Friday, December 05, 2014

Guest Blog: Alex Murray

Alex Murray works with Collect Your Old Bed, a bed and mattress recycling startup formed in response to the introduction of bulky waste collection fees for the majority of local councils across the UK. The company are happy to be able to provide an affordable and in many cases more environmentally friendly alternative to services currently being provided by many councils.

Who’s Got the Budget for Bulky Waste?

When the proposed change from free collection to fee-paid collection for bulky waste by councils across the UK came into force on 1st April, it was predicted by many, including Luton’s Liberal Democrat Cllr David Frank, that charging households would inevitably “lead to a huge increase in people dumping their old sofas, fridges and washing machines”. Thankfully for his own constituency, Luton council continues to offer a free bulky item collection service for low-income households, but all is not equal for those on benefits everywhere in the UK.

Roughly 75% of all local councils in the UK now charge for bulky waste items, which can be broadly classified as any household items too big to fit in your car. Typical items deemed to be bulky waste include:

· Beds and mattresses
· Bicycles
· Rolled up carpet
· Chairs and sofas
· Tables
· Wardrobes

While policies differ from council to council most don’t profit from a paid for bulky waste collection service and have been forced to levy a fee due to a reduction in government funding; resulting in a reassessment of services provided and how they are provided to the local community. Bulky waste collection services are now designed to be self-funding but may by putting those with already limited finances in an increasingly difficult position. 

Free for some but not free for all

Although Luton council, Bristol City Council and Eastbourne council, amongst many others, have continued to offer a limited number of free collections of bulky items for households in receipt of means-tested benefits or for local pensioners, other councils including Hastings Borough Council, Norwich City Council and Adur and Worthing Councils make no concessions for those receiving benefits.

This inconsistency has quickly demonstrated that:

· Some councils are using paid collection services to help subsidise those who cannot afford collections – helping households of all incomes to dispose of bulky items responsibly and to keep boroughs clear.

· Free collection for certain groups within society remains very much at the discretion of individual councils.

· There is a greater possibility that the dumping grounds for fly-tipped, rather than paid for pick-up bulky items, are likely to appear in those residential areas where there is a higher concentration of poorer households which are not served by councils offering any free services.

No benefit for those on benefits

Unfortunately, this increased likelihood of fly-tipping (illegal dumping) in poorer areas plays right into the readiness of the UK public and media to stigmatise areas based on the actions of their residents. Even before the fee paying for collection came into play, there was already a social stigma which associated the sight of an abandoned mattress or sofa on the pavement with the more impoverished areas of a town. Many of the outdoor scenes in Benefits Street, a Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall of one of the UK’s poorest streets, included a pile of mattresses and a sofa in the background or as central to pavement activity. Despite the free collection for poorer households being discretionary and this very public portrayal of its James Turner Street as indeed being a street full of such households, it’s notable that Birmingham City Council is not one of those to have maintained free collection for those on benefits.

Additionally, on James Turner Street, these abandoned items proved to be actual gathering points for local residents and play areas for their children. So, in addition to the nuisance eye-sore impact to a neighbourhood, fly-tipped gathering points also epitomise that other social stigma associated with poverty – that of anti-social behaviour, which again adds to social exclusion and judgement upon furniture littered areas of towns – and the residents who live there.

No money – no choice?

Although the “affordable” option offered by many councils is for residents to take their own items to a designated recycling point for disposal, many families on low incomes don’t have access to the right kind of vehicles required – bulky items, after all, require large vehicles and a significant amount of muscle power. For these individuals, getting items out of their own front door is the challenge and, once it’s outside, it doesn’t take long for a “fly-tipping” zone for a whole area to be born.

Giving but not taking… the limit of charitable assistance

Many of the UK’s poorer families rely on help from furniture recycling charities to access furnishings for their home. However, although these charities do great work by taking unwanted furniture (including some bulky items) from some households and recycling them to others, there are many items which fall under the bulky item banner that they are not able to take as donations. Actual restricted items may vary between the different charitable services, but often include mattresses, three piece suites and electrical appliances, due to flammability and / or hygiene restrictions, which means that poorer families are unable to access even helpful and responsible routes for disposing of bulky items via recycling them to others in need.

Where some councils might see their “everyone pays” blanket charge for bulky item collection as being an act of equality, in those neighbourhoods where everyone has to pay but the majority can’t afford to, the inability to do may serve only to make inequalities more evident, street by street.

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