Recycling contamination levels are on the rise: what happens next?

The waste and resource management industry is calling for a long-term, coherent regulatory framework to increase recycling and re-use rates in England after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request revealed that the quantity of rejected recyclable waste has increased by 84% over the past four years.

The cost of re-sorting 'contaminated' recycle bins is a key reason  for some of the recycling being rejected, so what needs to happen to prevent contamination in the first place?

The cost of re-sorting 'contaminated' recycle bins is a key reason for some of the recycling being rejected, so what needs to happen to prevent contamination in the first place?

The FoI request, carried out by BBC Breakfast, discovered that England’s councils were unable to recycle 338,000 tonnes of waste in 2014/15 - up from 184,000 tonnes in 2011/12. Almost all (97%) of the rejected rubbish in was incinerated or sent to landfill in 2013/14 - the most recent year of available data.

The reason for this increase in rejected recyclable waste is contamination, caused by the wrong materials being placed in the wrong bins, or containers still holding the remnants of unconsumed food or liquids - as recently brought to light with coffee cups in the Hugh's War on Waste TV programme.

Crucially, what can be collected from households varies between different councils, which has led to an apparent lack of awareness and understanding among householders about should or should not be included within recycling containers.

Video: Contamination rates increase for recyclables (BBC News)

But while contamination rates are rising, it should be noted that the amount of contamination within household recycling streams remains relatively low. Of all the material sent for recycling in England last year, just 3% was rejected - 338,000 out of more than 11 million tonnes of recycling.

With the results of the BBC’s FoI request released this morning (28 August), edie has heard from government departments, recycling and waste management firms and industry bodies throughout the day - all discussing the potential solutions to this complex problem of rejected recyclable waste.

Here are the government and industry responses we have received today, in full: -

Linda Crichton, head of resource management, WRAP

“Recycling can be rejected due to contamination and our evidence shows contamination often occurs because people are unsure what can and can't be recycled. To help, WRAP is working with Defra, local government and industry to develop a framework for greater consistency in household recycling for England. 

“Key to this is having a core set of materials that can be recycled. This then opens up opportunities for more clarity in communications from a national perspective.”

Chris Murphy, deputy chief executive, Chartered Institute of Waste Management (CIWM)

“Greater scrutiny of contamination and the reasons behind is inevitable as the regulations requiring more accurate reporting of contamination by Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) bed in and also because challenging secondary material markets have increased the pressure on recycling quality.

“Airing these issues in the public arena is important – a significant amount of contamination is due to simple householder error, oversight or confusion – and this provides a useful opportunity for the industry to step up and better explain what we need and why it is important. 

“Certainly both WRAP and CIWM have been in the media this morning, discussing in a positive way what contamination means, why it can hamper recycling efforts, and what people can do when they are confused. This is an important conversation that needs to continue.”

Dan Cooke, director of external affairs, Viridor

“Recycling is a real UK success story. We’ve made really strong progress in the last decade, moving from single digit recycling to the 44.3% figure we see today, with knock on benefits including  multi-billion pound investment into high-tech green infrastructure and 95,000 direct jobs. 

“But for the first time in fifteen years, recycling rates have slipped back. While this regression is small at 0.7%, it has been accompanied by a marked increase in contamination – people putting the wrong stuff in the wrong bin. The good news is that around 97% of material put in recycling bins is recycled. Only around 3% is rejected due to contamination and of that, much will still be used to generate energy.

“Resource policy in England stands at a crossroads. It’s time to look again at recycling, to work towards the economic opportunity of more aggregated, consistent models designed around people and products, not systems from a bygone era. We need to listen to people, to work harder at making recycling simple and to re-invest at re-telling the story of recycling and why it matters.”

Sam Corp, head of regulation, Environmental Services Association (ESA)

“Contamination of recyclates costs Local Authorities, and therefore the taxpayer, money and wastes valuable resources that could be recycled. Local authorities and waste companies are working with householders to address this issue, but it is important to keep in context that 338,000 tonnes represents less than 3.5% of the amount of household waste collected for recycling.

“Whilst efforts should and will continue to be made to reduce contamination, we should not forget the progress that has been made to increase recycling in the UK -  from near zero in the early 1990s to almost 45% today.  Overall, the amount of household waste recycled rose from 9.1 million tonnes in 2010 to 10 million tonnes in 2014, while over the same period the amount landfilled or incinerated fell from 13 million tonnes to 12.3 million tonnes. The reports in the national press are about the much smaller quantities of material which, although collected for recycling, cannot in practice be recycled because it is contaminated.

“However, this increase in contamination does still highlight the need for a long-term framework from the government to help drive recycling and reuse, and reduce the levels of contamination that have been shown in these figures.”

Simon Ellin, chief executive, The Recycling Association

“The UK has never had a standardised recycling collection and so this is unlikely to be the single cause for an increase in rejections.

“Consistency of collection would improve the quality achieved, but there is a fundamental lack of understanding by the householder in the first place which goes beyond this. The collection system is irrelevant if householders are not trained sufficiently to use it. The onus is on local authorities to get this right in the first place. They must also audit output quality and help regulate who handles the material and where it goes.

“This last point is important as the reality is that there are UK recyclers who continue to operate at sub-standard (and sometimes illegal) levels. They are deliberately flouting regulations, trying to trade low quality materials. These illegal operators have, in the past, provided an outlet for sub-standard materials and local authorities and regulators, along with The Recycling Association, need to work together to put a stop to this.”

Kristian Dales, communications director, FCC Environment

“Today’s figures reinforce a reality that the industry is already familiar with – the quality of recyclate continues to decline – while our industry faces increasingly unrealistic recycling targets that are divorced from the reality of the market.

“What is needed is a sustainable waste strategy that balances and aligns environmental imperatives with hard, economic realities. As part of this, the options for creating energy from waste that cannot be recycled should be considered in greater detail.”

Spokesperson, Defra

“It is vital for our environment and our economy that we make the most of our resources. We have made tremendous progress in boosting our recycling rate, from around 11% in 2000 to nearly 45% in 2014, but it is important that the Government and local authorities work with families to make it easier to recycle and make the process less confusing.”

edie podcast: how to win the war on waste coffee cups

The issue of contamination impacting recycling rates was recently brought to light by Hugh's War on Waste, which revealed that more than 5,000 coffee cups are discarded each minute in the UK, but less than 1% are actually recycled. More than 30% of the weight of cups sent for recycling is contamination.

In this exclusive episode of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, edie spoke to the recycling experts, circular economy gurus and retailers at the heart of the debate to explore exactly what needs to happen to solve the great coffee cup conundrum.

Subscribe to the Sustainable Business Covered podcast on iTunes here.

Luke Nicholls


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