Guidance for local authorities, produced with Friends of the Earth

Three Rivers District Council takes recycling to record levels

How is this tackling the climate crisis?

Waste is a climate issue due to the emissions caused in manufacturing products that are then thrown away, and due to the methane gases released at landfill sites

The average household in Three Rivers generates around 1,000kg of waste per year. However, due to the efforts of Three Rivers District Council, an impressive 64.1% of this waste is recycled – the highest rate in England for 2019/2020. The Hertfordshire council links its success to offering a wide range of recycling services, good communication with residents, and co-operation with neighbouring councils.

Simple, logical changes have improved Three Rivers’ recycling rates in recent years. Recycling and food waste is collected weekly, whereas non-recyclable waste is collected every fortnight in smaller 140 litre bins (the average wheelie bin used by councils is 240 litres). This has resulted in residents putting less rubbish in their general waste bins.

The council’s Local Plan also encourages new developments to minimise waste and optimise recycling by including accessible recycling systems as part of planning applications.

Three Rivers District Council has also gone beyond these basic steps. It operates a number of services for specialist waste items including clinical medical waste collection, a reusable nappy discount scheme as part of the WasteAware group, and free home textiles collection.

An assisted collection service supports older residents and people with disabilities who cannot take waste containers to the edge of their properties for collection. The council also offers talks and support on recycling and waste to schools and community organisations.

The council has further ambitions to cut waste in the area. It recognises that reducing, reusing and repairing are more effective ways to avoid sending waste to landfill or incineration than kerbside recycling collections alone. The council will therefore be moving towards a circular economy in its Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy.

What impact has it had?

In 2007/8, Three Rivers’ recycling rate was 47%. Through the council’s efforts over the years, this rose to 63% by 2018/19, when it ranked third in England, and then increased to 64.1% in 2019/20.

Claiming the title of most prolific recyclers in England has been excellent publicity for the council, a cause for pride within Three Rivers that has enhanced the authority’s reputation.

The food waste collected in the district is converted into electricity and fertiliser at a local anaerobic digestion plant, contributing to renewable biogas energy generation and providing a secondary benefit from waste reduction and recycling.

What made it work?

Quality communication and community engagement

Improved recycling rates cannot be achieved without getting residents on board. The council ensures residents have all the necessary knowledge to recycle everything possible via its clear and comprehensive online FAQs.

The council has found that small details give people the confidence to recycle properly. When residents understand the logic or processes behind an action – for instance, why a certain item must be handled in a certain way – compliance improves.

Three Rivers District Council is an active member of the Hertfordshire Waste Partnership. Waste Aware, the public-facing element of the Partnership, runs county-wide public awareness campaigns throughout the year. Instead of running their own resource-intensive awareness campaigns, multiple councils have worked in partnership. Working collaboratively across the county has been far more efficient and improved consistency.

Sustainable Three Rivers is a local volunteer group, established by residents, which promotes local climate action and hosts events to engage the wider community. The group has worked closely with the council, sharing the authority’s achievements on waste and recycling and advertising relevant council events. Three Rivers is implementing a strategy blending top-down changes and bottom-up engagement.

A consensual approach

The Three Rivers approach is consensual, not punitive. A small enforcement team deals with contamination issues when they do arise. The approach is always education first and a reminder about what can and can’t be recycled.

Financial sense for the council and for residents

For the council, there are obvious benefits of higher recycling, because it helps avoid overreliance on expensive and damaging waste treatments such as incineration. Becoming more waste aware has benefits for individuals, too – the council, for instance, advertises the fact that using reusable nappies instead of disposables can save families up to £600 a year.

Linking recycling to the wider conversation on climate change

The council found that events that are themed on waste and recycling alone do not appeal to residents. Linking recycling to the broader climate change agenda, or emotive issues like single-use plastic pollution in our oceans, is more likely to excite and engage people.

For example, the council’s climate change and waste and recycling teams jointly ran a pre-COP26 event in October 2021 which was attended by more than 300 people. This included a film screening, Q&A panel and a recycling stall.

High-quality collection crews

Having dedicated and skilful collection crews with good understanding of the recycling system is critical to ensure bins are collected on time and contamination is avoided. Crews are the frontline, the people residents see out and about, and are therefore a key part of the recycling service.

Good data

In October 2020, a county-wide Waste Compositional Analysis was conducted throughout Hertfordshire. This gave clear figures on what people in Three Rivers were recycling well and what was still ending up as residual waste. Data enables an informed approach – if residents are successfully recycling a particular item, council messaging can omit this and target different items.

Demographic factors

Three Rivers is a green, wealthy rural area inhabited by families and older people. Many residents are environmentally conscious. They also have large gardens – garden waste tonnage accounts for a significant proportion of the council’s waste and augments its recycling rate. Urban environments with fewer private gardens do not have the same in-built advantages as Three Rivers. However, other factors listed here would be applicable to councils with different demographics wanting to increase their recycling rates.

What resources were needed?

Three Rivers District Council has created the role of Climate Change, Sustainability and Recycling Officer. Recycling services are not entirely an outgoing expenditure, because the council charges for garden waste collection, meaning that the income received offsets some of the costs of that service. New replacement bins and refuse vehicles have been bought to keep up with the changes made to recycling.

Lessons learned

All councils need to recycle more to meet the government’s target of a 65% rate for England by 2035, with no more than 10% of waste sent to landfill. In 2019/2020, out of a total 333 English local authorities, only 11 had household waste recycling rates greater than 60% and only 84 had rates higher than 50%.

In addition, some councils oversaw an increase in waste being sent to landfill or incineration as an emergency response to manage the increased levels of household waste experienced during coronavirus lockdowns.

One reason for poor recycling is that, in England, many councils are locked into long-term waste incineration contracts which often include minimum tonnage guarantees. These undermine the economic incentives to recycle, so councils with high incineration rates are more likely to have low recycling rates. UKWIN is a campaign group that can offer help for authorities to move away from incineration.

A key lesson from Three Rivers is that separating food and garden waste is a reliable way of increasing levels of food collected, thereby improving recycling rates.

Three Rivers is convinced that higher levels of recycling are possible. But this will only be possible if manufacturers co-ordinate materials in production. This would also require UK government intervention in the form of regulation or tax incentives, if authorities are to eliminate waste at a local level.

Useful information

To find out more, contact Elen Roberts –

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