Gov’s “Bland Assertions” On Recycling Commitment Not Enough

colin-churchCIWM chief executive, Dr Colin Church, offers his thoughts on England’s falling recycling rate, saying Government’s bland assertions that it remains committed to reaching the 50% target by 2020 are no longer enough…

Recycling in England December’s household recycling figures showed what we have all been anticipating/dreading – a slip backwards in 2015 recycling rates for England, Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole (despite increases in Scotland and Wales).

Maybe the immediate cause is a drop in organics recycling, but maybe it is the expected result of austerity in local authorities, mixed or weak signals from central government, a sector that has developed piecemeal over (and in more generous) times, or confusion over what can and cannot be recycled where.

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Waste from households: recycling (click to expand)

In any case, it represents a critical moment for our sector and for the credibility of the Government’s position on recycling. No longer are bland assertions that “the Government remains committed to reaching the 50% target by 2020” enough.

For most of this century, recycling has been a big environmental, social and economic success story, with rates going from around 10% to over 40% in 10 years; GVA of the sector climbing faster than the wider economy; keen public interest; and high service satisfaction. What other environmental activity can say the same?

Who else has persuaded a significant proportion of the population to do something every day that gives them no immediate direct benefit? People want to recycle properly and more (There should be a whole other blog about why!) As Defra’s graph shows, though, the climb flattened out and has plateaued for the past few years before, now, dropping.

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GVA of waste mangement sector (click to expand)

Work by WRAP and others suggests that to meet 50%, all local authorities would need to collect both food waste (only 32% already do so separate from garden waste) and a comprehensive range of dry recyclables. For many, this would mean adding plastic pots, tubs and trays (only 72% currently) and/or glass (89% currently) to their existing services. It also requires good participation and material capture rates and of course depends on waste arisings.

All in all, the most ambitious consistency recommendations would, WRAP calculates, increase England’s recycling rate by seven percentage points and save the English economy over £400m a year. But the recent results from the third Courtauld Commitment – showing at best a stalling in food waste reduction – illustrate the limits of voluntary action.

The recent Green Alliance Circular Economy Task Force report Recycling reset: How England can stop subsidising waste makes the interesting point that in effect, public money to pay for recycling and waste collection and disposal services is subsidising poor design by producers and inconsistent collection systems. This is also implicit in the work by the Environmental Services Association on reform of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system of producer responsibility.

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Large variance in satisfaction rating by service area (click to expand)

The current market for PRNs, whilst a relatively cheap method to demonstrate compliance, is a policy construct and therefore, by definition, imperfect: its annual nature, relative lack of transparency and the potential for fraud are symptoms of this. The Government has already intervened several times to stop prices from rising too far. As a result, there is a growing consensus in the sector that change to this scheme is needed if we are to deliver the packaging collection and reprocessing we need.

So, it seems likely, therefore, that meeting the 50% target by 2020 is unachievable without further intervention (I realise that I have taken for granted that, whatever happens over Brexit, a 50% by weight household recycling target is likely to remain). What should that intervention be? Here are four fairly concrete ideas to chew on – though no one idea in isolation is likely to be enough:

1. The Government could mandate local authorities to move to the ambitious WRAP consistency scenario by 31 December 2019 unless a local authority can demonstrate it is practically unachievable. In line with Government policy, this would, of course, require central funding to cover the transition and running costs where those exceed the savings.

2. The packaging industry, retailers, local and central government could design a packaging collection and recycling system to replace the PRN system and put more of the cost of and responsibility for collection on those who design packaging and place it on the market. This system might also be designed to provide incentives on householders to recycle more and waste less – “save as you recycle”.

3. The anaerobic digestion and plastics reprocessing industries need to develop the capacity – at least some in the UK – to handle the resulting increase in material.

4. To help drive this, Government could introduce so-called “pull factors” such as requirements for a proportion of packaging to come from recycled materials or reduced VAT for high-recycled-content material. This might be interlinked with the new packaging collection and recycling system.

