Rise and fall: Why England’s recycling rate is stalling

Targeted effective communication campaigns can help get recycling rates moving again. Resource Futures chair Philip Ward discusses the current barriers to recycling and how England can overcome them.

Unlike Wales and Scotland, recycling rates for municipal waste in England are stagnating. Investment in waste processing capacity for domestic and commercial waste – according to reports from both CIWM and SITA – is too low to avoid a gap emerging as landfill declines. The UK remains too dependent on exporting materials instead of reprocessing them here benefitting jobs and businesses.

Some excellent analysis by Resource Futures for WRAP has shown that, apart from demographic factors, three factors explain most of the variation in recycling rates: frequency of residual collections, numbers of materials accepted for recycling and the effective capacity for recycling (e.g. a 240-litre wheelie bin once a fortnight is equivalent to two 55L boxes once a week).

The growth in recycling from 2000 can be largely attributed to getting these basic system requirements right.

We have not come to the end of that process: some councils are still providing excess capacity for residual waste and not collecting food waste separately which is a powerful enabler of reduced black bin collections.

There is still a weird patchwork in the coverage of materials collected for recycling, which confuses householders and makes national messaging by retailers and materials organisations impossible.

But good though the analysis of existing recycling is, it ‘explains’ only about half of the variation in household recycling rates. To get recycling rates moving forward again we have to address some of the other barriers to recycling identified in another WRAP report, which is now being updated.

These barriers deal with practicality at the household level, with understanding recycling schemes and with motivation.

Good data is a starting point for addressing these barriers. Knowing what is in the residual stream, for example well over 100,000 tonnes of aluminium, and which household are likely to have it, is essential in devising communication campaigns.

But also understanding the specific barriers those households face improves the chances of campaigns being effective. The Metal Matters campaign run by Alupro shows how targeted communications can improve recovery rates.

It is surprising how much of the data needed is available. Confusion about what can be recycled is another barrier often complicated by secondary “rules” about washing, squashing and removing labels. Many of these rules date back to requirements of reprocessors now overtaken by technological advances.

The ‘Barriers’ research showed that confused householders reacted equally to uncertainty by not recycling things that could be recycled or including materials whether they could be recycled or not. Commingled collections to make things easier for householders actively encourage this approach with implications for contamination rates.

The confusion is compounded when recycling is taken out of the home: facilities, signage and messaging vary enormously. Only a tiny percentage of people say they carry over their recycling behaviour from home to the workplace. With the implementation of the Waste Framework Directive and the requirement for separate collections, surely we should be thinking about how we make recycling the normal expectation people have for their waste whether they are at home, at work, on the go, shopping or at sporting events.

Defra seems to hope contamination will be addressed by the new MRF Code. By requiring sampling of the input stream to MRFs they are expecting local authorities will be pressured to deal with it at source – presumably by making their commingled collections less straightforward! I remain hopeful, but sceptical, that this code will act to push up quality standards. There is not space here to expand on my reservations, but, if the flood-battered Environment Agency, can find the resources to get the inspection regime off on the right foot, the scheme stands a chance. Otherwise it will be just another regulation that burdens the honest and is ignored by the feckless.

But let’s finish on a more cheerful note. Despite the toughest financial settlement in living memory local authorities are continuing to innovate.

Impressive new schemes dealing with waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE), textiles, cooking oil, furniture are cropping up all over the place, often in partnership with third sector organisations and major national and local charities including universities. These can and should spread. Even more encouraging are innovations from the commercial and industrial sector, especially construction, where we are seeing closed loop recycling schemes and a real drive towards zero waste.

Philip Ward is chair at environmental consultancy Resource Futures.

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