The UK faces an uphill battle in tackling its waste crisis. The country’s recycling infrastructure has languished in recent times, with large quantities of waste being sent abroad for processing. Among European countries, the UK is ranked 10th in terms of its recycling rate by the EU’s statistics body, Eurostat.
The Government’s new resources and waste strategy is the first critical step in taking the UK’s waste problem back in-house.
The targets set out in the strategy for recycling of household, packaging and municipal waste meet or exceed those set in 2017 under the EU’s circular economy package. This means that this country post-Brexit will, on this particular measure at least, continue to maintain high environmental standards.
This fulfils a commitment by the Government, which our research shows has clear public support, to maintain or increase environmental safeguards on leaving the EU.
But recent figures show that recycling levels have plateaued, putting the UK on track to miss its current target of recycling half of household waste by 2020. With only a year left to attain that target, the Government must now act fast to raise recycling rates. Yet there are still no clear policies to do so.
The financial burden of recycling or disposing of waste will now – quite rightly – fall on the producers of it rather than on the general taxpayer, which pays via local authorities for the bulk of this at the moment.
But the Government has stopped short of strengthening the whole market for waste management, for example through measures that increase the value of processing of waste responsibly. The requirement for plastics to contain 30% minimum recycled content by 2022 will only help to prolong the lifetime of materials if those plastics too can be recycled.
Efforts to tackle food waste by introducing separate compost bin collections on a weekly basis could significantly reduce the quantity of waste that ends up in landfill. This will cut the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions from landfill sites, which is estimated to account for 11% of overall greenhouse gases in the UK.
But it is likely that local authorities will need additional sources of funding for waste and recycling collections in order for this ambitious vision to be realised.
Wilf Lytton is senior researcher at think-tank Bright Blue