I have been reflecting on the remarkable changes that have taken place in UK recycling since I first started working closely with local authorities in 1998. In 1997/98, the combined household waste recycling rate for England and Wales was 8.2%. In 2009/10 the household waste recycling rate for England was 39.7% and Wales was 40.43%. There have also been impressive increases for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In 2003, only five councils in the UK (just over 1% of the total) offered a fully commingled collection, which included glass and paper. Today 76 (19%) offer a fully commingled collection which includes paper, card, cans, plastic and glass. This 15-fold increase has been more than matched by the tonnages of commingled recyclables collected. If one includes fully commingled and two-stream collections, the total has increased to 235 local authorities, 58% of the total.
In 2004, I created the Ask Jennie website, which contains a profile of the recycling activities of all 402 UK local authorities. Every profile has a history of recycling schemes since their introduction, some dating back as far as the early 1990s, together with details of current activities and future plans, where known. So I have been able to track the way every scheme has evolved during the years.
The most popular scheme to be introduced in recent years is to mix glass, cans and plastic and keep paper and card separate. Other councils collect paper, card, cans and plastic commingled, without glass. Some collect paper, card, cans and plastic commingled, and offer a separate collection of glass.
In eight of the 12 UK regions, 50% or more of councils offer a commingled collection. By contrast, 26 of the 33 authorities in the south-west region (79%) offer a kerbside-separated scheme.
The graph shows the situation by region at February 2011. The category ‘Other’ means that both kerbside- separated and commingled schemes are operating or no kerbside collection is offered (two local authorities). Where a council collects just two materials commingled, say, cans and plastic, I have classified this as kerbside-separated.
From data obtained from Defra, of the 20 English councils in 2009/10 which recycled more than 30% of dry recyclables, three offered a kerbside-separated collection, two offered a two-stream collection and 15 operated a commingled collection. Of those operating a commingled collection, 13 collcted paper, card, cans, plastic and glass.
There have been endless articles in the press expressing concern over the quality of materials processed from a commingled collection through a MRF, suggesting that, ideally, all local authorities should operate kerbside-separated schemes. A decade or so ago, quality was undoubtedly an issue with some MRFs, a number of which have since closed, but this is not the case today. With modern plants and their advanced sorting technologies, quality should not be an issue.
Also around a decade ago, around 25% of councils offered no kerbside collection, while another 25% collected just paper. Many of them relied on bring sites for collecting recyclables.
Today, all bar two authorities offer a multi-material kerbside collection. A number of councils have changed to a commingled collection because their residents prefer it, participation is greater and it is also more efficient. End markets too have changed, with a myriad of alternative uses for materials such as glass.
Times have changed and so too have collection methodologies. There never is a one-size-fits-all solution in waste management.
Jennie Rogers is the founder of www.askjennie.com, a website which details the recycling schemes of all authorities in the UK. Email firstname.lastname@example.org