Here’s how we can increase recycling by Londoners who live in flats

A recycling bin at Wimbledon. Image: Getty.

Declaring a climate emergency – as the London Assembly and mayor of London have done – is an important first step in tackling the emerging environmental catastrophe. But what comes next?

The task ahead of us is so vast and the solutions appear so complex, that individual action alone – whilst incredibly important – won’t come close to solving the issue when systemic change is what’s really needed. We require the corporations that dominate so much of our economy to fundamentally reappraise how they do business – indeed, we all need to reconsider the role that capitalism plays in our climate crisis and how we might rethink what can at present be a destructive correlation between growth and climate breakdown.

With problems (and solutions) so vast, it may feel as though there is little that can be done on a personal or local level that can make a real, tangible and lasting difference. The recent Recycling Week is an opportunity to reflect on how we might bring this sort of change about.

Here in London we lag behind the rest of the country in terms of recycling. According to the latest statistics from DEFRA, 33 per cent of household waste in London is recycled or composted, compared to 43 per cent nationally. Even within London, the rate varies considerably from borough to borough, with recycling much lower in Inner London than Outer London: 14 per cent in Newham, 19 per cent in Westminster and 22 per cent in Lewisham, while Sutton and Bromley both manage 50 per cent, and in Bexley it’s 52 per cent. It’s in no doubt that we can and must do better – but what explains this significant discrepancy?

The London Assembly Environment Committee reported on household recycling in 2017, and found a strong link between the proportion of flats in a borough and the recycling rate. The simple fact is that many flats, and particularly high-rises, were built in such a way that the act of recycling can be inconvenient, particularly for those with mobility issues. The disposal of black bag rubbish, however, is often easy, with many blocks still using bin chutes.

With 50 per cent of London’s housing stock in flats, the difficulties are considerable – but it’s not an excuse not to drive up standards. In the municipality of Milan, where 80 per cent of residents live in flats, recycling rates have improved by 20 percentage points to 54 per cent in the past decade – a direct consequence of introducing better enforcement and food waste separation. This points not only to how we might improve recycling rates with state action, but also how the state might better incentivise individual action.

With London needing to build 65,000 new homes per year – most of which will inevitably be flats – the mayor of London and London boroughs must make sure proper recycling facilities are included in all new build homes. The ,ayor’s new draft London Plan states that developers need to consider how facilities are designed to ensure there is enough space for separate collection of dry recyclables, food waste and other waste.

Providing the space within the building is one thing, but councils also need to work closely with landlords and building managers to make sure the right kind of bins are provided, and residents know their obligations and how to use those facilities. This is an additional problem in London as people tend to move more often than elsewhere, and different boroughs have different recycling policies.

The Government’s proposals to introduce more consistency in household recycling is welcome, and the mayor should push local authorities to go further. Sadiq Khan has called for councils to provide all kerbside properties with six dry recycling streams (glass, cans, paper, card, plastic bottles and mixed plastics) and separate food waste collections by 2020 – but this absolutely must be for all types of property if we are to meet our target of 65 per cent recycling by 2030.

The evidence is that Boroughs can actually save money through this approach: Ealing reportedly saves between £1.7m and £2.3m a year by transferring dry recyclable and food waste recycling out of residual waste. However, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is by providing boroughs with the resources needed to scale up their recycling and collection infrastructure.

We should also be more creative about how we design space for waste and recycling inside the home. Guidelines could set out standard ways for recycling and food waste segregation to be built into new kitchens, which would increase the quality of materials collected and their efficiency for recycling. Too many people are limited to small spaces under sinks, and if we want them to recycle the majority of their refuse then this just isn’t good enough.

Experience has also found that limiting the amount of space for residual waste (i.e. that which isn’t recycled) increases recycling rates, so authorities should be careful not to overprovide wheelie bins for landfill rubbish, so that residents have plenty of space for recycling.

Finally, information is king. Partly due to the inconsistency of services, but also because manufacturers do not always put clear recycling instructions on products, many Londoners report confusion over what they can recycle and how. Clearer labelling must be mandated and regulated by the government. This is particularly crucial for single use products such as wet wipes, which many people don’t realise cannot be recycled, composted or flushed, and as a result end up contaminating recycling loads or contributing to horrifying fatbergs.

We have come a long way since London recycled just 8 per cent of its household waste twenty years ago, but to meet the climate challenges of the 21st century and beyond, we must push on. Recycling in London’s flats has lagged behind, but with stronger policies and creative thinking, we can design our homes and buildings to make it easier for everyone to recycle.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.