CIWM 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.
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.
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.
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.