Data investigation: A year in the life of Sheffield's waste
The bin is just the beginning
Bin day — it’s a bit of a chore. Whether you carefully check the chart to make sure you’re putting the right colour out, or just trust the wisdom of the crowds and follow suit, most of us give little thought as to what happens next. But our data journalist Daniel Timms has stumbled across the massive government spreadsheet that provides forensic detail on where it ends up. He’s here to give us the inside scoop, as well as asking the vital question: does it even matter which bin you put things in?
⚖️ An author and academic sent to jail for protesting the unnecessary removal of Sheffield street trees says the City Council’s four-page apology is not enough and is pleading for help to clear his criminal record. The lengthy apology, signed by new council leader Tom Hunt and CEO Kate Josephs, is the culmination of a saga that has lasted over a decade and concedes that many will “never forgive” the council for the mistakes it made.
🌳 What should have been just one part of a sorely-needed £2.2 billion project to improve the city’s streets spiralled into a fiasco that saw elderly residents arrested in dawn raids and the council taking one of its own councillors to court for trying to prevent the removal of healthy trees. This is all because the council set an arbitrary “aim to replace half of the city’s street trees” over the course of its 25-year contract with outsourcing firm Amey, an aim it repeatedly insisted did not exist at the time, based on a “misinterpretation” of a 2007 report on their health.
💸 There are still 14 years left of the Streets Ahead contract with Amey and, in future, the council wants the work “to be flexible and responsive” so that changes to the work being done can be made “without always requiring expensive, drawn-out variation processes”. By the time of the apology, the Street Trees Inquiry had cost the council £839,000 and it expects to spend a further £200,000 “to cover the remaining costs of the Inquiry and to facilitate the actions to meet its recommendations”, including up to £10,000 for a plaque on the town hall honouring those who protested for the trees.
Things to do
🎸 If I wasn’t away this weekend I’d definitely want to go to this! On Friday, 23 June, The Leadmill presents Twist & Shout: A Night of The Beatles, a celebration of the iconic music of the 60s and 70s. As well as music from throughout The Beatles’ career plus some of the Fab Four’s best solo songs, also played on the night will be tracks by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, David Bowie and lots more. Doors open at 11pm and tickets are £6.
🪕 From Saturday, 24 June until Sunday, 9 July, the ever-popular Walkley Festival returns with this year’s theme of “Wilder Walkley”. The festival, which will feature around 50 events over 30 sites, begins with a launch event on South Road this Saturday including live musical performances, activities and stalls throughout the day. This will be followed on Sunday, 25 June by “Amongst the Hedges”, an open day for Holly Hagg Farm and local allotments.
🌳 This Sunday, 25 June join Sheffield Woodland Connections as they explore both the historic planting and current conservation efforts in the Sheffield General Cemetery. The main themes for this walk will be tree ID, the woodland history of this designed landscape and Victorian tree symbolism. Adult tickets are £7 plus booking fee while kids go free. The 90 minute tour will meet at the gatehouse entrance at the end of Cemetery Avenue at 2.55pm.
Data investigation: A year in the life of Sheffield's waste
By Daniel Timms
202,000 tonnes. Roughly the equivalent of 17,000 double decker buses, 4,500 train carriages, or 20 Eiffel Towers. That rather mind-boggling number is the amount of waste Sheffield created last year.
Like most of us, I don’t spend much time thinking about where my rubbish actually ends up. I’ve got a pretty clear idea of what belongs in each bin (though I sometimes waver with those plasticky flyers you get — blue or black?) But once I put the bin out, I don’t think much more about it. But all this was set to change when I stumbled across the dataset which forensically details where it all goes. After days of sifting through the data for 2021/22 — it was pretty opaque at first — it finally revealed its secrets to me.
Let’s start with the green bin, as it’s the most straightforward. You only get one of these if you request it (and pay £32 for it, plus £53 for a year’s collection) and it’s used for garden waste. Of the almost 12,000 tonnes of garden waste generated in the city, it all goes to one place — a Yorkshire Water site on the edge of Rotherham.
This seemed unlikely to me, but a look at the site in question on satellite view shows it to be correct. Next to the water treatment facility (left) you can see rows and rows of matter at different stages of being composted (right). This is “windrow composting”, where the waste is stacked in a row and occasionally turned over a 16-week timetable. The compost can then be used to grow other plants, and the cycle of life continues.
Presumably Yorkshire Water had the land going spare and spotted an opportunity to make a bit more cash on the side. So far, so sustainable.
The blue bin is for mixed paper and card. It’s the next bin up in the food chain — 15,000 tonnes — and contrary to my scepticism it seems most Sheffielders do know what to put in it. Less than 5% is contaminated by other waste, and that gets burned. We can follow those 687 tonnes further in their journey — but for now let’s focus on the good stuff.
After being sorted in Sheffield, according to the data it gets dispatched to North Wales. However, a look at that site (which was turning it into newspaper) shows that it’s closed down following a takeover. I put this to the council, who told me “Paper and card is sent to the council’s materials recycling facility in Beighton. It is then sorted and bailed into the various paper grades… Veolia then sell the sorted materials to various reprocessors depending on market prices.” So it seems the trail goes cold at that point.
Cans, glass, and plastic — so long as it’s a bottle. Any other plastic is to be sent to the black bin. It seems the brown bin confuses us residents more — with 1,500 tonnes wrongly ending up in this bin. That’s more or less twice the weight of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue.