CIWM Article Feb 2016

Prior to being selected as a Finalist in the 2016 CIWM Sustainability and Resource Awards I was invited to write an article for the CIWM Journal in February of that year. The original article is below.

 Thinking outside the bin

When I was growing up the dustbin was a shiny galvanised metal can with a lid. It was replaced by the plastic sack which seemed like a good solution at the time, as once it was filled with waste you simply tied the top and put it out on collection day. The bag and all its contents was then shredded and sent to landfill. There were drawbacks however. It was fragile, susceptible to rodents and shredded waste is impossible to segregate for recycling (although this was not an issue at the time). Both of these solutions required manual lifting by dustmen with no regard given to hygiene, health or safety. Later iterations of the dustbin were made of plastic and lasted longer but these could not hold hot ashes and still retained all the hygiene and health and safety issues of the original dustbin.

The wheelie bin for the first time addressed the health and working conditions of bin men. Who actually invented the wheelie bin is a matter of some debate. Remains of a wooden wheeled bin were found in Pompeii, but as no traces of a bin truck or comb lifters were found, in my view this was little more than a box with wheels.  An Englishman named George Dempster invented the Dempster Dumpster in the 1930s which collected standardised wheeled metal containers, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the plastic wheelie bin came into common use. Who first introduced the modern plastic version also depends on who you speak to, as a number of people were working on the idea at the same time. Frank Rotherham Mouldings in the UK, OTTO and SULO all played a part in its introduction. Regardless of who was the first, there is no doubt of the benefits to the householder and bin men.

But the wheelie bin masked another growing issue, notably that households were producing more waste. The wheelie bin was almost 3 times the size of a dustbin and soon the realisation that this was not environmentally sustainable started to sink in. The age old solution of landfill became a problem and is now an expensive and the least desirable option. Also much of the packaging is made from dwindling resources. The solution was obvious, recycle as much as possible and send as little as possible to landfill. This seemed an easy solution until the domestic waste stream was looked at more closely. Currently waste is divided into wet waste and recyclables, with recyclables divided into glass, metal, paper and plastic. Wet waste is generally sent to landfill and/or incineration. The food aspect of wet waste is also being reprocessed as compost.

This has led to the forward thinking philosophy of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. For recyclables there are two main approaches, co-mingled and segregated. Co-mingled is seen as more practical but segregated produces a better quality recyclable. Glass should always be handled separately as broken glass causes high levels of contamination when mixed with other materials and causes excess wear in machinery. The improved technologies in MRFs(Materials Recovery Facility) has narrowed the quality gap between co-mingled and segregated waste, but so far segregated waste systems are preferred by the EU. However, the top performing councils in the UK use co-mingled systems, and with the cooperation of retailers and manufacturers with regards to packaging there is no reason why this cannot work.

Whether co-mingled or segregated methods are used, one thing is certain, more than one container is required and this has led to the phenomenon of “bin blight”. Bin blight is one of the biggest issues faced by councils today and the overcapacity created by multiple bins has seen waste production in households double. Waste production is also linked to income, with working class producing the least amount. However, at an average starting at around 3kg per person per week this is still not sustainable in the long term. Large households will naturally produce more waste than smaller ones but they all seem to be given the same options when it comes to bins. To address this some councils have already replaced their standard 240L wheelie bins with smaller 140L models, but this still does not address the issue of bin blight. Wheelie bin manufacturers were quite happy to take advantage of the increased demand when multiple bin systems were introduced, but as demand decreased due to market saturation they became embroiled in a price war in which there are no winners. The quality of wheelie bins has decreased, profitability has decreased and innovation is at a standstill. A wheelie bin, which originally had a working life of 10 to 15 years and many last even longer, are now lasting a couple of years. I know of instances of 15% failure rates on new deliveries from the factory. This is, among other things, due to higher than recommended levels of recycled plastic being used. The introduction of smaller caddies and containers has increased the risk to bin men and currently the industry which is 6% of the total workforce is responsible for 2.8% of accidents in the workplace.

Some companies did develop compartmentalised solutions, some of which allowed multiple fractions to be emptied at once. These were mainly used in Europe and in every instance cross-contamination was an issue. My company has developed a compartmentalised solution that addresses the problems related to compartmentalised bins. It allows one compartment to be emptied while the other is closed, so as to prevent contamination, and is compatible with current bin truck lifters. However, due to the current situation, manufacturers are either competing on price or focusing on making different types of caddies. As one manufacturer put it to me recently at the RWM, “I just want to sell more wheelie bins rather than look at alternative designs”.  The MD of another complimented my design as “the bin of the future” but preferred to focus on the continuing fight on price in the current market.

The industry’s disregard for innovation and invention is unfortunate and denies the rest of us the benefits that better design brings. I will leave with the last words from an article written in 1999 by Heather Chappells and Elizabeth Shove titled “Bins and the history of waste relations.

“Despite their innocent appearance, dustbins occupy a critical position in any narrative of waste management. Being situated at the interface of private lives and household practices, on the one hand, and public health and environmental management on the other, dustbin technologies provide a revealing indicator of waste-relationships within society.”

Bob O Connell

Managing Director

Mi-bin Ltd.