Time for recycling to get materialistic

Government targets to increase household recycling rates can only be achieved if new materials are added to collection streams. David Sher looks at the challenges this poses

The collective efforts of householders, local authorities and industry have been municipal recycling rates surge impressively over the past decade, increasing four-fold to 40% this year. As we emerge from a comprehensive review of waste policies, it is an appropriate time to take stock of where we are and think about the next 10 years, and perhaps beyond.

The EU Waste Framework Directive sets a household recycling target of 50% by 2020. We know that we must achieve this at a minimum and the industry embraces that challenge. We believe that it is possible to go even further, and much faster too, but doing so will not be easy.

Much of the low hanging fruit in recycling terms – such as cans, newspapers and glass – has already been captured in the rates. Marginal improvements in the figures will therefore become increasingly harder to achieve.

Sustainable product design and education programmes may take us some of the way. But, undoubtedly, a major proportion of the gains we are seeking to make will have to come from adding new materials to collection systems. Plastics, cardboards, textiles and foils are largely untapped resources.

As the range of materials targeted for collection expands, the sorting of these materials must become smarter. Source-segregated systems will become increasingly complex for householders and collection teams to operate and cross-contamination within these systems may increase.

Co-mingled systems will demand increasingly intelligent technology to differentiate effectively between dissimilar materials. In the short term, they may become more labour intensive if manual processes are required to support equipment and systems.

Introducing new materials is a necessity if rates are to climb towards the ambitious targets of 60% or 70% already announced in devolved administrations. The boost in recycling has the potential to deliver real economic value in the face of rising raw material prices, as well as delivering on environmental objectives.

But to realise this, we must invest in new infrastructure, in new equipment and in new technologies. We must strive to keep things easy and simple for householders and small businesses in the face of increasing complexity. We must support growth and provide incentives to waste management firms to innovate – to develop and operate systems that sort wastes more and more efficiently.

We must promote a culture that encourages improved environmental and quality management at all facilities across the entire supply chain. And we must develop new end markets for the new outputs by stimulating demand for recycled materials in all sectors.

If we do not do these things, the benefits of introducing new materials to collection systems may be negated by the problems they cause to existing streams – reducing the quality of what we are already collecting and potentially destroying value. We risk getting caught in a conflict; if we increase volumes, quality may suffer, and if we target quality, the climb in recycling rates may slow.

We want to keep both quality and quantity going upwards; we must recognise the challenge we face in doing so and act early. Local authorities and their industry partners must work together to prioritise new target materials and to make plans for those which currently cause more problems than benefits.

David Sher is policy adviser at the Environmental Services Association

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie