Nearly one-fifth of recycling ends up unrecyclable due to contamination


New research by waste management company Biffa has revealed nearly one-fifth (17%) of England and Wales’ waste (from both businesses and households) cannot be recycled due to contamination.

Biffa says experts analysed the latest available WRAP waste collection data between 2016 and 2020 to determine the contamination rate, based on the amounts of non-target and non-recyclable materials that entered UK material recycling facilities (MRFs).

After a recent WRAP survey revealed that over four in five people recycle items they shouldn’t, Biffa says its examination of the waste itself shows the amount of ‘wishcycling’ (assuming an item is recycling) that is happening.

Business Director of MRFs and PRFs at Biffa, David Heaton, said: “Contamination happens when items are disposed of in the wrong bins or haven’t been rinsed before being recycled. It means recyclable resources are lost and cannot be reused.

“It’s important that people understand what should go in the recycling bin and how to ‘pre-cycle’ beforehand (to rinse a tub or tray if it’s got food on it, for example) so we can recycle as much material as possible.

Contamination happens when items are disposed of in the wrong bins or haven’t been rinsed before being recycled.

“Business leaders can play a crucial role here – educating their workforce through signage and engaging waste experts will drive a positive change, while helping them hit their sustainability targets.

Biffa’s analysis found that, in 2016, the average contamination rate of recycling waste was 13.4%, rising over four years to 17% by the end of 2020 – more than 3% in as many years.

The data also showed that non-recyclable materials played a more significant part in contaminating recycling. In 2020, non-target materials (recyclable items that have been placed in the wrong bin) accounted for 6.5% of contaminated waste, while non-recyclables (items that either cannot be recycled or are too contaminated with other materials, such as food) made up 10.4% of contaminates.

Heaton continued: “Should the alarming trajectory we’re seeing continue, contamination rates could reach nearly one-quarter of all recycling by 2030 without legislative intervention. EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility – making producers responsible for the cost of managing packaging waste) – and consistent kerbside collections are actions planned by the Government to be introduced from 2024.

“However, without these changes in legislation, recycling and contamination rates are unlikely to improve. All being well though, we could see a step up from businesses and consumers.

“It’s vital as a nation that we get better at effective ‘pre-cycling’ – sorting waste correctly before collection – to reduce contamination rates. Recycling does not happen by magic, but we’re proudly working closely with businesses to understand and improve behaviours to enable more sustainable operations.”

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