More consistency in household recycling has to be one the most debated issues in our sector. Achieving it is ambitious but not impossible and, as with all big challenges, overcoming the difficulties can lead to significant opportunities.
When I joined WRAP in 2006 after 20 years with BP Chemicals, I started working on plastics recycling. I remember being amazed that we were trying to bring everyone together – local auth-orities, reprocessors and retailers – to make it happen.
Of course, I came to understand that this is WRAP at its best: taking on challenges that some thought were impossible, and convening all the key players in the supply chain to find solutions and help the industry to implement them.
Ten years on, it is an exciting time to be director of government programmes in WRAP. Our ability to help industry work together bodes well for more consistent household recycling in England.
For England, recycling rates have more than quadrupled this century, a success that can largely be put down to all those involved in collecting waste for recycling and reprocessing it into new products. The expansion of recycling collection services and industry investment in new sorting and processing infrastructure has made all of this possible. But the rate of that success has slowed, and England’s recycling is now stabilising at slightly over 44%.
Just over a year ago all those involved in England’s household recycling – from council collectors to reprocessors, manufacturers, retailers and brands – recognised the need to come together and do something to change the current status quo of recycling. WRAP was tasked by Defra to convene and lead a cross-sector advisory group.
House hold recycling
We all worked hard to understand what was really going on and identify what the opportunities were. It soon became apparent that achieving greater consistency in recycling was far more than just addressing collections, a topic that has tended to dominate discussions in this area.
Designing a collective industry framework and vision for recycling in England was never going to be easy because each player has different pressures and priorities. However, the collaboration has resulted in a clear vision that, if delivered, can make it easier for householders to recycle more, can make service provision more cost-effective and has the potential to improve the volume and quality of materials available to reprocessors.
The vision sets out what WRAP ultimately want to achieve: where, by 2025, packaging is designed to be recyclable (where practicable and environmentally beneficial) and labelled clearly to indicate whether it can be recycled or not. And where every household in England can recycle a common set of dry recyclable materials and food waste, collected in one of three ways.
The advisory group recognised that having a core set of materials that can be recycled, no matter where you live or where you go in the country, sits at the heart of consistent recycling. These materials have been identified as: plastic bottles, plastic packaging (pots, tubs and trays, known as PTTs), metal packaging (cans, aerosols, foil), glass bottles and jars, paper, card, food and drinks cartons, and food waste.
Some of these are already widely collected across the country, but others less so. For example, PTTs, which are known to cause confusion for householders, are collected at only 60% of households and just 27% of households are currently offered a separate weekly food waste collection. These materials present the biggest opportunities for action.
Change will not happen overnight, but the time frame for the vision means that changes can be implemented at the most appropriate times, for example, as service contracts come up for review. And WRAP’s modelling has shown that adopting a consistent group of materials to collect at the kerbside could be achieved with little overall increase in total cost and, in some cases, can provide an opportunity for savings.
Key to realising opportunities is assessing the business case at a local level. WRAP is working with seven areas involving more than 40 councils to do this, but there are already good examples of where councils have realised benefits from working together and introducing the same service across their areas, such as Kent.
One of the most exciting opportunities from collecting more of the core materials across England is the potential to communicate to householders in a more powerful way. With recycling messages that can be used right across the country and by all partners, we can further reduce consumer confusion and recycling contamination.
This work is being explored by a working group chaired by Charlotte Carroll, sustainable business and communications director at Unilever. I am looking forward to their ideas and solutions.
More good news is that WRAP has already produced the first output of the consistency work: the National Recycling Guidelines. This is a definitive list of what can and cannot be accepted for recycling at the kerbside, as agreed with reprocessors, local authorities andwaste management companies and extensively tested with consumers. For example, guidelines include ‘yes to lids on plastic bottles’ and ‘no to sticky notes’.
The guidelines will be embedded in the Recycle Now resources, which are available to councils and other partners to download.
Work is also underway on other working groups. The recyclability of packaging is being considered by a group comprising representatives from brands and retailers as well as the packaging and recycling industries, and chaired by Iain Ferguson, environment manager for The Co-operative.
Having already met twice, they are focused on drawing up a list of key opportunities where packaging could berationalised to be recyclable. This will then be shared with a wider group of brands, retailers and manufacturers to consider how it can be taken forward.
On the sorting infrastructure side, representatives from local authorities, waste management companies and reprocessors will be looking the effects of collecting more materials.
The launch of the framework in September was a milestone but it was really only the start. Now the vision has to be turned into reality, and I am delighted that we have started to make progress. I’m looking forward to working with all stakeholders to make more consistent household recycling in England happen.
Peter Maddox is director of programmes, WRAP
At a glance
Co-operation in Kent
In 2011 three mid-Kent councils sought to address variations in recycling services including differences in materials collected, frequency of collection, methods of containment and delivery arrangements.
This brought services into alignment with East Kent, and resulted in consistent services across both regions.
The benefits included:
- A predicted net benefit of £60m saving during the period from 2010-11 to 2022-23
- Average recycling rate increased 14 percentage points from 31.4% in 2010-11 to 45.3% 2014-15
- Contribution to reducing Kent’s overall tonnage sent to landfill by more than 60%