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Nation’s recycling stats are a numbers game

For six whole days, England was officially bottom of the home nations recycling league. Northern Ireland’s recycling rate was published on 30 November, and showed a 2.2 percentage point rise to 44.4%. This beat England’s official figure, and with Wales and Scot­land already ahead of the game, this relegated the team to last. 

Then, on 5 December, a Defra publi­cation claimed that England’s house­hold recycling rate had risen to 44.9% and the wooden spoon was passed back to Northern Ireland.

But all is not what it seems, and a confusion of data compiling, reporting dates, definitions and general statistical jiggery-pokery means it is not easy to truly compare the rates between Eng­land, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It can be a bit head- spinning.

When it comes to announcing a recy­cling rate, each country has to settle on one, easy-to-understand headline num­ber. The trouble is, these are all calcu­lated in a different way. Consultancy Eunomia has tried to overcome the problem, and recently published an analysis of ‘real’ worldwide recycling rates using standardised measures.

‘Real’ recycling rates

Recycling – Who Really Leads the World? is the second report launched this year by the consultancy with the support of the European Environmental Bureau to use publicly available waste data to calculate adjusted recycling rates for the top 10 on a like-for-like basis.

It said: “Recycling rates reported by each country establishes a top three of Germany (66%), Wales (64%) and Singapore (61%).

“After adjusting for differences in how countries measure recycling rates – for example whether construction or commercial waste is included or excluded, or how ash from incineration is accounted for – a more comparable set of recycling rates can be derived. Using these adjusted rates, the top three countries are: Germany (56%), Austria (54%) and South Korea (54%), with Wales dropping into fourth place (52%).”

For a start, England’s official figure uses the calendar year from January to December, but Defra also publishes financial year figures using April to March to match up to local authority reporting. Northern Ireland and Wales use financial years and Scotland sticks to the calendar year.

“It would be possible to claim that England’s current household recycling rate is 43.7%, 44.9% or 45.1% without, on the face of it, being contradictory.”

Then there is the issue of incinerator bottom ash (IBA). Defra decided, for the first time, to include the percentage of metal recovered and recycled within IBA in its figures for England. It also revised the 2015 figure accordingly. If you take IBA out, you get 44.2% – a rise of just 0.3%.

Wales includes all recycled IBA in its stats as does Scotland. Northern Ireland does not mention IBA in its statistical releases. Wales also includes all local authority-collected waste in its headline figure, not just from households as Eng­land does.

The overall rate the UK has chosen to officially report to the EU cannot include IBA – or at least, the non-metal part – nor all local authority-collected waste.

The definition of household waste is also a moveable feast. For the official figures, recycling from HWRCs and other sources are included, but not counting soil, rubble and plasterboard. All this leads to the following statement from Defra: “The rolling 12 month ‘waste from house­holds’ recycling rate to end March 2017 was 45.1%.”

Now – take a deep breath – the 2016- 17 data for local authorities listed on detailed Defra spreadsheets shows the ‘percentage household waste sent for recycling, reuse or composting’, which does not include HMRCs and the like. This has England at 43.7% – a return to the level in 2014-15 after it dipped to 43% in 2015-16.

It is from this data that councils are assigned their official rate so, if you want to compare a local authority’s per­formance with the average, that is what you would use. It would therefore be possible to claim that England’s current household recycling rate is 43.7%, 44.9% or 45.1% without, on the face of it, being contradictory.

If the UK cares about meeting its EU commitments, which is far from clear, then the only figure that matters is the one we report to the EU in 2020. If it is lower than 50%, we will have failed.

As far as England is concerned, the 44.9% figure is the one that counts at the moment. One wonders if, along with IBA metal, further beneficial changes of definitions will be imple­mented before the end of the decade.

The stats may be confusing but it is certain that, because it has by far the largest population, England is proving to be the biggest drag on the UK. With the rate of improvement of the other nations in recent years, it will not be long before England takes back that wooden spoon.

Focusing on England, MRW has for a number of years reported on stagnat­ing, then flatlining, then falling house­hold recycling rates.

The apparent small rise reported by Defra will be of no succour to the waste industry, which has long called for greater infrastructure and political will in order to increase rates. As it stands, some councils have abandoned recy­cling targets altogether.

During the summer, resources min­ister Therese Coffey also wrote to 34 authorities whose rate was 30% or less “to understand their contracts and what they were planning to do to improve recycling”. It is unclear what impact this has had, although in October Coffey was not happy that a dozen had yet to reply.

But will the Government’s resources and waste strategy, scheduled to be pub­lished next year, give England the kick­start it needs? There is unlikely to be any extra money, and it will rely on stimulating private investment for a more vigorous secondary materials market.

