£2.1m scheme to help residents living in tower blocks recycle more 

Recycling bins in Tower Hamlets Pic: Tower Hamlets Council

A new £2.1m project to improve recycling facilities for people living in tower blocks has been launched by Tower Hamlets Council. 

In the next three years, the council plans to support waste recycling by improving and increasing the number of communal recycling containers, placing easily understandable signs around bins, and informing residents about how to recycle waste the right way. 

“Tackling our waste problem is crucial to responding to the climate emergency and the problem of plastic pollution,” said John Biggs, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets.

“Supporting our residents by providing everything they need to recycle is one way in which the council is working to increase our recycling rates and be kinder to the planet.”  

Government figures between 2019 and 2020 show that Tower Hamlets Borough has one of the worst recycling rates in London.

It is among the worst four boroughs that recycled less than a quarter of their waste.  

Household recycling rates in Tower Hamlets and Greater London between 2019-20

Pic: Cllr Andrew Wood

Councillor Andrew Wood told ELL: “The first problem we have in Tower Hamlets, is that in the last full year that we have information for, which is 2020-2021, we had the lowest recycling rates in London, and the second-lowest recycling rates in the country: 19.5 per cent, and that percentage has been dropping.” 

Wood said that at one point, the borough was recycling 27 per cent of its waste, which means they have been going backwards. 

“Most of the parts of the country have been increasing their recycling, but we were actually getting worse. That is the first key issue.” 

The councillor said another significant problem is that the council mix the general and recycling waste together. 

“The second key issue is that we definitely had a problem in the last couple of years where even though people were separating their waste, it is the council who is dumping it all together into general waste because they do not have enough staff or enough vehicles to pick up the general waste and recycling waste, so when they are short on time, they just put it all into general waste.” 

Trash piling up around recycling bins in Tower Hamlets Pic: Georgina Laux 

He said this discourages residents from recycling. 

“People obviously see that and think ‘, what’s the point of me doing all that separation if the council just dumps it all in the same place.” 

He added that there had also been a problem with the Underground Refuse Storage (URS) system. To collect the waste from the URS bins, the council needs special URS trucks, which have been broken for more than a year. 

“They [the URS trucks] have been broken for over a year, which meant a lot of the URS was not being used, and then again, recycling was being picked up with general waste.” 

“In theory, that should be improving because some of that was caused by COVID-19 and some of that was just driver shortages, but other London councils were improving their recycling during COVID-19, and we were not, so it is definitely something else going wrong with our waste.” 

Wood mentioned that people not recycling properly is another issue and added: “It is a combination of factors as to why our recycling rates are so low. We spent £10 million on new trucks in 2020 because the other key issue is, in March 2020 the earlier contract ended and since March 2020 the whole service has been run by Tower Hamlets Council with their own trucks and their own staff.” 

He said that the council only had two URS trucks, and there were times when only one of these trucks or none of them were working. 

“In terms of the URS trucks, we only had two URS trucks. It has been a bit confusing – they say they have three, but they only talk about two working [ones], and we have 700 URS bins, so there were periods for the last 18 months when both trucks were not working, or only one truck was working, and they said they bought a new truck in February, but I have not seen evidence of that yet.” 

“That has definitely been an issue in places like Blackwall Reach where people are meant to put their waste into these underground bins, and if they cannot be picked up because they need specialist trucks, then it causes a local problem.”  

Wood thinks the council definitely need four trucks as the number of the URS bins are expected to be going up in the borough.

The size of the URS bins, he said, was a further issue. 

“One of the other problems with these [URS] bins is that the entrance is quite narrow, so if you have a big bag of recycling, it is difficult to put it inside, and some people get lazy and just leave that bag outside. 

Wood added that he would prefer to either keep the old-styled big paladin bins or the compaction system with some developments. 

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