Three Rivers Recycling

Local Gov't • Three Rivers

Three Rivers District Council recycles record levels of waste, through a wide range of recycling services, good communication with residents, and co-operation with neighbouring councils.

  • Recycling bins.

Three Rivers District Council's story

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.

Useful learnings from Three Rivers District Council

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, 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.

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.

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%.

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.

Three Rivers District Council's metrics

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.

Feeling inspired? Discover more about this story...

Action Area

Circular Economy

Positive Impacts

Less Waste


Three Rivers

Response to climate crisis





Local Gov't, 50 to 249 people

Shared by

Ashden & Friends of the Earth

Updated Feb, 2024

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