For the past four weeks, the residents of Old Colwyn have been busily preparing for the big day.
Their challenge? To fit a month’s-worth of household rubbish in a single black wheelie bin, ready for collection on Wednesday.
According to their local council — the first in England and Wales to introduce four-weekly collections for all its residents — this should have been a piece of cake. (Well, not cake literally, it has to go in a different bin, of course).
By simply sorting out their rubbish more carefully, they advised, householders would be able to recycle more, so freeing up ample space for items that have to be thrown away.
Donna Pimley-Jones with grandson Harrison age 3 and their four weeks worth of rubbish in Kinmel Bay, North Wales
In doing so, residents would not only be doing their bit to save the planet but would be saving the council much-needed cash too.
The reality, as I discovered during a trip to North Wales this week, is totally different.
For starters, while only a single rubbish bin can be put out every four weeks, what that bin now contains is another matter altogether.
Dead Vermin by the bins in Penmaenmawr where Conwy County Council have rolled out four weekly collections
Rubbish dumped by bins in Old Colwyn, Conwy, because the bins are already too full
‘The bins are so heavy you can hardly move them,’ one council worker told me. ‘They’re worried about the binmen injuring themselves trying to shift them. If people can get another bag in their bin they will get another bag in their bin — any way they can.’
The favoured method in these parts involves climbing into the bin, then jumping up and down on the contents to compress them. Unpleasant, and not entirely risk-free. Others have resorted to stockpiling waste in sheds and garages, but complain about rodent infestations.
Still more try to off-load black sacks on others, with or without permission. Another resident told how whenever he goes out to walk the dog he takes a carrier bag of rubbish with him, stuffing it in pavement bins as he goes. Some simply burn their waste in braziers or on back-garden bonfires. Fly-tipping is on the increase.
Families are struggling with the new regime as their bins overflow with rubbish
Sue Foster with her Overflowing bins in Old Colwyn, Conwy
Despite the sign saying ‘no fly tipping’ rubbish had been dumped by these bins as residents complain that the offence is on the rise
In one town I visited, the over-sized wheelie bins set aside for flats had been fitted with padlocks. Those that had not were overflowing with black bags, many ripped open by birds or rodents. The contents, including soiled nappies and food waste, had spilled on to the pavements.
‘It’s the four-weekly collection,’ said one local businessman in despair. ‘The council sent out a team to clear up the mess last week and now they’ll have to do the same again. How much will that cost? How can that make financial sense?’
When the council introduced the scheme a month ago, they promised savings of £390,000 a year. All well and good, but as everyone in these parts is quick to point out, the same council has just had a spanking new office complex built for its staff.
Bits and piece of waste appeared to have escaped from the overflowing bins
Under a controversial deal with the developers, this will cost council tax payers in Conwy Council Borough £58 million over the next 40 years. Worse still, it has been suggested that they could face a council tax rise of 11 per cent next year. For what? Some homeowners are now so fed up they are digging further into their own pockets to pay a private firm £8.99 a week to empty their bins.
And, of course, where one council leads, others follow. In recent weeks, Anglesey and Denbighshire councils have both signalled that they are considering introducing four-weekly collections too. Several English councils have introduced three-weekly collections.
So the bin-management tactics I witnessed last week could soon become required practice nationwide. Meanwhile, there can be little doubt that when it comes to recycling, the residents of this corner of North Wales are already doing their bit.
Litter from Overflowing bins now lines the streets of Old Colwyn following the move to increase the time between bin collections
Figures show that their waste recycling rate stands at 64 per cent. In England, the average is 44 per cent. But Conwy is under pressure to do more. By 2025, it must hit 70 per cent, a target set by the often intractable Welsh government. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to £600,000 a year. Like all councils, it is also under severe financial pressure.
The council claims the various other collections — there are 19 in a month, such as food waste or textiles — will help. ‘It’s easy to recycle more,’ reads a line on the council’s website.
Well, try telling that to retired teacher Sue Foster. The 65-year-old lives in Old Colwyn with her husband, her 40-year-old daughter, her grandson, 22, and granddaughter, 11. The family has three cats and a dog. When I met her on Wednesday, she was organising a vast array of recycling receptacles outside her detached home. There were two food caddies to put food waste in and three large plastic boxes with lids, each stacked one on top of the other.
On bin day extra bags of rubbish were piled high on top of household bins
One was for recyclable plastic and cans, another for glass and brown cardboard, and a third for white paper or grey card. When these get full, Mrs Foster has extra capacity in the form of two white nylon sacks.
In addition there was a bin for sanitary waste and two green sacks for garden waste. Oh, and let’s not forget that black bin — filled to the brim and ready to be emptied for the first time in a month on Wednesday.
‘I recycle everything but even so it is an absolute joke, it’s awful,’ says Mrs Foster, who has even resorted to flushing any dog mess down an outside toilet, rather than having it fester in bags in the black bin.
‘The only way I have been able to manage is because my next-door neighbour has let me put sacks in his bin. There are five of us and only two of them — but we have the same size bin. I asked the council for a second black bin but I was told it’s only available for households of six or more. It’s absolutely ridiculous.’
Residents have resorted to stockpiling waste in sheds and garages, but complain about rodent infestations
A sentiment Donna Pimley-Jones of nearby Kinmel Bay can well understand. She has to pack her rubbish bin till it’s well over-flowing, plus cope with the myriad extra category bins the council has brought in. Of course, having a family makes it so much harder.
Those I spoke to who lived on their own or as a couple were generally just about managing with the new collection arrangements and maximising the amount they recycled.
But for families the lack of space in the refuse bin was a clear problem.
Indeed, come bin day many of their homes could be identified simply by looking for over-filled bins with half-open lids. Which bring their own issues with them.
