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Busting the myths that surround UK waste

Ten voices in the sector were invited by MRW to challenge the ‘myths’ about recycling and waste management that they feel need challenging

Myth 1: Fortnightly collections are a sign of the impending collapse of civilisation
Mike Webster, business development manager, London Community Resource Network

People who have had too much sun in their expat ghettoes on the Costa del Sol might think that wheeled bins and alternate weekly collections (AWCs) are proof that Britain has finally gone to the dogs, and they repeatedly post as such online.

But evidence shows that people get used to AWC schemes and that satisfaction is as high, if not higher, than with usual schemes.

Anyone who has worked at a council knows there are whingers who repeatedly phone in to complain. But it is worth remembering that the people of Britain are not particularly bothered by AWCs, and most of them are happy to do the right thing.

As more and more councils exceed 50% recycling rates, it stands to reason that householders need only half as many rubbish collections.As long as the smelly stuff gets picked up each week, who cares when the rest of it goes?

There are still weekly collections - it’s just that on one week the waste goes to recycling and on the other it is burnt or buried. And you have to sort it a bit. Why send recycling collection trucks trundling half-empty around the countryside?

Myth 2: The Government is practising the ‘localism’ it advocates
David Palmer Jones, chairman, the Environmental Services Association and chief executive, SITA UK

David Palmer-Jones SITA

With the publication of the DCLG’s Guidance on Weekly Rubbish Collections, it would seem that the Government feels it knows best and has reconsidered its approach of allowing communities and councils to follow their own paths.

But the report is skewed and based solely on the experiences of the small number of local authorities in receipt of additional funding from the Weekly Collection Support Scheme - again provided by central Government and with seemingly no commitment in place to subsidise these services in perpetuity.

On operational issues, such as the optimal design of collection systems, authorities should be able to respond to their local circumstances, finances and environmental constraints as they need to, rather than facing pressure from the Government to do things its way.

Myth 3: The UK cannot do recycling and waste management as well as in Europe
Chris Oldfield, managing director, UNTHA UK

For years, the UK’s approach to waste manage-ment has been criticised for lagging behind other European nations. Of course, the level of recycling excellence in countries such as Austria and Germany is something to aspire to.

For as long as we have trailed behind, the UK has been brainwashed into believing that everything done on the continent is better than what we can achieve here.

The UK still faces challenges. A lack of financial investment, for example, restricts our scale of progress. Yet we have now embraced recycling, we have a number of passionate resource efficiency advocates and attitudes towards waste are changing.

The UK and Republic of Ireland achieved the fastest household recycling rate increases in Europe between 2001 and 2010. Such progress deserves a praise. And having grown continuously since 2006, the UK’s waste industry is now reportedly worth around £10bn.

We are moving towards a position where we can confidently say “anything they can do, we can do better”.

Myth 4: Exporting is a ‘recycling con trick’ and ‘exporting waste is exporting jobs’
Simon Ellin, chief executive, Recycling Association

Both the quotes above, made last year in the Daily Mail and by the now former shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh, respectively, highlight the ignorant manner in which the exporting of recyclables is often reported.

The thought that UK plc would pay good money to buy millions of tonnes of recyclables, then pay to transport them halfway round the world to then pay for them to end up in landfill is crass in the extreme.

And to suggest that, by shipping overseas, exporters are negatively hitting the UK jobs market shows a fundamental misunder-standing of the subject.

The majority of recyclables leave the country in a compliant and heavily regulated manner - far more heavily regulated than movements within the UK. And, and in terms of deep sea shipments, they are loaded on vessels to countries where the packaging came from in the first place and on vessels that would otherwise sail empty.

As a trade association supporting UK processors, mills and brokers, the Recycling Association is a huge supporter of the UK’s mill reprocessing infra-structure and would welcome any future expansion.

But in line with the erosion of the UK’s manufacturing base under successive governments, the association realises that this is not going to happen in any significant form.

So a buoyant export market is absolutely crucial to the continuing success story that is the UK recycling industry.

Using recovered paper as an example, in 2012 the UK collected around 8.4 million tonnes for recycling, yet only possessed the capacity to reprocess 3.8 million tonnes of it. The surplus simply has to be exported into the global marketplace.

The export market fundamentally complements and underpins the UK market and, without it, the UK’s recycling industry would be decimated.

Myth 5: The circular economy is local
Paul Briggs, managing director, Mark Lyndon

This latest buzz phrase has generated a lot of discussion regarding what it actually is. Some people perceive it to be when buying, selling, manufacturing and so on are performed locally.

This would be a good model if the opportunity arose but, in the international world of commodities and global manufacturing, such a local ideal is far from reality.

Is not a true circular economy where waste packaging and waste products at the end of their useful lives are returned efficiently, economically and environmentally for recycling back into new products at the point of origin and manufacture?

This means utilising not only all the waste generated but also making transport efficiencies and minimising the need for new materials to enter the chain.

Take, for example, a washing machine purchased on the high street that originated from China. When that machine is at the end of its useful life, it is broken down into scrap. This is then utilised by loading it into an empty container already on its way back to China to bring in the next washing machine.

The packaging for this product will have already made the same journey shortly after the machine was purchased from the store.

