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Recycling proves its worth in a decade

June marks a special anniversary for an event which has become an established regular annual activity in the recycling world’s calendar. Recycle Week, which started life as ‘The BIG Recycle’, is celebrating its 10th anniversary later this month (17-23 June) with a focus this year, on ‘recycling at home and away’.

With it, comes a great opportunity to reflect on what’s been achieved over the past decade. I think it’s fair to say we’ve undoubtedly come a long way since that first Recycle Week took place, in late 2004.

In the 10 years that WRAP and its partners have been running Recycle Week, local authority recycling schemes have collected materials worth a staggering £2.4bn.

And today, the recycling sector generates more than £13bn a year in sales, employs more than 40,000 people and contributes around £3bn Gross Value Added (GVA) a year to the UK economy.

The recycling landscape back then was very different to the way things look now. For example, the web-based Waste Data Flow system had only just been launched.

Until 2004, municipal waste data were collected annually from Waste Collection Authorities (WCAs), Waste Disposal Authorities (WDAs) and unitary authorities, by a variety of Government departments, agencies, institutions and other organisations. These manual surveys were acknowledged to have certain weaknesses and were rarely perceived to provide real benefit to the data provider. The result was that our intelligence on what was thrown away or recycled was sketchy, as best.

The objective of WasteDataFlow was to create a single, online reporting infrastructure which would enable more accurate data to be collected more regularly and efficiently. And crucially, the system was designed to support the EU requirement for all its member states to monitor progress against Article 5 of the Landfill Directive.

For local authorities, the new system would deliver clarity as to which data was to be recorded along with some much-needed consistency in how it was reported, as well as enable councils to address local data needs for reporting and strategic planning purposes.

It certainly has been a useful tool and helped to track waste management performance across a decade.

Going back to 2004, then, how much were householders recycling? For example, the available Government data from the time suggests that for England, the figure was just under 18%. Around 72% of waste was being sent to landfill. Most of the waste collected was, as you’d expect, coming from kerbside collections, with much smaller proportions coming, for example, from ‘civic amenity sites ‘ or what we now refer to as household waste recycling centres (HWRCs).

The EU Landfill Directive was, it must be said, was beginning to have an impact on local authorities and their approaches to waste management, and in 2004, for the first time, residual household (kilograms per household) figures fell below the 1000kg mark.

But the potential for recycling – and recovering – the value of individual material streams such as glass, aluminium or plastics, was only just starting to be realised, and the UK’s now thriving resource recovery and recycling management industry was still in its infancy.

Regular readers of this column will know that I’ve written before about the genesis of plastic bottle recycling and how very few plastic bottles were recycled – the infrastructure for collection and reprocessing simply didn’t exist. This particular material stream is a great example that shows just how much has changed over the decade.

Just to remind you: in 2000, when WRAP was created, only 3% of the UK’s plastic drinks bottles were recycled, leaving the remaining 411,000 tonnes destined for landfill.

When our first Recycle Week was launched, for most of us, the only option for our empty plastics drinks bottles was the dustbin. And I doubt whether many of us gave much thought to where our bottles would end up…. Unless, perhaps, we worked in the waste management section of a local authority!  

At that stage, we were still recycling less than 10%.  Yet today, more than 50% are recycled - which demonstrates just what kind of progress we’ve made by working together.

That first week, called ‘The BIG Recycle’ was fronted by impressionist Alistair McGowan, and followed hard on the heels of the September launch of Recycle Now complete with the website and the now-familiar green ‘swoosh’ brand.

The campaign captured the public’s imagination and local authorities across the country lent their support to the initiative. Many took advantage of the free communications materials available through the partners’ section of the website, designed to help them to get their residents to recycle more things, more often.

With the launch, for the first time consumers began to think more closely about what they threw away and Recycle Now, together with local authorities and the roll-out of new collection schemes, brought a new focus on the implications of sending rubbish to landfill.

It began to offer individuals an overview of recycling, raising awareness of it as a better option for some of their every-day waste – and offered one-stop-shop advice to anyone keen to discover what they could do. For the first time, people could use the website’s new postcode locator to find out what they could easily recycle in their area.

Given that recycling was then still a newish concept in the UK, especially for consumers, celebrity endorsement and TV advertising was used to help raise consumer awareness. Of course, there was funding available in those days for such activities – a situation which we know has changed in more recent years. 

The approach certainly had an impact.  Household recycling rates around the country began to increase. Householders were able to take advantage of the new kerbside collection schemes being introduced around the country, and take up other opportunities to recycle.

What’s interesting to note is how, over the years, as recycling has become a much more accepted ‘mainstream’ activity, the way in which it is discussed has evolved in response to the need to keep the momentum going.

Consumers now, for example, want more detailed information about the range of materials that can be recycled. We’re seeing a focus much more on quality.   And consumers tell us that they’d recycle more if they had better understanding of exactly how to recycle the ever-widening range of material that can now be captured and turned from a waste into a resource – from aerosols, inhalers and tin foil to plastic pots and trays and the dreaded carrier bags!

Something else I’ve spoken about here in the past is the diversity of collection systems that are in operation across the country.  On the one hand this can be confusing for householders, whilst on the other it can lead to innovation in recycling systems. With this in mind, Recycle Week has been playing its part by developing ‘local messages’, delivered by ‘local partners’ and focusing on ‘local solutions’. This is an approach that’s also followed on a wider scale by both Recycle Now, and WRAP, through its communications support for local authorities.

This isn’t just about local authorities, of course, but also embraces local businesses, brands, retailers, schools and community groups, and means that organisations can tailor messages to their own requirements and circumstances.

As a result, Recycle Week has become a ‘platform’ for a wide range of local partners to ‘talk’ about recycling and increasingly, re-use.

I think that undoubtedly we’ll continue to see a shift of emphasis in the direction of re-use as the drive towards viewing waste not as a waste, but as a resource, continues. This isn’t just about consumer behaviour and awareness: it is part of a much broader picture that ties into the economic and environmental health of our nation.

It’s encouraging to see just how far we’ve come on this recycling journey and remind ourselves of what can be achieved when we work together. But what it also serves to demonstrate is how much further we need to travel if we’re to get anywhere close to that holy grail of zero waste.


Recycle Week in Scotland

Scotland is celebrating its third annual Recycle Week this year. Scottish households are already helping to save councils over £20m a year by putting items to be recycled in kerbside collections, and recycling rates have made commendable progress in the past 10 years, increasing from just 5% to over 40%. Delivering on the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Plan, ZWS is targeting investment in facilities which make it easier to recycle on the go. This includes investing £850,000 in installing Recycle on the Go bins in public places across the country, and £900,000 trialling ‘Recycle & Reward’ pilot projects which look at ways in which an incentive can be offered for recycling. Recycle Week is an opportunity to celebrate this success, as well as encouraging everyone - local authorities, businesses, organisations and individuals - to do more.

Readers' comments (1)

  • How 10 year's has flown. From our original idea to turn National Glass Week into a national recycling week, so much has been achieved with the support of WRAP and the materials reprocessing organisations. It's a great success, long may it continue.

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