Along the coast in Penmaenmawr last week a possible effect of the problem was there for all to see — a dead rat just yards from Neill and Emma Scullard’s bins.
Some over-sized wheelie bins set aside for flats had been fitted with padlocks
‘We have two young children aged one and four months, and the rubbish quickly piles up,’ said Mr Scullard, 31, who works in the catering industry. ‘It’s obvious that the accumulating rubbish will bring rats in. You can sometimes see where they have ripped the plastic bags apart. It is a nightmare. It would make more sense if they gave us bigger bins.’
In Colwyn Bay, meanwhile, the problem is greedy seagulls tearing at plastic bags.
Carrie Harling, 31, a cleaning supervisor, and Ann-Marie Potter, 24, a cleaning assistant, are neighbours in a block of three flats that house 12 people, including seven children. Their waste has to fit in three bins.
When Conwy announced the move to monthly collections, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health warned of the potential risks
‘It’s a stupid scheme — two-weekly is bad enough, never mind four-weekly,’ said Ms Harling. ‘So the rubbish just mounts up in our black bin and we also have black bags full of rubbish in our back garden. The seagulls have a field day.’
Others choose to avoid overloading their bins by disposing of waste as it accumulates. One parent I spoke to sheepishly admitted that he works in a school — and that each week he takes a bin-bag to dump in their bins.
The concern is that others will resort to fly-tipping. A number of residents I speak with complain that there has been more dumping of rubbish in rural areas. Statistics show there were 980 incidents of fly-tipping reported in 2014/15 rising to 1,351 in 2016/2017.
When Conwy announced the move to monthly collections, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health warned of the potential risks. Weekly bin rounds have all but disappeared in Britain. At least another 20 local authorities, including several in Greater Manchester, North Devon and Leicestershire, have already imposed or are considering three-weekly bin collections.
Weekly bin rounds have all but disappeared in Britain
‘We cannot hide our disappointment at this retrograde step,’ said Tony Lewis, policy chief of the institute, which represents 8,000 public health staff in charge of controlling local pollution and hygiene.
‘There are real risks with moving to a monthly collection system, such as elevated levels of fly-tipping, domestic refuse burning, pest infestations, odour nuisance and fly nuisance, especially in the summer months.’ But a spokeswoman for the council told the Mail there were no such issues in Conwy, saying there would only be problems with smells or rodents if householders recycled food waste incorrectly. She said the number of reports of rats to the council had declined in the past year.
Sue organising a vast array of recycling receptacles outside her detached home
As for fly-tipping, she also denied this was linked to the changes to bin collections, saying that tonnages of fly-tipped waste had not dramatically increased.
Maybe that’s because some householders have decided to look for other, costly, alternatives.
Binzilla, a private company that charges £8.99 to empty your wheelie bin, claims to now have customers running into the ‘high hundreds’ in the area.
‘We have been working in Conwy since about January when they were on a three-week cycle and people were already struggling. Then they started making noises about four-week collection and our phone didn’t stop ringing,’ said managing director Yousef Ayub.
‘We send trucks in to that area of North Wales from Manchester two times a week and don’t have spare capacity on the days we go.
‘We are now adding an extra route with a view to basing two trucks in North Wales permanently.’ With some customers opting to have their bin emptied every week, that’s a cost of almost £500 a year. Of course, for most people that is simply not an option.
And even if it were, given that an average Band D property in this area pays £1,469 a year in council tax, paying for a service they have already paid for would be hard to swallow.
At least another 20 local authorities, including several in Greater Manchester, North Devon and Leicestershire, have already imposed or are considering three-weekly bin collections
‘Where does all our council tax go so they can only manage one collection a month?’ is a frequent complaint I hear on my rounds.
Many point the finger of blame at the council’s new HQ in Colwyn Bay. The payment plan for the property, which will house 700 staff, will cost taxpayers at least £58 million in rent over 40 years.
‘The really sad thing is that the £390,000 the council save per annum from reducing bin collections wouldn’t even pay one third of the annual rent on their new HQ being built at the moment,’ observed one online poster.
‘Bravo Conwy Council, you’ve properly got it wrong this time!’
The council defends itself saying that the new offices will enable it to work ‘smartly and more efficiently for the people of Conwy, creating a 21st-century council with services and infrastructure to match’.
Questions have also been raised about what the council is going to do with all the extra recycled material. The estimated savings were based, in part, on selling more recyclable materials.
But a decision by China to ban imports of waste plastic means huge backlogs are building up and the value of the waste, which would normally be sold to recycling companies, has collapsed.
As a result several councils have given up on collecting and recycling plastic separately, which means an increasing amount is being burned for energy, or buried in landfill. Others are stockpiling it in vast dumps visible from space.
I put this question to the council. The spokeswoman said that thus far they had not experienced any issues with a ‘lack of capacity’ for recycling collected in Conwy.
She added that if residents are recycling properly ‘most households’ will have enough space in their black bins for rubbish and that surveys during the trial found only 2.2 per cent of bins had raised lids. This, it was claimed, ‘clearly shows that the vast majority of residents in the four-weekly collection trial area had sufficient space in their black wheelie bins’.
Meanwhile, Andrew Wilkinson, Head of Neighbourhood Services for the council, added: ‘For most people in Conwy County four-weekly bin collections are no problem, just the next logical step towards a less throw-away society.
‘More people are recycling and, thanks to TV programmes such as Blue Planet and campaigns such as the Mail’s “Turn the Tide on Plastic”, people are thinking more about what happens to waste.
‘None of us want plastic ending up in landfill or the ocean, so why would we give people unlimited opportunity to throw away plastic in their wheelie bin, instead of recycling it?’
It’s a fair enough question. But among those who pay his wages there will also be no shortage of people who will also question whether the methods employed in Conwy are in fact the best way of achieving those aims.