So the full circular economy for this product is documented completely and recycled into new products that will find their way back to UK shores.

Myth 6: Municipal solid waste recycling rates are constrained by a lack of infrastructure
Paul Levett, non-executive board member of several companies in the waste sector

In most cases, a recycling rate is constrained by the collection system; people’s recycling bins are often full before collection day.

In such cases, residents who wish to maximise recycling are frustrated by council rules requiring bins lids to be fully closed and no side waste to be collected.

The answer, of course, is to provide sacks for additional materials which do not fit in the bin. Any extra collection costs can be funded because there is scope for local authorities to obtain better prices for their recyclables by:

  • Selling direct to reprocessors
  • Combining volumes with those of other local authorities to improve negotiating power
  • Upgrading collection systems to improve the quality of the recyclables collected, such as separate food collection and twin- stream commingled recycling
  • Removing recycling bins from properties which produce heavily contaminated materials and providing those properties with an extra residual waste bin.

Myth 7: The local authority home composting market is saturated and home composting activity is not worthwhile
Jonathan Straight, chief executive, Straight

This suggestion is often repeated and stems from comments made by WRAP five years ago.

In an attempt to justify its withdrawal from the supply of subsidised compost bins, the claim was made that sales were falling and the market was becoming saturated.

Straight commissioned two reports some years ago, and the findings are still relevant.

First, the market is not saturated, far from it. Our project reviewed collated data and examined population demographics and participation rates. A regression model was used to predict the percentage of households with compost bins in specific council districts, and then to identify where potential remained.

The report, prepared by Resource Futures, concluded that the market for home compost bins was far from saturated, and the official rate of 35% of households with gardens left much room for improvement.

Second, we demonstrated that, during the 15-year estimated lifetime of a compost bin, a local authority would save around £190 on collection costs. The cost of promoting compost bins or subsidising them is generally a few pounds per household, so the savings are very significant.

It makes sense not to collect waste for industrial processing but instead allow nature to take its course by returning that material as compost to the garden.

Myth 8: Food waste from the manufacturing process is destined only for anaerobic digestion or landfill
Paul Featherstone, group director, SugaRich

It cannot be disputed that the food industry is experiencing a waste problem. Yet steps are being taken to address it and achieve better waste prevention.

By acknowledging their environmental responsi-bilities and the UK’s ultimate aim for a zero food waste to landfill strategy, factories and retailers are saying no to disposal. They understand that surplus food does not need to be dumped.

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is, of course, an option. But while AD is a marginally better option than traditional disposal routes, food ‘waste’ needs to better acknowledged as a resource. There is a way to keep the nutrients in the food chain.

Starch-rich foodstuffs such as confectionery, crisps, bread, biscuits and breakfast cereals, for example, can be recovered and converted into valuable high-quality ingredients for use in animal feed. And the packaging materials can be extracted for recycling.

This approach ensures compliance with the waste hierarchy, saves organisations money, improves the quality of livestock and reduces the environmental impact that would otherwise be caused if all the food waste was sent for AD.

Myth 9: It is a good idea to send plastics for incineration with energy recovery
Keith Freegard, director, Axion Polymers

There is a general feeling that if you cannot recycle waste plastics using mechanical techniques, then the next best thing is to leave them in the residual or refuse-derived fuel stream and consign them to incineration processing as a source of energy from waste (EfW).

This myth is based on the understanding that plastic is just ‘solidified oil’ and therefore a good alternative and high calorific value (CV) fuel source. But EfW plants are run as commercial operations which turn gate-fee paying solid waste into carbon dioxide gas up the exhaust stack and make ash for landfill or construction uses.

The extraction of energy is the secondary concern of the commercial operator. In fact the rate of heat extraction from the infeed waste becomes the ‘limiting factor’ on throughput of the furnace.

If too much heat is generated per tonne, the heat exchange system cannot cope and it is necessary to slow down the feeder and grate.

So having too much high CV plastic in the feed mix makes it a less desirable raw material if it makes the plant slow down its rate of ‘gate fee earning’.

Plastic in municipal waste is a significant source of fossil CO2 from incineration (80-90%). Only with high energy recoveries from waste incineration, and when the recovered energy substitutes for energy produced from coal or gas, can the energy recov-ered compensate for the CO2 emission caused by plastics.

Given the current energy mix in the UK, this is hardly ever possible.

Myth 10: Waste collection services are simply dirty operations
Lawrence Craig, managing director, Spedian

There remains a widespread perception that refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) are simply rubbish lorries and the job of a ‘bin man’ is a dirty role. Some even imply it is second rate employment.

Instead, there should be greater appreciation of the efforts that refuse collectors go to in making our country a ‘greener’ place. They work hard, adhering to their schedules whatever the weather, to collect household waste. These waste management professionals need to be acknowledged as recycling champions.

RCVs are not dirty, smelly machines. They use advanced technologies that are not only helping to improve the UK’s waste agenda but are communicating with communities too.

Councils are using these visible assets to create dialogue with the public. The sides of vehicles display important messages that educate about what to recycle, how to do it and why it matters. Councils are becoming ever-more intelligent in their communication methods, which should help to further improve recycling rates.



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