The latest household recycling statistics from Defra show that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are now ahead of England for the first time.
England reported a slightly increased recycling rate of 45.2% for 2017 compared with 44.9% in 2016. These are the figures used to report against EU targets. The EU target is for the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020. The 45.2% rate, which includes only waste from households, shows England’s contribution to the UK’s overall rate has inched forward by only 0.3 percentage points.
However, in the figures for local authority collected waste – which includes household plus other non-household waste but not incinerator bottom ash (IBA) – reported for the financial year 2017-18, the recycling rate was down by 0.4 percentage points.
A Defra spokesperson said it was “encouraging” that the recycling rate in England had risen: “People are producing less waste, less of that waste is being sent to landfill and separate food waste collections are increasing.
“More councils than ever are now recycling more than half of all waste. The increases reported by councils such as Sutton, Stroud and Colchester show what can be achieved by offering residents a comprehensive waste collection service.”
But the industry was not convinced by Defra’s cheery tune, with many pointing out that China’s import restrictions in the first three months of 2018 have had an adverse effect.
David Palmer-Jones, chief executive of Suez Recycling and Recovery UK, said the financial year 2017-18 figure “undermined” the reported increase.
“The addition of the extra three months coincides with the introduction of major recycling import restrictions by China, as the world’s largest market for recycled material, which does not bode well for the full figures for 2018.
“The lack of progress is a reflection of the challenges facing the global recycling market: cuts to consumer communication and perhaps consumer apathy and the majority of domestic political activity being focused on other areas in recent years.”
Chartered Institution of Wastes Management executive director Chris Murphy said: “While it is of course reassuring to see that recycling maintained an upward trajectory for 2017, the gain is small at 0.3% and figures for the rolling 12-month period show how fragile the situation really is.
“Performance in the first quarter of 2018 reflects the initial impact of the Chinese import restrictions, and the sector has continued to face this and other market difficulties and uncertainties throughout the year.”
Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin said: “It is obviously disappointing that the underlying recycling rate has fallen by 0.5% once you remove the impact of metals from IBA that have been added to the statistics for 2017.”
He added that “from what we have heard so far”, the resources and waste strategy would reverse the trend.
The 2017 figure for England includes IBA, which was added into the calculations in 2016 to bring it into line with figures from Wales and other European countries that have routinely included it. IBA has added around 0.8 percentage points to England’s rate.
But whatever measurement is used, it is highly unlikely the UK will meet its 2020 target.
Defra’s figures also reveal that the total weight of waste from households in England decreased from 1.5% between 2016 and 2017 to 22.4 million tonnes. Residual waste fell from 12.5 million tonnes to 12.3 million tonnes. And recycled waste in England also fell slightly from 10.2 million tonnes to 10.1 million tonnes in the same period.
The amount of food waste sent for composting, including anaerobic digestion, increased by 8.7% last year to 386,000 tonnes but represented only 2% of the total waste collected. Other organic waste collected, including green waste, also increased slightly by 0.4% in 2017.
Dry recycling volumes declined by 125,000 tonnes to 5.9 million tonnes in 2017 and dry recycling comprised 58.4% of the overall 2017 recycled waste total. This was also down slightly from 59.1% the previous year.
One of the reasons England is lagging behind is that the rest of the UK has introduced mandatory household food waste collections. Investment minister at the Department for International Trade Graham Stuart recently told an Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association conference that the forthcoming waste strategy will “tackle longstanding issues like waste crime, collection systems, packaging and plastic pollution – including requiring separate food waste collections”.