Is the great British public being conned on recycling?

Recent headlines in the Daily Mail which claimed millions of tonnes of household waste were being dumped abroad in foreign landfill sites may be scaremongering, but the industry isn't helping itself, argues Chris Dow

I am passionate about recycling. In fact, seven years ago I moved my wife and four children from Melbourne, Australia to set up the first recycling factory in the world to recycle both plastic milk and water bottles back into new plastic packaging.

Since then I have been hugely impressed by the great British public who have each individually contributed to increasing recycling rates. Recycling is a good thing for society, the environment and the economy. In a resource constrained world it is vital to move towards waste prevention and increased recycling.

Twenty years ago, UK households recycled very little, but improvements in recent years have been rapid and we now recycle over 40% of our waste thus recapturing a valuable resource. I recall not that long ago we were the poor relation in Europe in terms of recycling and now we are showing incredible improvement.

At our plant in Dagenham we recycle four million bottles a day, most of which have come from British households and then within weeks they are back on the shelves of British retailers as milk bottles or other plastic food packaging using recycled material. We like to think we’re a UK recycling success story.

The Daily Mail is absolutely right, however, to highlight the issue of export. The Environment Agency is working hard to stem the tide of illegal exports, however funding for the Environmental Agency has not kept pace with the growth in exports.

As a nation we now have the facilities to recycle not only plastic, but nearly every type of unwanted consumer goods, right here in the UK. By doing this we are creating green jobs and keeping valuable resources at home. Defra has also helped to encourage recycling by increasing targets in the last review.

However, there is a way for Defra and the government departments to keep this valuable resource in the UK by changing some of our industry’s red tape – such as the packaging recovery note (PRN) system – in order to create a level playing field for UK recyclers alongside our foreign counterparts. Effectively, it’s a system in need of reform and goes back to when we had no recycling infrastructure and encourages the export of valuable material that our industry could use here in the UK.

By making some simple changes and continuing to remind people about the true benefits of recycling – of which there are many – we can successfully increase recycling rates even further, grow the UK recycling industry, create many thousands of green jobs which will boost the wider economy and of course cut carbon levels in the process, with the obvious benefits to the environment.

In addition, as natural resources become more scarce, recycled resources will increase in value and be vital for the economy. A green growth stimulus package is urgently needed in the UK. To date, however, the coalition government has failed to support this.

We need collective action. It is obvious that as an industry we need to do more to reassure people that their carefully sorted recycling is recycled. At the same time we all need to actively participate by recycling our waste at home, at work and out and about, to enable the UK to recycle more and continue this great British success story.

Chris Dow is CEO of Closed Loop Recycling

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