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Feature: The recycling isle

Although it is 26 years since the UK's first glass bank, the progress of glass recycling has been slow. Comparison with other EU countries has been unflattering, but disregards the fundamental challenge of the UK's unfavourable colour imbalance. High imports of mainly green glass wine bottles contrasts with high clear glass production and significant exports of spirits bottles. UK glass recycling rates depend on alternative markets to a far greater extent than other EU countries.

In recent years this natural colour imbalance has been accelerated by rapidly growing levels of mixed glass collection, which places greater and greater reliance on alternative markets for glass. Mixed kerbside glass has now seen a slide into mixed glass in banks and despite rapidly growing total glass collection, the availability of colour separated glass is falling. Glass container makers are having to collect more, colour separate more and find more alternative markets simply to maintain their current levels of recycling.

Mixed kerbside collection is not the only approach that could be taken. This is demonstrated by developments in the Irish Republic, where an increase in the number of glass banks has had a massive impact on recycling figures.

In 1998, just 36,000 tonnes of glass was recovered and there were 837 bring sites in Ireland. By 2003, the number of sites had more than doubled to 1,692, with the amount of glass recovered up 103% to 73,087 tonnes. That equates to 42.8% of glass being recovered overall - well on the way to the EU's 2008 60% target and ahead of the UK's 37%. Notably, 49% of glass from Irish households was recovered in 2003 - up from 36.1% in 2002. Although complete figures for 2004 are not available, data up to October suggests that recovery rates were around 20% up on 2003.

An important part of Ireland's approach was implemented in 2003, with its Waste Management (Packaging) Regulations. This requires businesses that place packaging on to the market to separate materials and have them collected by authorised waste operators for recycling. Additionally, companies with a turnover of more than E1 million (£676,000), and that put 25 tonnes of packaging on to the market, can either join the Repak scheme or be self-compliant.

The Irish plan has been bold but not without its critics. According to the Irish Business and Employer's Consortium (IBEC), the cost of waste disposal for Irish firms has shot up from E32m in 1995 to more than E800m in the past decade. IBEC claims that it is now five times the British rate and more than double the same costs in Sweden.

The consortium says these cost problems are exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure, illegal dumping, enforcement concerns and anti-competitive practices by local authorities. It wants to see a competitive market created for waste services. But the Irish government has committed to increasing the country's waste infrastructure significantly, the cost of which is estimated to be E1.25bn at 2002 prices. Major investments will include 17 materials recovery facilities for dry recyclable materials and local recycling centres in all regions.

It is difficult to separate the effects of this legislative framework from the strategic decision to keep glass out of kerbside collections, retain glass colour separation and increase tonnages by following the European model of a high-density glass bank system. But growth rates so far have been rapid and significant and have put the Irish Republic on track to catch up to stretching European targets.

Andrew Hartley is director of strategy and communicati

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