Plateauing recycling rates in recent years amid concerns that this is being fuelled by confusing recycling systems have brought household collections under scrutiny once more. England operates a startling array of different collection schemes, ranging from fully commingled to fully source-separated and many variants in between.
But with an increasingly mobile population moving between authorities, it is no wonder that confusion sets in.
The core materials set out in WRAP’s Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling in England, published in September, account for 60% of household waste and include plastic bottles, plastic packaging (pots, tubs and trays), metal packaging (cans, aerosols and foil), glass bottles and jars, paper, card, food and drink cartons and food waste.
The vision for the framework is to enable everyone “to confidently and accurately place out for collection a common set of materials and food waste for recycling”. At present, it is a voluntary approach, relying on individual councils to assess the benefits and feasibility of implementing it in their areas.
But, if widely implemented, it is undoubtedly going to remove some of the confusion around what can and cannot be recycled, and allows for the same messaging to be used across England.
The latest data from WRAP on local authority recycling systems in England provides information on collection of the eight core materials – albeit that data on drinks cartons is unclear because it is included in the ‘composite materials’ category. The data shows that only 19% of councils in England are currently collecting the eight materials covered by the framework.
However, on a more positive note,
55% of authorities are collecting six or seven of the core materials, indicating that they may only need to add one or two more to their collection systems to be collecting the consistent suite. What is not clear is whether councils that collect other materials such as textiles would be considered consistent or not.
Recycling systems have become increasingly complex as local authorities have striven to maximise the amount of recycling they collect through a growing range of materials. In recent years, collection systems have been broadened to include items such as batteries, small electrical products and textiles, adding to the confusion for householders around what can and cannot be recycled and often resulting in increased levels of contamination.
Where authorities collect a wider range of materials than the core suite, will this dilute the consistency effect? And are we risking restrictions on future recycling performance by potentially focusing kerbside collections only on the core materials? We must not lose sight of the positive recycling rate impact of other streams nor the impact of waste prevention.
The waste and recycling industry is increasingly looking at ways to process difficult-to-recycle materials including oil, nappies, plastic cups and other composite materials. Is there a risk that the framework may restrict this innovation if the primary goal of English waste policy is to deliver a consistent recycling system for all?
The WRAP data on collection systems also shows that food waste is the least collected material of the core suite, with only 32% of English councils collecting it separately in 2016.
Percentage of authorities in england collecting each of the framework materials
A big challenge for authorities is the affordability of delivering a system which collects all these materials and, in particular, the separate collection of food. By using WRAP’s Kerbside Collection: Indicative Costs and Performance Tool, the potential additional costs associated with the collection of food waste can be calculated.
Taking into account collection costs (£4.85 to £21.89 per tonne, depending on the type of collection) and disposal costs (authorities would incur an anaerobic digestion gate fee of around £40 per tonne and save in the region of £90, according to WRAP’s Gate Fee Report, in avoided residual waste disposal costs), the modelled net additional cost of operating a separate food waste collection service ranged from £30.20 to £166.56 per tonne.
Clearly, for many councils already facing increasing budget pressure, finding the funds to support such schemes is a real challenge.
The revised circular economy (CE) package issued by the European Commission on 2 December 2015 outlined a recycling target of 65% by 2030 and the requirement to separately collect biowaste, wherever it is technically, environmentally and economically practicable (TEEP).
In December 2015, the Government stated that the process of negotiating and agreeing the proposed package may take up to three years. Despite the UK voting to leave the EU, it is understood that engagement with Europe in relation to the proposed Directive is continuing.
Wales and Scotland have both introduced their own recycling harmonisation plans: in Scotland the Charter for Household Recycling and in Wales the Collection Blueprint. They have taken these plans a step further by underpinning them with statutory recycling targets: Wales has a 64% recycling target by 2020 and a 70% by 2025 while Scotland has targets of 60% by 2020 and 70% by 2025. Wales is currently leading the field in the UK with a 59% combined reuse, recycling and composting rate for the 12 months to the end of December 2015.
Is the framework in England merely setting the foundations for the future of waste policy in England? Will we see the return of local or national recycling targets beyond those in the Waste Framework and will there be a statutory nature to these targets?
In order to meet the proposed revised CE package target of 65%, the framework needs to bring about a recycling rate improvement of 20.7 percentage points. Given that the eight core materials set out in the framework account for only 60% of household waste composition, and typical proportions of materials recycled in 2015 range from 10% (food waste) to 71% (glass), we will still be some way short of reaching the desired recycling rate even with greater consistency around the core materials.
Clearly, England will still need to rely on other material streams in order to achieve the step-change in improvement, unless dramatic reductions in non-recyclable waste can be achieved.
Particularly given the current pressures on budgets for household waste recycling centres, and the uncertainties around charging and site closures, which may increase residents’ reliance on the private sector to remove certain types of waste, it is not known what impact this may have on recycling performance.
The challenge of delivering this type of step-change is not helped by the fact that there is a clear disconnect between residents’ perceptions of their recycling behaviour and what is actually taking place. Research by Suez and YouGov undertaken in August 2016 found that 79% of respondents felt that they were recycling either most or all of the materials that they knew could be recycled – but clearly that cannot be true given the actual tonnages being collected at the kerbside.
Clearly a better connectivity between perceived behaviour and actual will be just as important as driving greater consistency for a renewed upturn in local recycling rates.
WRAP’s framework should be seen as an opportunity for councils to review their services to assess whether a move towards ‘one of the three’ core collection systems would contribute to a collective improvement in recycling performance. They will need to develop a robust business case, taking into account the implications of TEEP, and use the process as an opportunity to assess the potential for joint and collaborative working.
For contracts shortly due for re-procurement, this provides an ideal opportunity to assess the future of service delivery, to develop a clear waste strategy and to design a future-proof contract with the required level of flexibility to drive improved performance.
But this needs to be coupled with clear and positive community engagement and communication in order to take the public on the journey with their local authority and secure public buy-in for positive service change. The question is who will do this for English councils, with staffing restrictions and immediate operational priorities to deal with, and who will fund it in times of austerity?
Only time will tell if this voluntary approach will drive councils towards delivering collection systems that are easier for the public to understand and achieve the desired step-change in recycling performance. There are clear challenges associated with delivering consistent recycling systems for all, particularly under a voluntary approach and tight budgets. But at least recycling is firmly back on the agenda.
Victoria Hutchin is a senior consultant with Ricardo Energy & Environment