Recycle for Lewisham

A blog written for residents of Lewisham

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Working with recycling crews to tackle contamination

Over the last few weeks, the recycling department has been going out with crews to see some of the issues they face whilst carrying out their collection duties. We are trying to work closer with the crews to tackle the main issue of contamination as it causes the most problems for the Council.

The recycling crews have been told to check the recycling bins before they are loaded into the truck to ensure that everything in them conforms to the sticker which every household should have on their bin. They are looking out for items such as black sacks which are a problem as the crews don’t know what’s inside the sack. This could range from food and nappy waste through to green garden waste.

The crews are working together to tackle issues with contamination.

The crews are working together to tackle issues with contamination.

All these are a problem for a number of reasons. Food and garden waste is wet and soggy and will start to smell if it’s been left in a wheelie bin for over a week. If this isn’t spotted, or a resident tries to hide the waste underneath the recycling, then it will get tipped into a recycling truck.

If this happens, the waste will be compacted and the wet, smelling contaminants will spread throughout the load and render the hard work of other recyclers void as much of the recycling won’t be used and will instead have to go for incineration.

As well as garden, food and nappy waste, many people think that items such as wood can be recycled at the materials recovery facility. This is incorrect. Whilst wood can be recycled by being chipped and turned into other products, putting it into the recycling bins is not the right way of achieving this. If wood, broken brollies, old electrical equipment, baby’s buggy’s, pieces of furniture and polystyrene amongst many other items are put into the recycling bins, then the bin is being contaminated.

"It's all about the team work."

Steve’s team collects the large bins on estates.

When this happens, our crew will tag the bin so that the resident is aware of the issue. The address is taken down and a letter is sent to the resident explaining why the bin wasn’t collected and what they need to do. If the contamination behaviour continues, then another letter is distributed. If a third letter is distributed following the continuation of the contamination, the Council will take action and remove the bin entirely. A letter will be sent to the resident notifying them of this action.

The taking away of the bin however is a last resort and we’d prefer to work with residents in the first instance to get them using the bins correctly before we get to this stage. As a general rule of thumb for those that aren’t sure of what can be recycled, we say that if the item that you want to recycle doesn’t appear on the sticker of the bin, then please don’t put it into your recycling bin and use your regular refuse bin instead.

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What’s it like to be a member of a recycling bin crew?

When most of us are still tucked up in our cosy beds and not even contemplating getting up, the recycling crew for Lewisham are up and about getting ready for work, some as early as the disagreeable time of 4am.

Clocking on at 6, the trucks are checked over, crews are kitted up with safety gear and the ten teams of recycling crews set off to all parts of the borough by 7. I don’t know about you, but I’ve only just got out of bed by then!

Getting up early for work is one thing, but what does it really take to be a member of that crew? I met up with them to find out what their job involves on an every day basis….

Over the course of a week their rounds take them all over the borough collecting recycling from well over a thousand households every day. That’s a lot of bins to attend to! I wanted to find out just how they did that?

So, first up you’ve got the driver whose job it is to plot a course through the narrow streets, keep a look out and maintain a steady pace with the crew as well as keep an eye on pedestrians, cyclists and the traffic who are all the time anxious to whizz around them.  

Then, on rotation, the other four guys are split in two, one pair running ahead of the truck pulling out the recycling bins and grouping them together so that the two guys at the back of the truck can easily grab the bins for loading.

“It’s all about the team work.”

Not only are they running up and down our streets pulling out and loading bins while I’m still getting breakfast, they also do a quick visual check for anything that shouldn’t be in the recycling bins (or “contaminants” as they say in the trade). As the load is tipped in and before it gets compacted, the driver also inspects for contaminates that may have been hidden via a surveillance camera that he views within the cab.   

 “We work pretty tightly as a team. We all look out for each other and try and help each other out” Oscar, the driver comments.

 “We’re like family really. And not just in our own crew but also when other crews need a hand we join them and help out with whatever they need. It’s a good group and we all try and help each other out” says Jerome, pitching in. 

So with all this running and moving bins about I figured they must be pretty fit. All of them agreed with enthusiasm, so I got them to tell me what it was like on their first day on the job…

“We love working together to get the job done”

“It was BAAAD! I didn’t think I’d make even 3 hours! I was totally stuffed!” Daniel replied shaking his head.

Reflecting back, Andre said “My legs and feet were SO sore – but I didn’t really feel it ‘til the next day, you know, when I tried to get out of bed…But you get used to it… It took me about 2 weeks before I really got used to it. I guess it’s like going to the gym

And now they’re cranking up the fitness as the ability to recycle more items has now expanded. “People are definitely recycling more, because we can feel it in the weight of the bin when were pulling them out and you can see there’s more stuff in the bins too”  they all agreed.

Since the change in service which allows Lewisham’s residents to recycle much more there’s also been a significant drop in contamination – from about 14% down to under 5%. In fact the way Steve puts it, “Most of the time kerbside collections, like up in Blackheath, are clean as a whistle”.

But in some areas contamination is still an issue.

Crews are still finding food waste and other unsightly things in the recycling bins and continuously have to reject recycling bins that contain black sacks. In the UK black sacks have traditionally been used for rubbish not recycling, so crews cannot accept these when found in the recycling bin “We just can’t go around looking in each one to see if it’s recycling or not, apart from the fact that there’s no time to do that, it’s just not safe!” Steve adds.

The crews really highlighted that especially on estate properties there are still many people who don’t seem to respect the recycling crew’s work, in that there’s lots of fly-tipping and contamination issues. Compared to kerbside properties, estates need to improve on recycling practices.

So what did I discover about our recycling crews? If there’s one thing to take from this experience, it’s that these great guys, for all the banter throughout our chat, put in the hard yards and deal with something that most of us either take for granted or doesn’t even come across our radar.

I can’t even imagine what it’d be like if these collections just stopped and we needed to deal with it! So thanks guys and all the other recycling men out there who contribute to such an important activity such as saving our natural resources!