It pays to recycle


I was reading some interesting facts the other day about the origins of certain products and was astounded to learn about the lifecycle of the humble fizzy drink can.

Apparently, it takes around 330ml of crude oil to produce a 330ml can of fizzy drink. That’s an awful lot of energy, when you consider that just one teaspoon of oil packs enough power to lift a medium-sized family car as high as the Eiffel Tower!

A staggering amount of effort goes into producing a single can of fizzy drink, it transpires. Beginning with the energy used to mine bauxite in some remote part of Australia or the Amazon Basin, the ore eventually reaches a smelting plant where it’s heated to extract aluminium. From there, the now-sheet metal is shipped to factories across the globe where it’s formed into cans. Then it’s on to the canning factory, to be filled with fizzy drink – which also requires an additional energy-stream to produce.

I know, I need to get out more!

Next, yet more energy is used to transport the final product to the retailer, who uses still more storing it in a chill-cabinet and lighting and heating their premises – until you, the consumer, uses even more energy to travel to the shop to buy the product. But that’s not quite the end of it: on the consumption-side of the equation, you then have to factor in the energy used on the trip home, the energy used to cool the drink in your fridge, the energy required to… but I’m sure you get my drift by now?

That whole process, from opencast mine to waste bin, uses around 330ml of oil-equivalent energy per can of fizzy drink. And every day, worldwide, tens of millions of cans are produced. In fact, 24 million tonnes of aluminium is produced around the world annually, of which 51,000 tonnes is used as packaging in the UK.

But here’s the rub – £36m of aluminium ends up in landfill each year in the UK, even though an aluminium can could be recycled and ready to use again in as little as six weeks, and requires 20 times less energy to manufacture than one made from scratch.

See, now I’m getting out more!

So why have I chosen to start this blogpost with the lifecycle of a typical drinks can? Well, firstly, because I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent that our ‘take, make and throw away’ society cannot continue to treat our planet as if it was simply a limitless source of resources at one end of a production-line and some sort of free dustbin at the other.

Secondly, because I think it’s sometimes easy to ignore the wider picture and to begin to take for granted the highly organised efforts that go into producing the everyday items that we consume – which, in turn, can blind us to the consequences of what happens to them after we’ve thrown them away.

And, lastly, because I thought the lifecycle of the ubiquitous aluminium can seemed an appropriate way to introduce the subject I really want to talk about, which is the Council’s decision to change the way it disposes of the Borough’s household waste…

Last December, the council decided to introduce a new Waste and Recycling Strategy from June 2017. It follows a huge amount of work by my staff to find ways to decrease the amount we send to landfill and increase rates of recycling in the Borough.

Since this is an issue that involves everyone and affects everyone, we’ve been careful to listen to what residents said should happen, with over half who took part in last year’s consultation in agreement that some change is necessary in the way their waste and recycling is collected.

But while the survey told us that there are high levels of satisfaction with our waste and recycling service, we also know that we need to make changes and improvements in the way we deal with our waste in future, if we are ever going to meet our targets and fulfil our broader environmental obligations.

That challenge – to do business and deliver services as sustainably as possible – goes well beyond reducing the amount of household waste the Borough generates, however. It also means, for example, reducing by 40% the Council’s carbon footprint by 2020, generating solar energy on our buildings and revolutionising the way staff uses IT to virtually eradicate paper-use across the organisation.

Our Environmental Sustainability Strategy is an award-winning example in the community and is helping us to become even more resilient to the challenges we face from climate change. Did I just say ‘award-winning’? Indeed, I did, because I’m delighted to say Colchester Borough Council recently won the Environmental Awareness Category at the Countywide Essex Business Awards! You can find out more about how we’re leading the field with our environmental policies, here:

The new Waste and Recycling Strategy is one component of our wider sustainability agenda, addressing as it does a number of vital issues which we believe will drive efficiencies, improve our recycling performance and enable us to reduce the amount of waste we send to landfill.

It surely cannot be right for the Borough to continue to send in excess of 35,000 tonnes of waste to landfill each year, incurring a considerable financial cost at a time when the Council is facing significant budget cuts?!

While it’s encouraging to know that we currently earn £350,000 each year from the recyclable materials collected in the Borough, just think how much more income we could generate and money we might save if we all did more to increase the amount we recycle and send less waste to landfill. Just as important: think how boosting recycling will reduce our overall impact on the environment, and imagine how much energy could be saved if fewer aluminium cans and bottles needed to be made from scratch.

You can find lots more information about the planned changes to the waste and recycling service by visiting, but in short the main proposals include:

  • Introducing fortnightly collections for general rubbish
  • A limit of three black sacks per household, equivalent to the same capacity as the wheeled bins proposed for some areas within the Borough
  • An optional second free green box to separate glass and cans
  • White garden sacks will be free and residents will continue to get free clear sacks, but won’t receive free black sacks
  • Residents will continue to use their existing recycling containers for paper, plastics, cans, glass, textiles, food and green waste, and,
  • Continued weekly collection of food waste.

I am one of the first to recognise that our plans haven’t been received positively in all quarters and that some residents are opposed to some of the detail of the new Waste Strategy – particularly around the limits and frequency of residual waste collection and the use of wheelie-bins in certain areas. However, we have listened carefully to the views of ward councillors and the voices of the residents they represent, and that is why we won’t be imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ service where it isn’t wanted in the Borough.

Instead, we’ll be introducing what you might call a ‘hybrid service’: one which is appropriate for local circumstances – for instance, where buildings or the local terrain make it impossible to use wheelie-bins – and which also provides exemptions for householders who generate more residual waste by necessity, such as those with very young children or with a long-term medical condition.

If you have any questions or concerns about how the changes might affect you, please continue to check our website for information and guidance between now and when the new Waste Strategy is introduced in June. We’ll be publishing more details, in late spring, but until that time I would encourage you to recycle as much as you can. Just a few extra items recycled by each of our 77,000 households would make a massive difference.

I’d like to end, if I may, with a line by the poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau: “What’s the use of a house,” he said, “if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

I think those words will resonate with everyone who places a concern for the environment high on their personal agenda, as I do. But they also chime with the determination we have as a Council to provide a waste and recycling service which is both sustainable and fit for the environmental challenges of the 21st Century. We all want a decent quality of life and to protect our environment. Addressing the amount of waste we produce is one way to guarantee it, as our town continues to develop and grow in the decades to come.

Please recycle a bit more, for the benefit of your children and your grandchildren, so they can live in a cleaner and healthier environment.


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