Extending council food waste collec­tions is also a priority in the Clean Growth Strategy, and has been champi­oned by Coffey. It would undoubtedly raise rates, but there are no details yet on how those councils that do not col­lect food waste will be persuaded.

As we have seen from councils such as Calderdale, which does collect food waste, recycling rates can plummet if recycling is deemed to be too expensive compared to energy-from-waste (EfW). Last year it recorded a fall of 14.1 per­centage points as it was refused PFI credits by the Government for a new collection contract and switched to EfW to save money. The authority has bounced back up a bit, but still way behind its above-60% performance it once enjoyed.

England’s overall rate is highly dependent on how well London does, which as 33% is the lowest of any region. With the London Assembly currently examining an ambitious resources plan to turn the capital towards a circular economy, we will soon see how this will affect the worst-performing council in England - the London borough of Newham – which has a rate of just 14.1%.

Despite implemented a recycling strategy last year after its rate decreased from a very low base, Westminster City Council has remained static on 17.4% – a mere 0.1 percentage point increase. Ealing is the big success story in the capital. It was one of the few authorities in the region to increase its rate last year, and this has continued with a whopping 7.7 percentage point increase this year to 50.7%.


David Palmer-Jones, chief executive, Suez

“To reverse declines, radical policy change is needed and targeted at the most populous areas – England and in particular London and the south-east. London has the lowest household recycling rate at 33%, the most recent 12 month rolling figures for the financial year ending March 2017 reveal.

“Without a sudden increase in recycling rates for England, which accounts for the vast majority of all of the UK’s waste from households, the UK is set to miss the 50% EU target for household recycling by 2020. Some areas have shown high performance can be achieved. A clear national strategy to end stalling rates of recycling is still required.”

Pete Dickson, commercial director of Biffa’s municipal division

“After a couple of years when the national recycling rate effectively plateaued, it is encouraging to see that England’s rate rose in 2016-17 to a shade over 45%. Encouraging – but there is a long way to go to hit 2020’s target of 50%.

”Dry recycling is making a good contribution to waste diversion, and while it is important to keep that contribution stable, we believe there is more to be gained from separate food waste services. However, these only provide value for money if there is a parallel change in residual waste services. This will mean reducing residual waste collection capacity, either through reduced bin size or collection frequency.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • In 2018 my family will celebrate 100 years in the business. In our own way we have always been leaders and we certainly are leaders today. If we go back to 2008 it was environment and sustainability first with the financial cost to be covered by our customers. Throughout the last ten years the bulk of our commercial customers have invested with us to ensure the separation of food, recyclables and residual waste before it is collected from site. As the last ten years have gone by local authorities appear to have been forced away from sustainability and into both lack of investment and cost reduction, come what may. For local authorities to move to the levels achieved by our commercial customers substantial investment is needed in every part of the service provision. I estimated at the RWM Exhibition at the NEC in September 2017 that local authorities are often fifteen years behind where they need to be. Food waste and recyclables must be collected separately and then the residual waste could pass through an automated material recycling facility and all possible materials recovered before waste to energy deals with the combustible balance. This final facility will need to be funded as well as the cost of moving on the recovered streams. We invested more than £25 million in 2006 in buildings, plant and equipment and this provided a very high level of matched funding for a new plant at Bow that was to be undertaken in partnership with the London Waste & Recycling Board and to be open in 2011. The funding was publicly announced in September 2010 but not provided, and at Christmas 2017 I still do not believe there is any plant within London that can carry out that task. The losers were the local authorities we currently work closely with. This plant was designed to work with black bag waste from local authorities. When a “local” authority uses a truly “local” site, rather than moving the material thousands of miles every year the annual saving in transport costs can easily be £500,000 per annum for each local authority involved. With the banking crisis and our existing debt we were unable to fund the necessary plant, having been promised the finance by RBS. That is another long story. In the last ten years many organisations that started within the industry have gone bust, often because no support was forthcoming when trading conditions changed through no fault of the investors. This has particularly affected both MRF’s and the ongoing processors of recovered materials. The public sector funded a number of these, particularly for processing plastic, and one by one they all went bust. Much money has been invested in gasification and pyrolysis plants for waste and most have failed or ended up uneconomic. There are those that frown on mass-burn energy from waste but provided we recover everything possible before energy from waste it appears to be THE technology that is proven and long term. The failures within the industry are all due to lack of investment and reliable long term income steams over the last ten years. Only investment will lead us all forward and the longer we leave it the more it will cost. ACTION IS NEEDED, NOT WORDS!

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