Blog: What steps are most important to become the highest recycling nation in the world?

The final webinar of the CIWM Resources Conference Cymru 2021 series, ‘What steps are most important to become the highest recycling nation in the world?explored possible steps Wales could take towards the aim to be a zero-waste nation by 2050, and considers if its possible to achieve even higher recycling rates. Brian Mayne, Chair of CIWM Cymru Wales and webinar chair, looks at the issues raised by the panel, their answers to some of the questions raised during the session and with their reactions to the audience polls.

Since Wales has had its own government in 1999, the country has become first in the UK, second in Europe and third in the world for household waste recycling. The Welsh Government set statutory recycling targets for Local Authorities – this has increased household recycling from 5.2% (1998-99) to its highest ever municipal recycling rate at 65.1% last year and the country is presently on course to reach its target of 70% by 2025. In this webinar three speakers;

  • Peter Jones a principal consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting
  • Jon Roberts Waste Improvement Officer with the Welsh Local Government Association; and
  • Emma Hallett the team manager for the Collaborative Change Programme for WRAP Cymru.

were invited to give their views on what steps Wales should take next to move closer to the aim to be a zero-waste nation by 2050 and strive to achieve the highest rates of recycling in the world.

Peter was the first to present and posed the question ‘what counts when identifying the leading recycling nation?’ so that we can be sure that Wales can evidence its ambition set out in Beyond Recycling, to become the world’s best recycling nation. He pointed out some of the challenges of identifying the world’s best municipal waste recyclers, outlining the work of Eunomia in this area [1]. He explained that around the world, recycling rates are widely reported – but different measurement methods make comparisons difficult. He welcomed the new European measurement method [2] and hoped that it would get adopted wider afield which will make recycling easier to measure enabling comparisons to be made beyond Europe. He did caution, however, that there is a likelihood that the recycling rate in Wales may well dip initially as a result of the change in calculating recycling rates using the new methodology.

As for the factors that contribute to becoming a high recycling nation he referred to the work he was involved with in Scotland which analysed the policies and practices associated with high household recycling rates [3], reiterating the findings that no single policy or practice was sufficient on its own. He believed that areas such as challenging targets, good collection services, financial incentives such as Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) and effective communications as well as collecting new materials are certainly areas that could assist.

Jonathan highlighted that strong partnership working between authorities and the Welsh Government was a keystone in achieving the impressive recycling rate in Wales so far and this will continue to be required. He also asserted that there will be challenges with the introduction of DRS for drinks containers upon Local Authorities, but recognised that extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging should increase the amount of recycling. He also highlighted that enforcement should be part of the toolbox available to local authorities to push up recycling rates.

The final speaker Emma recognised that each percentage point added to the present success rate will be hard fought and that as Wales will be breaking new ground there is no route map to follow. Emma forwarded three ways that Wales could increase the amount recycled by householders;

  1. Collect a wider range of materials from the kerbside such as plastic film and textiles (50% of clothing and textiles are sent to landfill [4])
  2. Increase the proportion of each recyclable stream that is captured in the collection systems by targeting non recyclers through behaviour change campaigns such as the Be Mighty recycle initiative. Research has identified that a quarter of Wales’ black bag waste is made up of food and another quarter of potentially recyclable material [5]. Research shows 43% of 18-24-year-olds and 34% of 25-34-year-olds put leftover food in the rubbish bin [6] so are a target audience to tackle.
  3. Reduce the amount of unrecyclable household waste by encouraging householders to look at what they purchase, buy less or consider recyclable/ reusable items, utilise the growing repair/reuse services.

The first poll picked up on the question of what additional materials should be collected to achieve higher levels of recycling, at the kerbside with an overwhelming 91% selecting plastic film. Although textiles and polystyrene were not listed in the poll, they were raised by the audience as potential materials that could be collected.

The panel highlighted that there will be challenges in collecting plastic film in particular that it doesn’t contaminate the present materials collected and the need to invest in infrastructure to process it.

The panel was asked ‘Whether mixed waste sorting should be used to capture material that escapes kerbside collections?’. Emma and Jonathan were concerned that the message to the public that if they didn’t separate the material in the first place that it would be OK because it will be captured later could undo all the good work developed so far in encouraging householders to segregate their waste correctly. Peter, however, felt that the overriding issue is to remove plastics from the residual waste sent for ‘incineration’. A recent report identified that plastic should be prevented from being sent for incineration to prevent the practice from becoming more carbon intensive than landfill by 2035 [7]. He was less worried about undermining the recycling message.

