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.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.