‘Dysfunctional’ circular economy system leads to £72m Christmas waste costs

England needs a more consistent recycling system that works for all companies and is fairer to local authorities, according to a new business-led report which reveals that waste packaging and food leftovers from the Christmas period will have cost councils £72m.

The latest report from the Circular Economy Task Force, a group convened by Green Alliance and includes members such as Boots, Kingfisher and WRAP, highlights the “dysfunctional” nature of waste management in England.

In consequence of England’s recycling rates falling in 2015 for the first time in 14 years, an unfair share of responsibility has been burdened on local councils, which have no control over product design or packaging, the report states. A fairer system that incentives responsible companies to design more resourceful packaging and encourage customers to improve recycling would help to boost rates and cut costs to local authorities, the Task Force claims.

Commenting on the report, author and senior policy adviser for the Green Alliance Jonny Hazell said: “Recycling in England has become dysfunctional. Businesses blame local authorities, local authorities blame businesses, and householders blame both.

“The only certain thing is that hard-pressed councils are having to pick up an unfair share of the bill, despite their obvious financial constraints. But they have no power to bring down the costs. Falling recycling rates show that a new approach is needed.”

‘Fairer for all’

The cost of processing waste packaging from the Christmas period was estimated to be £63m this year, on top of a £9m cost for dealing with Christmas food waste that was not recycled. Local authorities in England spend around £300m each year dealing with waste packaging alone. 

To combat the growing issue, the Circular Economy Task Force recommends that councils standardise recycling collections, to improve the quality of materials collected. The costs of these services should be covered by packaging producers, the report states, via redirected producer responsibility payments. The Task Force suggests companies that use recycled materials and design their packaging for recyclability should pay lower producer responsibility fees, while those that don’t should pay more.

The recommendations are based on proven policies from abroad. Some of the example citied include Belgium’s waste packaging system, which costs 25% less per person than in England, and the recent focus on plastic recycling in California, which has led to a fivefold increase in recycling rates since 2007.

“A more consistent system would cost less and be fairer for all,” Hazell said. “It would also guarantee that British manufacturers get more of the high quality recycled materials they need and reduce their dependence on imports.”

War on waste

For months, the waste and resource management industry has called for a long-term, coherent regulatory framework to increase recycling and re-use rates in England. Charity Keep Britain Tidy (KBT) recently claimed that England should “hang its head in shame” over its lack of progress on recycling.

Despite a poor national performance on waste management, the business community has endeavoured to ramp up its own efforts through a variety of ambitious, resource-efficient approaches.

In the retail sector, Marks and Spencer (M&S) has completely phased out hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene from its products and packaging, and currently ships 98% of its products from supplier to store in reusable packaging crates. Costa Coffee is trialling in-store recycling systems at 50 of its UK stores as it ramps up plans to “lead the industry” in the fight against coffee cup waste.

George Ogleby

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