What do you think?
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  1. Why the fixation on achieving recycling targets when the most beneficial approach is not to produce so much waste in the first place? Recycling is costly (although perhaps not as expensive as some of the alternative options) and allows the public and industry to feel satisfied with themselves in that that they are helping to meet environmental objectives, whilst still increasing the levels of waste being produced. Basically I can produce more, providing I recycle it. We need to move more towards a culture (including any future targets) whereby less waste (recyclate and residual) is the ultimate aim.

    • Yes Paul, more waste prevention and resource efficiency would of course be good and please don’t take my thoughts above as saying recycling is the best way to avoid waste. But it is likely to remain a significant part of the solution for a long time.

  2. We must confess that we have problems regarding how the 50% target is measured? Does it include ALL household waste? Including newspapers/magazines, food, garden waste, fridges etc, in addition to packaging waste? Packaging waste recycling targets are set against a formula – Placed on Market less export.
    When they talk about recycling what is really meant is collecting and this will depend on what each system each LA employs, for example my LA does not operate ANY household recycling collection system, and it all goes in the same bin (Tony Hancock) but in my LA we have a Blue Bin for packaging (unfortunately including glass – but more of this later (Henry Emblem).

    In answer to the four sections

    1. Practically unachievable – has a whiff of TEEP about it and if it requires central funding – it is probably a nonstarter.

    2. Replacing the PRN system with a packaging collection and recycling system such as Extended Producer Responsibility will simply be throwing good money after bad and should not even be considered until the LA’s have a common approach to collection and sorting of packaging waste.
    Why is there no mention of the present financial contribution received by LA’s for providing feedstock from domestic packaging waste, i.e. the local rate payer contributes to the collection costs, the LA receives revenue when selling the feedstock onto the reprocessors or accredited exporters and there is a saving of £80 plus per tonne for material that does not end up in land fill.
    Improving ‘design for recycle’ definitely the way forward, but it will have little or no effect until the LA’s put their house in order with a collective approach to collection and sorting which will result in quality feedstock for the UK recycling industry. Take for example the HDPE milk container – Single material, cap and bottle, no pigments, technology exists to create food grade PCR , thanks to a highly successful project conducted by WRAP, which resulted in a bottle to bottle to recycling system producing bottles incorporating up to 50% PCR using existing blow moulding technology , so no investment required by the bottle manufacturer, therefore ‘end user’ market guaranteed but two UK plastics reprocessors went bankrupt trying to make it work commercially.
    Why? The high cost of PCR material as a result of poor collection and separation systems operated by the LA’s. In many areas comingling has been the death of Glass Bring Banks. While it is accepted that more weight of glass is collected by comingling, the quality and thus revenue obtained is much lower.
    The recycling chain needs to have a good look at what went wrong before there is any suggestion of using EPR to finance the LA’s

    3. There is little point in the UK plastics reprocessors increasing their capacity until there is evidence that the ‘end user’ markets are increasing. This could be achieved by the Brand Owners adopting a policy of incorporating a percentage of PCR plastics into new packaging.
    LA’s could also play a part as well as Government Agencies by including in their procurement procedures a percentage of PCR plastics in such items as collection boxes , dustbins, water butts etc, the industrial returnable transit packaging market sector could also contribute by also including PCR in their products.
    Changing the current PERN/PRN system to favour PRN’s would also be of benefit to the plastics recycling industry.

    4. This is simple – remove the obligation on the percentage of PCR used to manufacture new packaging , this has been refused by Government in the past as it is claimed it contravenes EU trading regulations , BREXIT has arrived , no excuses now!

    There is also the artificial cap on Incineration of packaging by energy recovery at a mere 8%.
    Multilayer plastic and plastic heavily contaminated with food residue (bacon packs for example) can be recycled, but the cost of sortation is high and there is a limited market for a ‘mixed’ plastic. This usually appears as park benched and fencing.

    However, this type of mixed contaminated plastic is excellent feedstock for incineration with energy recovery – despite the minister’s comment that, in environmental terms, it is generally better to send plastics to landfill than recover the energy.

    Tony Hancock & Henry Emblem
    The Independent Packaging Environment and Safety Forum

    • Thank you Tony and Henry for setting out your thoughts. One strong message I take from your comments is the need for more harmonisation of collection regimes; certainly something I have a lot of sympathy for.

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