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Three key questions in the recycling debate

Now that household recycling in the UK as a whole has fallen for the first time this century, a debate is underway into the policies and strategies that drive recycling practice. Here, three representatives of the leading consultancy Ricardo Energy and Environment, consider how the data can help understand the key issues.

Organics recycling in 2015 fell by 4.8% compared to 2014 levels although the data for the first six months of that year were unusually high. The main drop was due to reduced green waste collected, as food waste showed a small increase.

The continuing pressure on budgets has seen local authorities consider (and start to implement) charging for green waste collections and this could be partly responsible for the reduction. The quantity of dry recycling collected from households also fell by 1.1% compared to 2014 resulting in an overall reduction of 2.7% in the quantity of waste from households sent for recycling between 2014 and 2015, or 9.8 million tonnes.

Of course, this fall in recycling rates is sobering given the EU target for the UK to recycle at least 50% of waste generated by households by 2020 remains live. Many of us in the sector are now contemplating the potential reasons for the fall and how this can be reversed. Is it the result of austerity measures forcing local authorities to reduce services such as food waste collections, or confusion amongst householders about what can and cannot be recycled, or due to the increased importance of recyclate quality or a general reduction in recycling participation rates?

In 2011-12, 75% of local authorities using MRFs to process materials reported contamination rates of 9.2% or less, compared to average contamination rates reported under Schedule 9A of the Environmental Permitting Regulations of 13.65% in 2015. In addition, Defra’s recycling data for 2015-16 shows that 4.1% of recycling was rejected, compared to only 1.8% in 2011-12. The increase in contamination rates is clearly the result of the drive to improve the quality of data reporting and the quality of recyclables being made available for reprocessing.

However, this has actively contributed to the apparent fall in recycling rates. Whilst this debate goes on, it is worth considering the data itself and whether there are any messages we can take from looking at it in more detail.

Taking a closer look at the data

Firstly, are we comparing like with like? With dry recycling rates stalling, the impact of seasonality on green waste is potentially having a greater influence on whether recycling and composting rates rise or fall year to year. Additionally, with the increased scrutiny in MRF contamination rates in recent years, should the data from earlier years, when rates were based on limited data, really be used for comparison? Probably not.

Secondly, are we using the right metric to measure our progress and to ultimate deliver more sustainable waste management? Recycling is the third of the ‘three R’s’. In front of it in the waste hierarchy is reduce and reuse.

Reducing the quantity of waste we generate is the best way of reducing our environmental impact and reducing costs for local authorities and should be the most important metric if these are our objectives. There was some good news on this in the recent Defra figures. Waste generated per household fell from 413 kg per person in 2014 to 407 kg per person, a fall of 1.4% but it remains similar to the three-year average of 409 kg per person from 2012 to 2014. Maybe this figure should be given more importance in the reporting and our messages to householders focused more on waste reduction in a simplified message?

Reuse forms part of the recycling and composting rate but is not reported separately in the recent Defra release. Reporting reuse can be difficult as a significant amount of the donation and sale of second hand items happens via informal networks and market sites such as Ebay and Pre-loved making comprehensive data extremely difficult to collect. But it should not go unnoticed.

The third consideration is whether we are right to continue to use a recycling rate purely based on the tonnage of waste rather than the environmental impact of diverting it from landfill and maintaining its status as a resource. Recycling a tonne of aluminium cans has a far greater environmental impact (benefit) than recycling a tonne of paper as the energy and ultimately carbon cost of manufacturing a tonne of primary aluminium far outweighs the same costs for primary paper production.

Carbon metrics: are they the answer?

There is a growing swell of opinion on the matter, with LARAC recently suggesting (and perhaps not for the first time) that a tonnage-based measure is not ideal and that other metrics should be considered. Currently, carbon would be the best alternative metric, given it’s typically used as a proxy for environmental performance and the science and understanding is already well in place.

Carbon and climate change are well known to the public, and other tools already use carbon as a key indicator of wider environmental impact, so a change is very feasible, and would be widely welcomed by many in the sector.

Ricardo Energy & Environment has been thinking about this for a while and moving to a carbon-based system would also allow a more holistic approach to decision-making to be taken, considering not only the recycling, food waste and garden waste but also how residual waste is managed.

Our innovative carbon league table, which, for the first time, ranked local authorities according to the carbon impacts of their complete waste management service, including the fate of residual waste, showed that weight-based performance and carbon-based performance do not always align.

For example, authorities that were able to avoid landfill and generate energy from their residual waste were in some cases able to achieve significantly higher carbon rankings than authorities with higher recycling rates. So is the current recycling reporting system driving the wrong behaviours?

Dr Adam Read (Practice Director), Simone Aplin & Chris Hoy (Principal Consultants), Ricardo Energy and Environment

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