The implications and complications of recycling waste

Following the Landfill Directive, the British public and local authorities are being pressurised to recycle more and more. Paul Ekins, Head of the Environment Group at the Policy Studies Institute and Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Westminster, takes a closer look at the great recycling debate.

It is becoming increasingly clear to all concerned that the question is no longer whether to tackle the problem of the UK’s municipal waste disposal, but how.

Nearly 90% of municipal waste is household waste, and in 2002 a Cabinet Office report found that the volume of this waste was growing at a rate of 3% a year, exceeding the rate of growth of income.

Until recently, waste policy was afforded little attention at either a national or local level in the UK. The UK has historically relied upon landfill as its primary waste disposal option. Compared to most other industrialised countries the UK has a poor record of developing alternatives to landfilling and on recycling.

In 2002, almost 80% of municipal waste in England was sent to landfill sites, compared with around 50% in France and 7% in Switzerland. England recycled just 12% of its municipal waste, while Germany recycled 52% and the Netherlands 47%.

Factors underpinning the UK.s poor environmental performance on waste include the ready availability of cheap landfill sites, weaker regulatory controls and the absence of incentives for recycling, low public awareness and an inability or unwillingness on the part of many local authorities to invest in more expensive recycling and waste disposal options. However, this situation cannot continue.


A major driver of change in the area of waste management is a number of European directives, including especially the 1999 Landfill Directive, which requires the UK to reduce the tonnage of biodegradable waste going to landfill to 75% of its 1995 level by 2010, 50% by 2013 and 35% by 2020.

The UK is not currently on track to meet the targets set in the Directive. Although the proportion of municipal waste disposed in landfill declined from 84% in 1996/97 to 78 per cent in 2000/01, the amount actually increased from 20.6 million tonnes to 22.1 million tonnes.

However, new Government policies are starting to have an impact. In 2002-03, some sort of value (recycling, composting, energy recovery) was recovered from about 7.3 million tonnes (25%) of municipal waste, compared with 6.4 million tonnes (22%) in 2001/02, while the household recycling rate increased to 14½% in 2002/03 in pursuit of a Government target of 25% by 2005-06.


In September the Government.s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) launched an ambitious publicity campaign seeking to persuade people to recycle more. This begs the question as to whether it is always environmentally beneficial to recycle waste.

Unfortunately the answer to this question is not as simple as the question it addresses. It has to take account of the fact that recycling has a number of adverse environmental impacts itself.

For example, wastes have to be collected and transported to recycling facilities, which may be further away than landfill sites. Then they have to be processed back into useful materials, and the relevant processes may be both relatively energy intensive and/or polluting.

The only way to arrive at a clear answer as to whether recycling is environmentally beneficial is through a process called life-cycle analysis (LCA), which seeks to measure all the environmental impacts of resource use, for both virgin and recycled materials, so that they can be validly compared. Unfortunately, despite the development of clear standards and procedures for LCA, it remains as much of an art as a science, and there is significant uncertainty in the results it yields.


For some materials, especially metals like aluminium and steel, it is clear that recycling has clear environmental benefits, and is often cost-effective too, because the energy required for recycling is much less than for producing them out of virgin ore.

For glass, the energy balance tends also to be positive, but there can be problems with the product, because recycling green glass, which dominates the waste glass stream, will not produce clear glass, which is what is mainly manufactured in the UK. Some of the benefits of recycling can be lost if the recycled glass is put to a different use (for example, as aggregates in roads).

For paper and board the environmental issues are more finely balanced, and depend on the distances the wastes have to be transported, on how the trees for virgin paper are grown, and whether they are replanted once cut down.

Sometimes it is clear that the best use for waste paper and board in terms of energy would be for energy generation in incinerators, but this raises other environmental issues such as air emissions.


Advertising campaign messages such as WRAP’s .I love recycling. would have no chance at all of success if they sought to project these kinds of complexities, so they choose examples of recycling that are environmentally beneficial and hope that overall the environmental gains of recycling will outweigh any specific cases where it might have been environmentally preferable to burn the rubbish, or even bury it (as long as any methane gas generated is captured and used as an energy source).

WRAP is probably right to take this approach. If it results in an increase in metal recycling, then it will almost certainly be environmentally justified, and it may have an indirect benefit in terms of raising general environmental awareness.

Surveys show that recycling is one of relatively few environmental actions that command widespread public support, probably because it is one of relatively few instances where individual action can be seen to make a difference. It could be counterproductive to reduce people.s environmental commitment, in respect of recycling and perhaps knocking on to other issues, by drawing attention to the complexities of recycling’s balance of benefits, or, even worse, to those relatively rare cases where recycling is not environmentally beneficial.

It is surely better to allow the argument to be carried along by the general perception that recycling is good, and try to mitigate the impacts of those few cases where it might not be, than imperil public commitment to the whole endeavour by making the message too complicated.

By Paul Ekins. For further information on the PSI, please visit:

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