News that recycling rates have continued to stagnate across England will come as a blow to the industry and the Government.
Many would argue that current policy, which relies on voluntary involvement, is setting the sector back years and making Europe’s 2020 target of 50% recycling more challenging.
Recycling rates steadily increased from around 5% in the 1990s to around 40% in 2010/11, and this was no easy task. But, in the past few years, the increase has slowed. The most recently published quarterly results show that England achieved a 0.1 percentage point increase between 2012 and 2013 which, let’s face it, is very close to going backwards.
While the Government is pouring money into waste recovery and recycling infrastructure through the likes of the Green Investment Bank, the Anaerobic Digestion (AD) Loan Fund and other grants, the feedstock that these plants are going to rely on for the next 20-50 years is still ending up in landfill.
The reason why is simple: those who ‘get’ recycling already do it and have done for a while. For those who do not want to or cannot be bothered, they have the ‘get out of jail free’ card – the general rubbish bin – and there is no consequence for not recycling.
It is clear that the Government’s current approach is failing the industry. The sector has invested millions, if not billions, in developing the infrastructure to recycle the nation’s waste, along with carrying out research and development into new technologies to recover and reuse more material.
By not following Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which all have policies or plans in place to require householders and businesses to recycle more, England’s recycling statistics are standing still. It will be interesting to see next year’s figures to see the effect of the waste regulations that Scotland introduced in January.
For those investing in infrastructure, not being able to access feedstock could spell commercial disaster. We have seen it in the AD sector, where small plants in particular have become unviable from a lack of feedstock.
Those who do want to recycle, such as the national supermarket chains, already have contracts for food waste in place. Meanwhile, the key targets such as local restaurants and hotels are often run by sole traders who view setting up a separate recycling service as an additional cost and an inconvenience. Because there is no requirement for them to do anything differently, they won’t.
With so much investment being made, the Government needs to deliver its side of the bargain and ensure that feedstock is not ending up in landfill. Part of that has to be focusing on two key elements: greater communication and landfill bans.
Local authority communications campaigns were one of the first things to be cut in the early spending cuts aimed at halting a recession. But they play a crucial role in educating homeowners about their responsibilities, the reasons why recycling is important, and where and how their waste is processed. These are all crucial parts to ensuring on going participation.
Indeed, it could be argued that a lack of communication from local authorities is partly responsible for the stagnation in recycling rates. If people are not hearing why they should do it, they could well feel it is not important anymore, and start to believe all the scaremongering stories from the likes of the Daily Mail around separated material going to landfill and food waste caddies harbouring harmful bacteria.
Banning food waste from landfill and requiring people to separate their food waste would make a significant impact on recycling rates. They would enable more recyclable material to be recovered from a mixed waste stream further down the process, at MRFs for instance.
Food waste is a huge contaminant, rendering many materials unrecoverable. By removing food waste, a significant proportion of the municipal waste currently ending up in landfill would be easily recoverable. The number of collection rounds could also be reduced – indeed, some Welsh and Scottish councils have already led the way by introducing collections of residual waste every three weeks.
Separating food waste holds the key achieving the 2020 target. But to realise the goal, strong leadership is required by Defra to introduce regulation that drives behavioural change and removes food waste from the householder’s general waste bin.
Philip Simpson is commercial director at ReFood.