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TV reveals some home truths about domestic recycling

Jonathan Short

… on the need for clearer information on how recycling works

I am sure I was not alone in nodding my head in agreement with the recent Channel 4 Dispatches investigation into the UK’s waste industry. As the programme made clear, we have reached “a tipping point when it comes to trash”. In particular, it demonstrated the urgent need to find other solutions to landfill for managing our waste.

The Government’s preferred solution, or so it claims, is recycling. The headlong rush to move rubbish out of the landfill tip has been responsible for a huge growth in the amount of material sent for recycling. But collecting more waste does not necessarily mean actually recycling more.

One of the most telling points argued by the Dispatches team is that commingled collection substantially increases the amount of non-recyclable waste coming through the recycling stream. Although this method of collection is fine for areas with a modern MRF, many parts of the country still do not have anywhere near the requisite level of infrastructure, causing major problems because of poor quality of output.

The experience of my own business bears this out. In the past three years, we have seen a decrease of at least 15% in the quality of the recyclate that we receive. Action is urgently needed to protect our industry: quality must take precedence over quantity.

“Consumers and councils must be confident that the recycling system really works”

Dispatches also provided a stark portrayal of two other interlinked problems: the public is confused by how recycling works and there is a lack of faith that it even does. The single biggest issue that having a localised, patchwork of collection systems creates is that there is no common understanding about what can be recycled, among consumers or local authorities. Clearly this is a major challenge that the UK needs to resolve.

Sadly, the Government’s response does not inspire confidence. A u-turn on a u-turn, the reinstatement of weekly collections will not only be more costly but will lead to a decrease in recycling and a surge in the amount of waste sent to landfill. But the solution to all of these problems is easily achievable through two measures: education and improved transparency. Study after study has shown that UK consumers approve of the concept of recycling.

What is needed is not further incentivisation but more education. An advertising programme, concentrating on the absolutes which will not vary regardless of collection system, would have a massive effect on the quality of material in our waste stream. Wouldn’t the £250m offered by environment minister Eric Pickles to support those councils moving back to weekly collections not be better spent on a comprehensive education programme for the consumer and local authorities?

Equally, there is an onus on the industry to improve confidence in the recycling system. Consumers and councils must be confident that it works and understand where their waste ends up.

There are multiple factors at work here - an extension of the packaging waste recovery note system and better enforcement of export regulations, to name but two. But the industry can also play its part by being far more transparent about where the products we recycle end up.

Jonathan Short is founder and chief executive of ECO Plastics

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