Local Government Magazine
Waste Management

The dilemma of choice: waste collection services

The dilemma of choice - Featured Image LG April 2018

At one stage Waimakariri District Council was offering 17,500 people a choice of 48 different permutations for their rubbish collection services. Council’s solid waste asset manager Kitty Waghorn tracks the long trail of consultation in search of a new waste collection service. She was speaking at the WasteMINZ Conference in Hamilton.

Kitty Waghorn is solid waste asset manager at Waimakariri District Council. kitty.waghorn@wmk.govt.nz

In the beginning, in the dark ages before I began working for the Waimakariri District Council, all properties inside the collection areas were rated for rubbish collection and received 52 council rubbish bags every year. There was no limit on the number of bags properties could put out each week, and the charge to buy extra bags was set pretty low.
All properties were rated without a choice in the matter, and some residents felt they were ‘double charged’ for rubbish when they used private collectors’ bins.
In 1999 the council brought in a weekly recycling crate collection service and everyone got a crate. The recycling collection cost was added to the rate, the cost of 52 bags was deducted because the council stopped delivering them, and the bag charge was increased. It was around this time that I started working for the council.
Over the first few years after the introduction of recycling crates, we gradually increased the bag charges and they are now fully user pays.
This change meant residents and businesses can choose to buy and use council bags or to use private collectors without that perception of double charge. And these changes did impact on the amount of rubbish the council collected at kerbside.
Waimakariri DC Waste (tonnes per annum)
The graph “Waimakariri District Council Waste (tonnes per annum)” shows rubbish to landfill, collected at kerbside and recycling collected at kerbside since 1998.
The top red line shows total landfill tonnages. These have generally been increasing in line with growth but also fluctuate with the economic climate.
Council kerbside rubbish tonnages initially dropped, but have remained fairly static since 2004 despite strong urban population growth. Recycling tonnages have generally increased each year but have begun to flatten off a little more recently.
In 2003 the council developed a solid and hazardous waste management plan: this didn’t propose too many changes to what we were already doing. In 2008 we reviewed that document, just as the Waste Minimisation Act was coming into being.
We consulted on transfer station improvements and seven choices for kerbside collection services. These choices were:

  • Status quo – rubbish bag and crate;
  • Modified status quo (change to bin from crate for recycling);
  • Rubbish bag, recycling and garden waste bins;
  • Recycling bin, rubbish bin, garden waste bin;
  • Recycling bin, rubbish bin, organics (garden & food) waste bin; and
  • Waimakariri District Council provides recycling bin, private collector provides rubbish and garden waste bin;
  • Council provides recycling bin, private collector provides rubbish and organics (garden and food) waste bin.

We asked residents to rank the kerbside collection options. It was confusing and the number of options made the messaging difficult.
Also, at that time there was an outcry against Christchurch City Council’s introduction of a three-bin service and the media noise around that is likely to have influenced our residents, because many of their comments echoed the objections that we’d seen aired through the media at that time.
We got 1932 submissions, which was a record: our property base was around 18,000 with 13,500 of those rated for our collection services. There was a strong preference for the two lowest cost options (‘status quo’ and ‘modified status quo’) with a split between the other five.
The council selected the modified status quo, replacing the weekly recycling crates with a fortnightly 240-litre wheelie bin collection and retaining the user pays bags, and adopted the solid and hazardous waste management plan in mid-2009.
We went out to tender with that level of service, and the bins were delivered in February 2011: a process that was complicated by the Canterbury earthquakes.
Later in 2011 we completed the relocation and expansion of our main transfer station’s recycling facilities, which included a second-hand shop that has been very popular.
And even later in 2011 we undertook a Waste Assessment (WA) and reviewed the Waste Management Plan (WMP) to ensure we were complying with the statutory requirements of the Waste Minimisation Act.
We did need to make some changes to meet those requirements and to address a number of demands or issues that weren’t in the WMP. But we didn’t make any provision for an immediate change of kerbside service in this draft Waste Management & Minimisation Plan (WMMP) and the Long Term Plan (LTP) because we’d been through all that only relatively recently.
Once the final WMMP was adopted, staff were tasked with investigating multiple bin collection services and to report on the outcomes before the next LTP.
In 2014 staff reported back to the councillors about multiple bin collection options and raised concerns around:

  • The continuing high health and safety (H&S) risks around manual bag collection.
  • The increasing demand for three bins by new residents, especially those coming from Christchurch.
  • The potential for diversion that could be made by providing an organics collection.

