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The best of British?

Although it may not feel like it at the coalface of UK recycling, many of the initiatives becoming part of our daily lives - especially for business - are implemented with less regulation and more business sector agreement than is found in many of our European partners.

Measurement against the EU27 is the best place to start, with some caveats. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, across the EU27, 524kg of municipal waste was generated per person in 2008, of which 40% went to landfill, 20% was incinerated, 23% recycled and 17% composted. The average amount of waste generated in the EU27 was virtually unchanged from 2007 at 525kg per person.

Regulatory-tough nations had the highest recycling rates for municipal waste - Germany (48% of waste treated), Belgium and Sweden (both 35), Ireland and the Netherlands (both 32%) and Slovenia (31%) - with the UK’s 2008 rate coming in 11th at 23%. But municipal waste generated per person varied from 306kg in the Czech Republic to 802kg in Denmark, with the UK at 565kg - less than in top-placed Germany.

“Residents of Zürich pledged to reduce energy consumption to the level of a ‘2,000-Watt society’ “

So while the school report for the UK’s recycling rate might read ‘must try harder’, UK citizens actually produce a comparatively low amount of waste in the first place. And part of that must undoubtedly be down to initiatives such as packaging reduction, WEEE processing and so on, which the UK has pioneered as its grapples with how best to manage waste.

Gunnel Klingberg, secretary general of Brussels-based Municipal Waste Europe, which represents local authorities responsible for waste management, says: “The waste reduction commitment by the grocery sector in the UK is a very good information campaign, with great potential to be an example for all waste generators about the need to reduce waste in both the production and consumption phases.” For categories such as WEEE she adds: “The difficulties are to handle it in a way that is adapted to an individual’s lifestyle, but also fits into a system for waste management with the ambitions to recycle and recover as much as possible in a sustainable way.”

Indeed, the European Commission appears to be steering away from more onerous legislation, at least for the present, and has no plans to introduce new waste legislation for the moment. Instead it will focus on better implementation of existing laws, including potentially introducing a new body to work with member states to ensure that rules are being enforced.

Speaking at the Futuresource 2010 event in London back in June, Karolina Fras, acting deputy head of the unit for sustainable production and consumption at the Commission, intimated that the focus within the EU would be on implementation rather than extra powers. She said the Commission would, for example, not be exploring plans for a separate Biowaste Directive as the legislation had been deemed unnecessary.

Interestingly she said the Commission’s general approach to dealing with waste was focused on “better implementation and enforceability”, adding “we have a lot of legislation in place but what we have to do is make it work.” However, a report published in the summer by the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK did highlight opportunities for the UK to benefit from being more regulatory like Switzerland - two countries urbanised to similar levels relative to their population.

One of its major findings was about attitude rather than legislation, lauding sustainability commitment at a grassroots level. For instance, it cited the case of the residents of Zürich, who pledged to reduce energy consumption to the level of a “2,000-Watt society” by 2050, equivalent to one-third of today’s energy consumption. Switzerland already recycles 50% of its waste.

The Swiss Ambassador Alexis Lautenberg, reflected: “Dialogue is critical: to discuss best practices and look at lessons learned, to build networks and cross-fertilise the discussion, to inspire and to find new innovative approaches towards urban sustainability.”

And European body ACR+ stresses that waste prevention is still in its infancy in Europe, regardless of approach. It believes that it is possible to achieve global recycling rates of 60 to 80%, which would result in a residual waste production varying
between 100 and 200kg per person per year. The UK, unlike some of its higher recycling peers, is nearer
that aspiration.


Three years on since the introduction of the WEEE Regulations, more and more councils and those operating their sites are reaping the benefits of nurturing direct relationships with producer compliance schemes. A short chain means the payment process is speeded up, and the lessons learned are particularly evident in the streamlined UK Battery Regulations.

This system for the battery regulators is developing a robust infrastructure for battery collection, has a definitive collection target that is directly proportional to production, and requires producers to finance the net costs of collection, treatment and recovery.

In many ways, the UK’s experience of the WEEE Regulations has helped to shape a more workable set of Battery Regulations.

British Retail Consortium head of environment Bob Gordon says: “Retailers recognise their responsibilities and they’re ready with the facilities the law requires, but we also need a comprehensive and continuing information campaign. Shops cannot be the only route for collection. We need an infrastructure to develop which includes workplaces, schools, community centres and kerbside collection.”


Packaging reduction through the Courtauld Commitment has been a major success for the role of UK business in achieving sustainability targets. Defra minister Caroline Spelman has revealed that the Government has intimated that it wants to expand the Commitment to include toy and other non-grocery packaging.

She plans to extend Courtauld to toys and other sectors of the leisure and entertainment industries and says she is “frustrated” about the amount of packaging used. “While we don’t want damaged goods or anything which will compromise the safety of food, I do question how much packaging is necessary and how much is marketing,” she said of her ambitions.

WRAP has secured 28 brand and retailer signatories for the long-awaited second phase of the Courtauld Commitment, introduced in March, which moves away from weight-based targets to focus on sustainable resource use. Signatories include Asda, Tesco, Unilever and Nestlé, although a number of major brands continue to review or have said they will not be adopting Courtauld 2.


According to European Aluminium Association (EAA) figures revealed in May, the UK lags behind countries such as Germany for recycling the metal. Germany topped the European table with a 96% aluminium used beverage can (UBC) recycling rate in 2008, and others such as Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland all also passed a 90% rate.

In The Netherlands, much of the material is recovered from incinerator bottom ash, and the number of other countries with a strong performance tended to use can deposit schemes.

Of the eight countries to achieve a 90% or above aluminium UBC rate in 2008, six did so using a deposit scheme. The UK aluminium industry hopes that initiatives such as the ‘Go Recycling’ project to introduce automated recycling points at stores, for example, will boost its performance.

The EAA says of the UK’s efforts: “Local authorities and waste management operators are increasingly aware of the high scrap value of well-sorted aluminium. Even in difficult economic times such as these, we are seeing increased investment in the latest available sorting and recycling technologies.”

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