A new, improved normal for HWRCs?

5 August 2020

The unexpected impacts of Covid-19 on waste services

As we all know, local authorities and their waste contractors have responded to the pandemic in incredibly creative ways, such that there have been very few negative news stories about waste management. The industry’s profile has been enhanced and the fact that it is designated “key” has been a boon. We industry players have always known this, but those outside the sector have only just got the message!

What has been inspiring to watch over this period is the speed at which waste disposal authorities and their contractors have managed to respond to varying demands. They have been flexible in the face of staffing shortages, assisting collection services through staff re-deployment from Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs); incorporated the changing health and safety guidance into safe systems of work and responded to the change in public expectation of service provision, opening as many services as possible as quickly as possible.

HWRC priorities and planning

Most HWRCs were closed for around a month and reopening them, from an outside perspective, appeared effortless; of course this was not the case at all. Discussions with local authority waste managers have shown that some authorities managed to re-open some HWRC sites in less than a week from the decision being made. This has been extremely hard work and is not to be recommended! Those that managed to re-open in such a short time had been working on plans with their contractors for around two or three weeks beforehand and had kept a watching brief on developments at all times.

There were a multitude of aspects to be considered before re-opening, not least the management of demand; so, whilst not discounting the importance of off-take, markets for recyclables and disposal, let’s take a look at the measures and systems that local authorities have put in place to manage demand effectively whilst also adhering to social distancing guidelines. Examples have included:

  • Prioritising the opening of larger sites, where social distancing can be maintained.
  • Implementing booking systems, with access being through Council websites, call centres and phone apps.
  • Introducing managed queueing systems, with increased communication between site staff and site users.

Deciding which sites to re-open and which not to, may have been a simple decision. Many older sites are on small plots of land tucked into the corners of old industrial areas, often with restricted vehicle access and congested and narrow roads around the sites. It is very difficult to maintain a flow of vehicle and pedestrian traffic in these sites and to mark out social distancing areas. On newer sites, designed with better flow for users and separated deposit and off-take areas, it has generally been easier to organise. However, even some new sites have problems, being located on arterial roads where queueing would not be advisable.

So, what are the systems that HWRCs now have in place to manage social distancing and what are the issues and benefits of these?

HWRC booking systems

Authorities have implemented booking systems that can be accessed online only or by phone for example. Many authorities have focussed on only allowing cars to be booked in, at least initially, to cope with the domestic demand and because they take less time to empty than domestic vans and trailers.

The booking slots have varied in length, from 15 minutes to an hour. Some allow a longer “window” so that, if the site user is delayed for any reason, they will still have chance to use the site; others are more time specific. Authorities allow differing numbers of vehicles on site during those slots depending on the size of the site and the number of site staff. These booking slots can easily be changed, to allow increases or decreases in numbers, depending on staff availability and also means greater restrictions and control can be applied should there be upsurges in Covid-19 which could affect site users, operatives and associated off-takers and sub-contractors.

The implementation of booking systems has improved the flow of site users and helped them to use the sites more effectively; this has also prevented site-staff being overwhelmed, which was often common at peak periods. Overall, it has enabled much greater communication between the site staff and site users. The add-on benefits have been increased sorting of materials for recycling and re-use and some reported decreases in residual waste. Requiring users to register to use the site can also help to reduce abuse from unauthorised use, such as commercial waste producers, and also the likelihood of abuse towards site staff.

Many authorities are intending to keep their booking system going forwards, with adaptations made to numbers allowed on site as restrictions and local circumstances change. Further expansion of the booking categories could allow larger domestic vans and trailers onto site, and potentially commercial users (if this is normal practice), giving those vehicles with larger loads to deposit, either a longer time slot or allowing fewer vans and trailers within each time slot.

It has been reported by HWRC site staff and council officers, that site users have also been very positive about the introduction of booking systems, as queueing is reduced and more assistance is available; those spoken to seem to be in favour of the system continuing post-Covid.

Limiting the types of materials accepted

Some authorities, at least initially, limited the types of materials they were accepting, expanding the range/size of materials as throughput decreased, only allowing larger items such as furniture, white goods or DIY waste, more recently.

The initial control of the type of waste accepted, often in combination with booking systems and other site access systems, has helped authorities to manage off-take and has allowed the off-takers themselves time to restart their own processes. One area that has proved difficult to re-start has been re-use, with site re-use facilities and shops and charity off-takers being hard-hit by the pandemic. This initially included schemes like Community RePaint, the national paint re-use scheme. However, gradually re-use has been restarting at HWRCs. Furloughing has affected this and all other parts of the waste management system and infrastructure, yet careful, staged re-opening has helped local authorities source destinations for all the waste and material streams.

This is another control measure that could be quickly adapted should there be any resurgence of the pandemic; priority materials could still be accepted, taking into account the impact on the waste and recycling chain downstream, such as the knock-on effects on the supply of wood-waste to biomass and the off-take of WEEE through compliance schemes.

Controlled queueing

Some authorities were unable to implement booking systems for various reasons. This included those where reciprocal agreements between neighbouring authorities were in place (allowing each other’s residents on site) but where they had different systems / demands, or where other authorities’ sites weren’t re-opening. Others found it difficult to set up a booking system in the time available if they didn’t have any existing system in place that they could adapt or add to.

In these cases, controlled queueing systems have been introduced and have been well-managed by local authorities, with few reported incidents of frustration / aggressive behaviour. Some authorities have employed traffic control experts, and all have liaised with local police forces and highway authorities to enable traffic signs, cones and routes to be clearly laid out.

Site staff have been allowing an agreed number of vehicles on site at any one time and have been ensuring good and regular communication along the queue of vehicles – telling people how long they are likely to have to wait. At an agreed time prior to site closure, staff or traffic managers have been informing those queueing that the site is closing and giving them the option of either staying in the queue or visiting on another day.

Now that local authorities have tried and tested ways of introducing managed queueing at sites, this is another form of control that could now be relaxed but re-implemented if necessary.

The new normal

What has been clear from discussions with local authorities is that many of the newly adopted practices, which are successfully managing social distancing and site usage, are here to stay. There is now a new, improved normal and more authorities are likely to follow suit, drawing on best practice examples from other authorities.

The ‘new normal’ for HWRCs has many positive aspects as it:

  • allows local authorities and their contractors to control site demand and have a smoother flow of inputs and outputs from the sites;
  • gives site users clearer guidance as to how best to use the site for a better experience;
  • has potential to reduce abuse of staff on site and at access points;
  • has created tried and tested systems to control site use, which is helpful if there is a resurgence of the pandemic or in other emergency situations;
  • enables the collation of increased information and data on site use;
  • promotes increased interaction between site staff and site users and can enable increased education opportunities, helping to inform the public, with positive behaviour change as a result; and
  • is seeing increased segregation of materials, improving the possibility for greater recycling and re-use.

Ultimately, providing users of HWRCs with a well-managed experience should be a key aim, whether during the pandemic or after. Learning from each other as to the best ways to achieve this will be of benefit for local authorities as they work to maximise the efficiency of their sites.