A repetitive saga emerging as we progress with the Our Common Place project is the ongoing question: to lock or not to lock our recycling bins?

The most common recycling bin provided to flats in London look like this:

These serve approximately 40 flats each and are positioned as strategically as possible around an estate. To prevent the bins becoming contaminated with black bin bags, builders waste, etc the orange lid is meant to be kept locked. Recyclables are supposed to enter the bin through a smaller opening in the lid itself, just about big enough for a standard carrier bag: 

Residents are provided with reusable bags (you can see one in someone’s hand above) which, once full, are supposed to be emptied out into the bin. If you’ve got a lot of people in your household you could be doing this almost every day. Resident’s understandably find this a bit too much of a chore. Instead they collect bin bag size orange sacks (intended for kerbside collections) from local libraries and fill these up at home before dumping the entire sack in the recycling bin (if it is left unlocked).

On the estates we’ve been working on, we’ve found that around 90% of bins are unlocked; there are several reasons why. Firstly, the collection crews recognize that although contamination levels are certainly lower when bin lids are locked, the amount of recycling is significantly lower than in unlocked bins. They therefore leave them unlocked. A second reason for doing this is that locked bins tend to attract all sorts of fly-tipping. Residents who have brought an orange sack to the bin only to find it locked tend to just leave the orange sack on top of the bin or next to it instead of opening it up and emptying it piece by piece through the smaller slot. The orange sacks are quickly joined by all sorts of other things:

Thirdly, disgruntled residents occasionally take matters into their own hands and break off padlocks to allow them to fully open lid.

This is a real dilemma for the waste and recycling teams, do they leave the lids open to increase tonnages or keep them locked to lower contamination rates? The use of the large orange sacks is coming to be perceived by many residents to be standard practice despite efforts to encourage use of the smaller reusable bags. The physical effort needed to lug an orange sack down a few flights of stairs before holding a heavy bin lid open with one hand and hurling the sack in with the other is a clear deterrent.

On the Our Common Place project we are trying to improve performance with the service that currently exists. It’s a ‘hearts and minds’ project. At the moment, this means working with an imperfect system and mostly unlocked bins. We’re trying to help residents face this reality and encourage them to recycle more and better inspite of it. One of the campaigns we’re going to try is help a neighour where we get two households together to see if they can work together to overcome the barriers and recycle better.

So, part of what we’re doing is highlighting how good recycling performance is just one indicator of a strong community. We’re working alongside those already trying to strengthen community hoping that improved recycling performance will be one of the outcomes. As the campaign in East London says Recycle For Your Community