The report, Beyond The Bin: the economics of recycling, compares the environmental costs and benefits of running kerbside recycling schemes, composting, landfill and incineration.

After including the costs of external factors, such as transport and the mining of primary materials, the report shows that the actual costs of recycling per household are lower than current figures suggest, and that the environmental benefits appear to be greater than those for landfill and incineration.

The study, commissioned by Friends of the Earth (FoE), Waste Watch (see related story) and UK Waste, concludes that if up to 21% of dry household waste was recycled, this could produce an environmental benefit valued at up to £240 a tonne. On the other hand, the study found that with 100% incineration, the environmental benefit is no higher than £63.70 per tonne. If waste is only sent to landfill, the environmental benefit is no higher than £29.93 per tonne.

According to FoE, the UK has one of the worst recycling rates in Europe. Later this month the UK Government is expected to set a target for recycling 30% of household waste by 2010 in order to ensure the UK meets EU waste legislation.

However, environmentalists do not expect the strategy to include any new money for local authority recycling schemes. FoE says it is unlikely that any new money for recycling schemes will be included in this year’s Budget – even though last year’s announced increase in the landfill tax is expected to raise an extra £45 million for the Treasury (see related story).

The report suggests that a system involving 21% recycling and landfill is preferable to incineration only or to incineration combined with a recycling scheme. While warning that the figures are incomplete, the report claims that higher recycling rates are desirable and warns against a shift to large-scale incineration.

The study examined a number of kerbside recycling schemes in the UK and recycling operations in the Netherlands. The UK recycling schemes studied were only achieving recycling rates of between 10% and 15% through the collection of paper, aluminium, steel, and glass. This compared badly with rates in the Netherlands which recycles more than 40% of household waste.

The study suggests that recycling rates of 20 to 25% in the UK are achievable, given that some of the households studied are already recycling in excess of 200kg of dry recyclables per year (out of total waste of around 1100 kg per household per year).

The study says recycling could be increased by education, incentives or formal and informal sanctions. Higher participation rates would reduce gross costs per tonne of material collected for recycling by increasing the density of collection. The costs of transport-related externalities per tonne of recycled material collected would also fall, while these same external costs associated with residuals collection would be expected to increase.

In addition to this, home or centralised composting could further increase rates, the study claims. Composting schemes in the UK (for example in North Lincolnshire) have shown that authority wide collection rates in excess of 200kg per household are achievable. This could boost recycling rates to 40-50% at minimal or no additional cost. Further increases, to perhaps 60% or more, may be achieved through reuse and recycling of bulky goods, such as furniture and fridges, the report claims.

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