside Bexley and Harrow). Update: it has been pointed out to me that I got the figures for Newham horribly wrong. The chart has now been updated.

What is clear from this graph is that the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen a forward march on recycling rates in every London borough, with most achieving most of their expansion during the second half of the decade. The exceptions to this rule are Hounslow and Kingston upon Thames, both of which had a high rate of recycling (for the time) at the turn of the century, but have since stalled badly on any expansion. Hillingdon achieved a major leap forward in the first half of the decade, but achieved little in the second half.

Generally, the key to major leaps forward has been the provision of recycling infrastructure. The opening of the Materials Recycling Facility in Greenwich, for example, is behind its leap from also-ran performance in 2003/04 to one of the top performing boroughs by 2008/09. A number of the poorly performing inner London boroughs have similar facilities in the pipeline, such as one proposed for Southwark on the Old Kent Road. 

However, the hard fact remains that a large number of boroughs will not meet the 40% by 2010 target. Whilst the actual target applies only to the country as a whole, it ought to be a guide for local authorities to. In a city like London, which continues to grow rapidly, this isn’t an issue on which any borough can rest on their laurels, even those which actually have laurels. A lot of work remains to be done on waste reduction, disposal self-sufficiency and building up recycling. I’ve held off making any partisan points throughout this post (and boy, it’s been hard), but I’m sure readers will allow me the indulgence of quoting the former Mayor of London, speaking about his successor to Oxford student rag Cherwell this week:

“He spends more time on a photo shoot with Kelly Brook than chairing the Waste and Recycling Board.”

I just hope that’s not true.


  1. Any chance of doing the first chart by household size? (I’m assuming that’ll roughly even out outer and inner London, but would be nice to confirm. And yes, I know I’ve got a blog and should do it myself, but since you’ve made the XLS and that…)

    Comment by john b — November 14, 2009 @ 12:09 am | Reply

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