Before the LTP was drafted, the Waimakariri District Council sought informal feedback to give us a steer of what collection service we should put in the LTP. It was low level, didn’t include costs and wasn’t a special consultative procedure.
Feedback on Timing
We asked “what do you want, and when do you want it?” and we offered three choices: status quo, two bins or three bins. (See graphs under ‘Consultation & feedback received’.)
We got 1203 responses and it was a pretty close split between two of the options.
About 44 percent wanted three bins, around 40 percent wanted to stay with the status quo and 16 percent wanted two bins. Overall, 60 percent of people responding wanted bins, and most wanted them now.
Feedback on Options
On the strength of this feedback a three bin service was included in the draft LTP. It was a one service fits all and the only choice would have been about bin size.
We received 130 submissions about the kerbside service during the LTP consultation and about 70 percent of those were against the bins.
Just like last time, concerns were raised around increased costs for low income ratepayers – and that is a true concern for us because we have a lot of elderly residents in our district – that low-waste generators would be subsidising high-waste generators, the bins were hard for the elderly to move, would take up too much space on smaller properties, and there were ongoing concerns about adverse effects on private collectors.
The council decided to continue with the status quo, and asked staff to report back to them on ways to further advance waste minimisation. Again.
And that has led us to the current point. We brought the WMMP review forward a year to better align it with our LTP cycle and to bring our contract renewal periods in line with the LTP cycle as well.
Our contracts for the kerbside collection and transfer station ended in early 2018, and we’ve extended them to 2019 to give us time to go through the WMMP and LTP consultation rounds, to tender both contracts and give the successful contractors time to gear up before the new contracts start.
We know an organics collection would substantially affect the quantity of waste coming through the transfer stations, which means the transfer station operations contract tender has to wait on the results of the kerbside collection services decision.
We also wanted to simplify our waste plan and make it more reader friendly. We engaged Morrison Low to carry out the WA and WMMP review, and it met our needs with the new draft documents.
We had engaged Waste Not Consulting to undertake a Solid Waste Analysis Protocol (SWAP) audit of transfer station waste and household rubbish bags and bins to update the data for the WA: there wasn’t much change in composition since 2012 which suggested that we had to change what we were doing to make a dent in landfill tonnages.
Composition of combined household kerbside waste
See graph ‘Composition of combined household kerbside waste’. This pie graph shows the composition of combined household waste from both private collectors and council services. We estimate about 40 percent of the public use council bags, and know that we collect about 30 percent of household waste delivered to our transfer station with the private collectors collecting 70 percent.
The SWAP showed 61 percent of rubbish from households is compostable organics (garden and food waste), nine percent is recyclable, and only 30 percent isn’t divertible. In total, 70 percent of household rubbish can be diverted from landfill.
The importance of that figure is household kerbside waste makes up 45 percent of all waste going through our transfer station: that’s a pretty serious chunk of landfill waste we could divert by changing to a mixed organics bin collection and improving our education around recycling.
The organics collection alone has the potential to divert up to 27 percent of all landfill waste: 4660 tonnes based on last year’s total of 17,260 tonnes.
As I mentioned before, we’d upgraded our transfer station to our resource recovery park and we’ve allowed budgets to carry out moderate upgrades in the next five years to increase more diversion.
While a major upgrade would divert significantly more materials, the council has committed a high level of CAPEX to repair and upgrade facilities and underground infrastructure since the Canterbury earthquakes and to meet the needs imposed by growth in the district and we can’t justify the additional capital spend on increasing diversion by building an automated waste-sorting facility.
We’re also right next door to Christchurch which has recycling sorting and composting facilities, and duplicating those is not cost effective. However, we do have a significant upgrade signalled out in the future in the 30-year Infrastructure Strategy.
Our main focus for the consultation for this year’s WMMP was again around three bins. Given the previous level of pushback against ‘losing bags’, and a really good H&S record on the ground that was at odds with the high H&S risks for manual collections, we included some options that allowed ratepayers to keep using bags and not be rated for additional bins as well as the typical mandatory, rated two- or three-bin collection services.
We workshopped with our solid and hazardous waste working party to go through the draft WMMP document and got them to focus on what options we should offer to ratepayers.
The final options selected gave ratepayers the choice of either getting the bin or bins – paid for via rates – or not get bins, not be rated for them and continue to use council bag collection, or other methods, to get rid of their rubbish.
We also had different bin size choices available within the main options that would result in lower rates allowing for a lot of flexibility for ratepayers and residents. But it makes for quite a bit of uncertainty and high risk for the council when it comes to forecasting costs and uptake of service for budgeting and tendering purposes.
The retention of bag choice doesn’t address all of the H&S risks from having a manual service or the nuisance issues, such as animal strike on the bags, but it does reduce them considerably.
It also doesn’t address the diversion potential on the remaining rubbish bags, but we consider people who only put a bag out every two or three weeks, or once a month, aren’t the ones that we need to concentrate on as they’re probably careful with what they recycle and put in the bags to minimise costs.

