LARAC’s chief executive officer, Lee Marshall, says we don’t need to “standardise” to move forward on recycling, but a bit more “harmony” wouldn’t go amiss.
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The latest recycling figures for household waste in England show only the smallest of rises and have brought with it concerns about flatlining and the possibility of missing the 50% target in 2020. It has also brought out the topic of collection systems and the “myth” that there are hundreds of different collections systems across the country and that they need to be standardised. This is something I am not a keen advocate of, however, recently a colleague at a meeting used the word “harmonise” in relation to this topic, and that I think is a much more useful way of looking at it.
So let us have a quick review of all these collection systems. Broadly speaking, household kerbside recycling is collected in three ways: source-separated, commingled and then twin or multi-stream. You then generally can have three types of container: box, bin or bag. So not actually that many different schemes really. Yes, different local authorities will collect a variety of materials, these are not consistent area to area but there are valid reasons why this is the case – and also the situation is more consistent now than it was five and 10 years ago.
Finally, most of us only live in one place, so we only have one system to remember. The problem starts to come because of our mobility. We all know more people from different areas and so we can be subjected to “bin envy” whereby my family get more materials than me, or a nicer container, or a better colour and so on. So the often cited “confusion” is more a case of knowing more about different collections in different areas.
There are valid and logical reasons why the picture across England is not consistent. Firstly, local authorities got into recycling at different times, which means their services are at different stages of progression and maturity. Secondly, they all face differing pressures and issues so the priority the recycling service will have in any given authority will differ area to area. Thirdly, size, scale and geography come into play. An authority may well be a large distance from an end market for a particular material and not have the scale to make it viable to get it to end markets – so it doesn’t collect it. And finally, although lumped together as “local authorities” they are all sovereign bodies in their own rights, governed by a variety of differing political parties with different views. It would be a bit like saying that all private waste companies had to override their governing boards and adopt the same wagons, or bins, or software.
All that said it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look to create efficiencies were possible and do what we can to make general communications that bit easier. Some simple solutions are already there. WRAP has provided the Recycle Now logos and material and it makes sense for all local authorities to use these. They are tried and tested and if we all use them, it gives the consistency that people want. It also saves time coming up with localised graphics and signage. And if that were used by all then the next logical step could be to harmonise container colours, based on the colours used in the Recycle Now communications – so blue for paper, green for glass etc.
Yes it would take a while to change over, but that is not a reason to not start the process. And it could be that we harmonise the materials collected, but this would need new policy mandates and funding from outside the public sector to deal with market issues highlighted earlier.
The requirements of the Waste Framework Directive should naturally see more consistency in the materials that are collected in each area; recycling collections are, after all, still work in progress. We have come long way in the last 20 years and we will go even further in the next 20. But to do that we need continued innovation… and innovation rarely comes from within a standardised environment.
Lee Marshall is an ambassador for RWM in Partnership with CIWM.