Recycling collections for flats - understanding flats

In order to plan the best ways of providing or improving a food waste and recycling service to flats, it is useful to understand some of the factors that make flats unique from other properties.  This section:

  • Defines the main types of flats
  • Outlines the collection and communication challenges associated with flats
  • Explains some common terminology 

Definitions of flats

A block of flats is usually defined as a building within which there is more than one self contained household.  Several blocks of flats in close proximity, usually managed by the same organisation, may sometimes be referred to as an estate.  For the purposes of this guidance flats are generally considered to be households that are not suitable to be served by a kerbside collection scheme.

Flats are usually categorised into the following building types:

Purpose built blocks (see the three photos immediately below). Some of the first purpose built blocks of flats were developed in the UK between the Victorian era and the First World War and are often referred to as “mansion blocks”.  After the Second World War there was a huge boom in building due to the need to provide more housing, and pre-fabricated purpose built blocks provided an affordable option for local authorities.

Mansion block of flats
Modern purpose built flatsModern purpose built flats
Purpose-built high-rise flatsPurpose-built high-rise flats

Converted house
Flats in converted properties (see image to the left). Flats may form part of a converted building, most commonly a house.  These are sometimes referred to as a "House in Multiple Occupation" or “HMO”

Flats in commercial buildings. Some flats comprise part of a commercial building such as flats above shops.

Flats in commercial buildings
There are different interpretations of what constitutes low and high rise blocks. Typically, low rise is categorised as 1-2 floors (storeys), medium rise as 3-5 floors and high rise as 6 or more floors. Some define high rise by whether the block contains a lift or not.

While authorities do take note of whether a block is high or low rise it rarely appears to affect the type of recycling service provided as other factors such as the number of households or building features affecting fire risk take priority in decision making.

Why are flats different to houses?

Providing recycling services to residents living in flats is fundamentally different to providing services to houses.  Outlined below are some key opportunities and challenges around the provision of recycling services to flats.  Suggestions of how to use these opportunities and address challenges are discussed throughout the guidance.

Building features: opportunities

  • Communal areas provide an opportunity for communications and often notice boards and poster sites already exist.
  • Opportunities for easy to use recycling schemes may exist e.g. there may be two chutes side by side, one of which could be used for recycling.
  • Unused areas such as derelict garages or unused car parks can be brought back into use for community recycling or composting initiatives.  View a video about composting in a previously unused area of a block of flats.  Produced with EC1 New Deal for Communities and the London Borough of Islington.

Building features: challenges

  • Security arrangements can make it difficult to enter blocks of flats to collect recycling and deliver communications materials and messages.
  • There may be little space internally and externally for storing refuse and recycling.  Residents may be unable or unwilling to store material for long periods of time in their flats and it may be difficult to find space for external containers meaning frequent collections are needed.
  • Flats are usually close together and linked by corridors which can increase fire risk.
  • Vehicle access can be difficult (e.g. narrow access; low headroom; restricted entry to sites; need to stop on busy road to service flats above shops). 

Management: opportunities

  • There may be regular management newsletters and induction packs for new residents in which information about recycling could be included.
  • Caretakers may be regularly on site and can play a role in delivering recycling services (e.g. collecting recycling from the doorstep or providing assisted collections); reporting issues with recycling and refuse (such as contamination, over flowing of recycling bins etc); answering resident queries and maintaining equipment related to recycling systems. 
  • Requirements for managing agents to purchase or hire recycling containers can act as an incentive for recycling depending on how they are priced in relation to residual waste containers.
  • Some management companies will support recycling services on the basis that it will help them to achieve environmental accreditation.

Management: challenges

  • Flats and communal areas are subject to more legislation and policies than kerbside properties such as The Regulatory Reform Order 2005 which governs fire safety.  These regulations can affect the complexity, design and cost implications of the recycling services provided.
  • There are multiple stakeholders that need to be consulted when a recycling service is launched or changed e.g. caretakers, residents associations and managing agents. This can impact on expense and time requirements. 

Communities: opportunities

  • Since residents in flats live in close proximity and may pass each other frequently in communal areas communities can become close knit.  This may lead to increased ownership of the local area, meaning that whole communities in flats may become involved in championing recycling and improving the area (e.g. through adopt a site schemes or clean up days). 
  • Existing networks and events may already be in place and can be used to communicate recycling messages e.g. there may be regular bingo nights or sightseeing trips. 
  • Residents will usually pass each other in communal areas so “chatter factor” can help to spread recycling messages. 

Communities: challenges

  • Flats might have clusters of certain resident types (e.g. sheltered accommodation or student flats) meaning different approaches to recycling and communication are needed. 
  • There can be less ownership and visibility of refuse and recycling services if communal recycling containers and chutes are used. For example residents can put refuse down the chute and not be seen to be doing so which may mean there is less social pressure to recycle. 
  • Resident and management turnover can be high. 
  • Waste audits have shown that residents living in flats produce less refuse and recyclable materials than residents of kerbside properties. Waste Audit graphs demonstrate this. The differences in waste production may be due to differences in purchasing habits (e.g. residents that have to climb several flights of stairs may be less likely to purchase food in heavy glass jars) and the number of people per property (as flats tend to have fewer people per household than kerbside properties).

Download information about specific opportunities and challenges related to recycling in purpose built blocks, flats in converted properties and flats in commercial buildings.

What impact might different communities have on recycling?

It is not just the different types of architecture that present challenges and opportunities for recycling. It’s normal for each block of flats to differ in terms of the social make up and management and this can demand very different approaches to recycling and communications. There may be clusters of ‘types’ of residents that need to be taken into account when a service is planned. For example:

  • Communications to student accommodation blocks and blocks with a high proportion of holiday lets need to be planned to overcome turnover of residents at different times of year.
  • In sheltered housing blocks residents may have physical difficulties that prevent them from transporting material so recycling collection schemes need to be easy to use.
  • In blocks that have a history of social issues, such as arson, collection schemes need to be carefully planned to ensure they do not pose a risk to residents.

Want to know more?

Read more about the history of flats, and flats as parts of housing estates.  Estates: An Intimate History' by Lynsey Hanley, Granta Books, London, 2007 outlines the development of council housing and blocks of flats over the past century. The history of flats in different regions can be found at British History Online.

Download information about specific opportunities & challenges of different HMO building types (30 kb)   related to recycling in purpose built blocks, flats in converted properties and flats in commercial buildings.

More information can be found on how to assess each block of flats individually and planning the most suitable recycling services in the flats inventory section.

Read about risk and health and safety.

Read about methods of improving performance of a service, including community reward schemes which can increase ownership of recycling and food waste collections.

Read about communications.

Read about stakeholder consultation.

Read about vehicles and access to sites.

Read about methods of improving performance of a service.