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Get clever with data to boost recycling rates

Last month, Defra published the latest data for local authority collected waste and recycling in England, covering the period July to September 2014.

This data provides the best barometer of England’s progress towards EU targets. Seemingly stalled recycling rates, coupled with volumes of residual waste on the rise, makes for interesting and perhaps unsettling reading.

With tonnages increasing across the board, the wider industry and Defra must ask why this is so, despite all the good intentions and hard work.

Many councils will be considering how they can reverse this trend. Communications and public engagement will be an important part of the mix, alongside increasing efficiency of collections. Clearly in a climate of further public expenditure cuts, attention will be focused on the most cost-effective way of achieving higher recycling rates.

Understanding the data on current performance is important as a prerequisite to developing improvement plans. So what does the data say?

In total, 5.9 million tonnes of waste was collected by English local authorities in Jul-Sep 2014, an increase of 2.1% on the same quarter in the previous year. The amount of material being collected for recycling increased by 2.8% for organics and 1.7% for dry recycling (figure 1).

While recognising that recycling tonnages have increased, it is disappointing that residual tonnages have not shown a corresponding decrease. In fact, the amount of residual waste collected at the kerbside and household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) increased by 1.9% between the two quarters.

This appears to indicate that the overall efficiency of recycling diversion has not improved. Indeed, the overall recycling rate of 47.2% for Jul-Sep 2014 was only marginally up from the 47.1% in the same period for 2013.

With the 2020 target of 50% recycling looming, what does this mean?

The first thing to note is that the six-month figures from July to September are distorted by seasonal increases in garden waste recycling. When the recycling rate is considered during the latest 12-month period (October 2013 to September 2014), we see that the actual recycling rate is 45%.

While it is the first time this has been achieved, figure 2 illustrates how the rate of increase has been flatlining. At the current rate of slow increase, the 2020 target will not be met.  


The quarterly data substantiates longer term trends for total waste. The total amount of household waste generated in Oct 2013 to Sep 2014 was 4% higher than the previous year, when surely the ideal situation is to achieve a decrease. Is the perfect waste storm on the horizon?

Looking back at figure 1, the results are looking good for garden waste. This is partly due to exceptionally large increases in garden waste tonnages collected in the first half of 2014: rising by 39.1% in Jan-Mar and 17.4% in Apr-Jun compared with the same quarters in 2013.

We should not be surprised at this: when growing conditions are good our gardens flourish, so more garden waste is put out for collection. When weather- related fluctuations of garden waste are removed, the trends are less dramatic, although there was still a rise.

Organics recycling accounted for 482,000 tonnes of the 869,000 tonnes increase between the two years. The amount of waste collected, excluding organics recycling, for Oct 2013 to Sep 2014 was up 2.2%.

Resource Futures has previously talked in depth about budget cuts in local authority spending on recycling and waste prevention communications. It seems that, for some, the payback of such cuts is contributing to increased residual tonnages and slowing rates of recycling.

While most councils recognise the need for strong communication and engagement programmes when services change, communications are often seen as a soft target for making savings.

So with the latest data showing that England has struggled to increase its recycling performance during the past year, improvements are necessary if it is going to achieve the 2020 target of 50% recycling.

Councils and their waste contractors should know from their data collection and analysis what action is best for their patch, focusing on one or both of the following: capturing more of the materials they currently target and expanding the service (additional materials). Both options will require improved public engagement.

Until now, increases in recycling rates have largely resulted from service changes. In recent years, the focus has been on food waste collections, and the latest recycling data shows that progress is being made.

From Oct 2013 to Sep 2014, 294,000 tonnes of food waste was collected separately for recycling (excluding food collected as part of mixed garden and food collections). Food waste collected separately has increased by more than 80% in the past four years (figure 3). But while the progress is in the right direction, there is still potential because fewer than half of English households can recycle food waste at the kerbside.


There is an opportunity to focus on food waste from prevention and recycling perspectives. Food waste is very much in the public eye, and Tesco’s recent announcement of joint work with food redistributor FareShare is a reflection of this.

And councils have a lot to gain by joining up key messages for householders around food issues including the ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign, home composting and food recycling.

Waste prevention generally is a largely untapped source for managing residual waste rates. And there is evidence that restricting residual waste capacity improves recycling and also has some waste prevention effects. Certainly authorities should look at the frequency of collections and size of residual bins.  

The resource management industry is well informed about the critical role that communications has in changing behaviour. Significant investment, both in terms of pounds spent and value-in-kind, has been spent in waste prevention and recycling education with local champions, national campaigns and so on.

But continued effort is required. For example, for many of those who do target food waste, capture rates and participation rates are often low. This could be improved by supporting residents – such as offering free compostable liners – and more regular promotion and effective communication with the public. This should cover not just what to do, but where the material goes, how much value is returned to the economy, and the wider social and environmental benefits, including making the links with local waste prevention initiatives such as food banks, Fare- Share and others.

Understanding the performance of local services is key. Of course, running an efficient and effective service goes hand in hand with improving the recycling rate. Viewing the service holistically, and ensuring that decision-makers have the data and interpretation skills required, will inform what a council’s next steps should be.  

A well-informed service delivery plan based on robust performance data will not chase operational white elephants but instead target communications on materials and sections of the population where the greatest improvements can be made. Such an approach has the potential to deliver the twin benefits of seeing residual waste levels decrease and recycling rates support the 2020 target.

If the EU’s circular economy strategy results in recycling rate targets increasing to, say, 60%, the challenges will keep mounting. The clock is ticking and, if we are to reverse recent trends, action needs to be taken now. Is it time for a reasoned and objective debate on payas- you throw and what effect this would have on national performance?  

Sam Reeve is operations director and David Bowes is a junior consultant, both at Resource Futures   


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