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How can we really be a clean and green city?

Birmingham City Council should feel ashamed of its record on recycling and waste management. The local authority lies third from bottom of the recycling league table compiled by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), with a pitiful 23.6% of waste recycled last year.

To become a truly clean and green city, as Birmingham City Council’s marketing material proclaims, we need a radical overhaul of the way waste is managed in the city. Almost no progress has been made in the last decade. Birmingham recycled 24% of waste in 2014, so the rate has actually dropped since then!

The first measure that needs to be taken is to abandon incineration. The Tyseley Incinerator is swallowing up over two thirds of all the waste in Birmingham and is the biggest single contributor to CO2 emissions in the city. Until we close this dirty, outdated burner down we will never reach the goal of 70% of waste being recycled, or get the city’s CO2 emissions down to net zero.

All of the top performing local authorities in the country do well because of their food waste and green waste collections. Birmingham City Council, on the other hand, has tried to focus its efforts on encouraging behaviour change, in the hope that people will waste less food. However, it is obvious that this approach is not working. In 2015, it was reported that at least 41% of the contents of Birmingham residents’ general waste is food waste. 

Bristol is the best performing of England’s large cities, but even they found that food waste still made up nearly 25% of their general waste. They launched a campaign to deal with this which worked so well that there was a 10% drop in the volume of general waste collected and a 16% increase in the amount of food waste being collected separately. This food waste goes into an anaerobic digester, which means more clean energy being produced as well as lower overall CO2 emissions. 

Birmingham City Council urgently needs to invest in setting up similar systems to Bristol instead of continuing with incineration. A network of anaerobic digesters* and a pyrolysis plant* would ensure far better outcomes for the city. Such transformational measures must be taken as soon as possible, so that Birmingham becomes a leader on the journey towards zero waste. 

What do we propose?

  • Adopt a circular economy waste policy – we should be promoting community sharing, reuse and recycling across the city.
  • Bring in community engagement and information campaigns to explain the aims of a new waste strategy and motivate people to recycle more. If people understand which items they can separate for recycling, what happens to their waste and why it is important they are much more likely to do it. 
  • Introduce weekly food waste collections as a matter of priority, rather than the waiting for the government to force the council to take action.
  • Invest in anaerobic digestion, in-vessel composting* and pyrolysis plants.
  • Look for ways to increase the range of items that can be collected for recycling from people’s homes.
  • Currently the council pays very high ‘gate fees’ for all the waste burnt in the incinerator. If we stop burning waste this money could be reallocated to pay for new, improved doorstep collection systems.

* An anaerobic digester is an industrial system that supports a natural process to treat waste, produce biogas that can be used to power electricity generators, provide heat and produce soil improving material. It is similar to composting, in that microorganisms break down organic matter, but without oxygen.

* Pyrolysis is an industrial system that can process biomass, municipal solid waste, waste plastic, waste rubber (tire), industrial waste, agricultural waste, and other organic solid waste. This waste can be converted into fuel and chemical products in a closed environment without oxygen, so that they are easy to store and transport. This means that there are very low carbon emissions involved.

* With In-Vessel Composting (IVC) garden and food waste are collected and composted together in one container. This would also enable the council to bring in free garden waste collections (for which there is currently a fee) which would increase the overall popularity of the scheme.