COLLECTING people’s rubbish is Malvern Hills District Council’s most expensive service and many would argue it is the most important.
But in recent years it has also become the most controversial attracting plenty of negative headlines. Observer reporter Carl Jackson went out with Malvern’s bin men to see how the service runs first hand.
BY MIDDAY, the time I arrived at the council’s waste depot at Pendragon Close, the team I was to accompany had already been out collecting black bags since 7am in the morning.
On a warm sunny day in the heart of Malvern it soon became obvious how physically fit you have to be to hurl rubbish in the back of a truck for a living. Stuart Day who works as a loader, said he once wore a pedometer to work and had walked ten miles and burnt nearly 800 calories by the end of his shift. It is not surprising many of the staff endure things such as blisters on their feet because of the job. Wayne Eggerton, my driver for the day, was all but forced to go behind the wheel due to suffering shin splints, he said.
The introduction of wheeled bins last year has actually made life a little harder for bin men because taking each one too and from the lorry effectively takes twice as long as throwing a black bag into the waste churner.
Collecting rubbish from those exempt from putting it out also adds more steps to a loader’s day. No doubt there are plenty in Malvern who physically struggle to carry their bags out but there are also those who abuse the system.
I was told of one resident who was fit enough to ride his bike past the bin man collecting his bags for him.
The job also incurs its own set of hazards from bags containing dumped glass or being chased by unruly dogs.
So why do people do it? Wayne admitted it was very frustrating for the staff when the service appeared in the papers for the wrong reasons.
“It does get to us,” he said. “We are just trying to do a job and just wish people could leave us alone. But we don’t let it affect our work.
“There is a real good camaraderie between the staff. I spend more time with these boys than I do my wife. We have a lot of friendly banter.
“If it was a horrible job I wouldn’t have done it for ten years I would do something different.”
It is quite remarkable that many of the staff have turned up to work on the bins for years in some cases, without the same benefits and job security as some of their colleagues, simply because they were employed by an agency rather than directly by the council.
Throughout the years it has been very cost effective for the authority to use agency workers and necessary to provide extra cover when its own staff are on leave or sick.
But changes to the law in the last two years have reduced many of the inequalities and the council are now actively looking to employ the majority of its staff directly.
So why else does the service come in for such heavy scrutiny? Residents are quickly irritated when their bags are left behind and since the introduction of wheeled bins missed collections have increased from around 1,000 to 2,800 a year.
But this is still a drop in the ocean compared to the 1,750,000 collections which are made successfully. Customer satisfaction surveys also reflect that the service has improved overall.
Recently the council breached its licence by mis-recording the amount of vehicles it was operating. But after spending time in one of the 32 tonne HGVs it is easy to see why they break down and why replacements have to be temporarily brought in.
My ride for the day was like Big Brother on wheels boasting 360 degree camera coverage of the entire truck.
The lorries are also kitted out with tech recording how the vehicles are driven, how much waste is on board and devices which track the chips fitted to the wheeled bins. It is wince-inducing to see the trucks navigated through some of Malvern’s tight streets and seemingly impossible bends.
Wayne said: “Mechanically they are very very reliable but they have got all sorts of computers on them now which is where the problems start.
“A broken switch worth 39p can stop the whole lorry working.”
The lifts fitted to the back to tip rubbish out of the wheeled bins are certainly part of that problem. The new form of waste collection was incredibly controversial with many local councillors, but many sceptics are now converts to the system. Ultimately it has seen recycling in the district increase from 32 per cent to 36.4 per cent in twelve months, and collectively with neighbouring counties, Malvern more or less meets its national target of 43 per cent.
For many residents rubbish is out of sight out of mind once it is removed from the streets. But seeing where daily waste ends up is truly eye opening. The final part of my day was to witness the 5.6 tonnes of black bags collected (a modest amount compared to some days), unloaded at Throckmorton landfill in Pershore. It is staggering to see green hills worthy of the Malverns themselves rise up in front of you only to learn they are filled top to bottom with rubbish, while diggers left and right wrestle with trash dropped off that very day.
In the distance what looks like a picturesque lake is actually the next plot of land to be designated for heaps of rubbish.
Seeing this site is powerful motivation for anyone to do something as simple as put cardboard in the recycling bin rather than toss it in a black bag.
Overall I came away with a lot of admiration for the people who collect our bins and a greater understanding of the challenges in maintaining and even improving such a vast and crucial service. It certainly was not a waste of time.