It’s complicated

This has made for a very complicated consultation message. Allowing a range of service choices will also make for a very complex administrative system.
It exposes the council to risks around attracting enough market share to make the service cost-effective and to the H&S risks in retaining manual bag collections in our contract and attracting enough interest from contractors to bid for such a contract.
We also knew we needed to grab people’s attention because we’ve been asking them about multiple bins since 2003. We went out with a Let’s Talk Rubbish message with quite different graphics from our usual corporate image.
And we kept away from talking about one, two or three bins. The messaging was about how many service choices we should offer: and we used options A, B and C. In all options the fortnightly recycling collection service would stay the same; there wasn’t a choice about that.
Option A is one standard service: a recycling bin and weekly rubbish bag. That’s the status quo.
Option B had two service choices: a recycling bin, and a choice of bags or a rate-funded bin for rubbish, collected weekly. There would be a minimal reduction to landfill and a reduced H&S risk by decreasing the number of bags to be manually collected.
Option C had four service choices: a recycling bin, choice of bags or rate-funded bin for rubbish, collected fortnightly, and an optional rate-funded mixed organics waste bin collected weekly. This will divert the most waste from landfill and would also reduce the H&S risk by decreasing the number of bags to be manually collected.

Extended consultation

The consultation process was quite different to what we’ve previously done. It was a long special consultative procedure at seven weeks; we usually run those for four weeks. We had a stronger focus on online information and submissions, and on social media.
We started with the information going up on our website, we had an online calculator so people could calculate their current costs and compare those to our projected rates, which was pretty popular.
We had the online submission form up from day one. We did some strong pushes through social media to encourage people to go to the website and make submissions online, and got some really good discussions around the options on Facebook.
Then we did a mailout to the 17,500 kerbside ratepayers: we provide kerbside collection services to about 73 percent of the 21,000 properties in the district.
We had a few drop-in sessions for people to come and talk to us but we also went to where people were, setting up information stands at farmers’ markets, a winter festival and at a large sports club event.
We made presentations to several groups including Grey Power, and ran several adverts driving people to the website.
In total we got 2604 eligible submissions, which is pretty good going (unfortunately we also got around 546 late or duplicate submissions, which were not counted).
The bald facts were that 63 percent wanted option C, which is all choices, 22 percent wanted option A because they didn’t want things to change, and 15 percent wanted option B, which was two service choices. It was quite a swing from the 44/40 split between three bins versus bags we had in 2008.
People wanting status quo reiterated the same concerns, however we now have an informed group of people that are pro bins primarily because they had them before they moved to our district and they miss them and the convenience. I also think that we’ve had an increase in environmental awareness over the past couple of years.
Our panel heard 12 people speak at two hearings, then went to deliberate on three separate occasions before they finalised their recommendation to council, which was for option C to be included in the WMMP and draft LTP for consultation.
One major debate was whether to require people to opt-in to a bin service, or opt-out of it. Getting responses from all of the property owners is unlikely to happen, so the council had to decide what the default service would be.
If people don’t respond to our letter asking what service they want, should they not get bins delivered (which is opt-in) or should they get a standard set of bins delivered (which is opt-out).
That opt-in or -out decision affects the council’s and contractors’ financial risks and potential diversion rates.
The opt-in example would have an initial lower level of uptake of the bins, collection costs would have to be spread across fewer properties meaning the rates would be higher, and it would take time for participation to increase.
The opt-out example would mean that more people would get the bins and be rated for the service, there would be lower financial risk for the council, it gives the council and tendering contractors more certainty about numbers during tendering which will affect the overall costs, and there’s a better chance that diversion would be significant from day one.
On the other hand there would be backlash from people who didn’t want the bins but didn’t tell us. They would demand removal of the bins and a rates rebate, and the costs associated with this could end up being reasonably high.
The hearing panel recommended that the council run with an opt-in system, which means if we provide the bin collection service, people will need to request bins in order to get a bin, or bins, delivered. In December the council approved option C with the opt-in provision for inclusion in the draft LTP for consultation.
Once the hearings and deliberations are finished, and the council adopts the LTP in June 2018, we’ll be in a position to go out to tender. If option C is the adopted collection methodology, we’ll be asking ratepayers twice more what they want out of:

  • No extra bins; or
  • A rubbish bin with a choice of two sizes; or
  • An organics bin with the choice of three sizes; or
  • Two bins for rubbish and organics, with those same size choices.

The first time will be early in the tendering period to get an idea of the number of bin and bag services so the contractors will have something reasonably concrete to use for their tenders.
The second time will be just before the bin orders actually happen so we can capture any changed minds, changes in ownership and new properties.
We’ve calculated there are 48 different permutations for services out of that “four service choices” option, and when you ask 17,500 people that question it’s going to be a huge undertaking.
It’s been quite a dilemma for staff getting to this point and I know it will continue to be so.

This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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