Reducing residual waste collection was one way raised by the speakers of encouraging householders to recycle more items, along with reducing capacity. The audience was asked what they considered to be an appropriate frequency. The majority were most comfortable with three weekly collections. Peter, while he was broadly in favour did raise a concern raised by many householders by posing the question ‘what happens if you were on holidays when your 4 weekly collection was due?’ it then becomes an 8 weekly collection. He suggested perhaps an alternative would be an ‘on demand service, with householders, say having 12 collections available to them each year which they could activate through a designated app. Emma forwarded an alternative solution to helping householders out who were unavailable on their collection day by suggesting what we all need is a ‘bin buddy’ someone to put out your residual waste when you are unable.

The next poll looked at whether a deposit return scheme had an important role in achieving a high recycling rate with 58% of the audience believing it did. The panel also noted that it would not only increase recycling levels for relevant materials but offer greater opportunity to collect high quality materials in greater amounts and encourage recycling through clear labelling and consumer messaging as well as reducing litter.

The final poll looked at what the audience thought would assist Welsh Government increase commercial recycling. Three quarters of Wales’ residual commercial and industrial waste is easily recyclable material [8]. We, therefore, need to capture this material and stop sending recyclable waste to landfill or energy from waste plants and recycle it instead. 82% thought that bringing forward regulations to require all non-domestic premises to separate key recyclable materials as households already do was the most effective method. This is in line with the Welsh Government’s consultation on Increasing Business recycling in Wales which found that there was general positivity to the introduction of regulations that businesses and the public sector should be required to separate their different waste streams. The regulations will be developed to be ready to bring before the Senedd later this year. There were some concerns however on how the regulations would be enforced.

Welsh Government has stated that they want to be the world’s number one recycling nation and become a circular economy whilst achieving 100% recycling and zero waste by 2050. They have already made significant strides based on setting clear milestones and strong partnership working, which include;

  • Setting statutory recycling targets
  • Encouraging greater recycling through the introduction of a national recycling campaign for Wales, Recycle for Wales and its recent ‘Be Mighty’ campaign.
  • Investing over £1 billion since 2000 to help Local Authorities
    • Set up recycling collection services for glass, paper, card, metal cans, and plastic bottles, pots, tubs and trays as well as separate weekly food waste collection
    • Improve facilities at waste recycling centres
    • Reduce the frequency of general rubbish collections

The panel and audience identified that whilst no single policy or practice was sufficient on its own to produce high household recycling rates several initiatives could be undertaken, these included:

  • Expanding the materials collected at the kerbside from householders such as plastic film and textiles
  • Targeting behaviour change campaigns at 18-34-year-olds
  • Encouraging householders to look at what they purchase, buy less or consider recyclable/reusable items, utilise the growing repair/reuse services
  • Consider mixed waste sorting to capture material that escapes kerbside collections
  • Collect residual waste on a three-weekly cycle
  • Ensure enforcement of householders and businesses are adhering to the instructions to recycle

In addition, the introduction of DRS and EPR, as well as the regulations for businesses and the public sector to separate their different waste streams will assist in achieving high recycling rates.

In conclusion, the panel was mindful that it is essential that Welsh Government stay true to its aim of going beyond recycling and keep resources in use for as long as possible, so that they can cut carbon emissions and support Wales not only become the highest recycling nation in the world but that it delivers a circular economy that provides social, economic and environmental benefits to all sectors of society.

Author: Brian Royson Mayne

Brian is the chair of CIWM Cymru Wales. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and Chartered Institution of Wastes Management. He is also a Chartered Environmentalist and recognised by the International Solid Waste Association as an International Waste Manager.


[1]Recycling – Who Really Leads the World? (Issue 2) Eunomia Dec 2017. Report link.

[2] European Commission document 32019D1004, June 2019, explains that the recycling rate of municipal waste shall be calculated from the “output of a facility that sends municipal waste for recycling”

[3] Comparative analysis of the policies and practices associated with high household recycling rates, May 2019, Phil Williams, Research Analyst

[4] National municipal waste compositional analysis in Wales, Resource Futures

[5] Ibid

[6] Young people hold key to Wales becoming world’s best recycling nation, Wales Recycles, April 2017

[7] Greenhouse Gas and Air Quality Impacts of Incineration and Landfill, March 2021, Eunomia

[8] Composition analysis of commercial and industrial waste in Wales, January 2020, Resource Futures. Report link. 

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