The UK’s recycling rate has officially dropped for the first time. Waste managers and local authorities are not surprised but it still comes as a shock to see the country’s progress dip downwards, even after a flat-lining in recent years.
The overall 2015 rate of 44.3% was 0.6 percentage points below the year before, with England’s slump from 44.8% to 43.9% the key factor because its scale dominates the data. Scotland and Wales, on the other hand, continue to improve their national rates.
It is too soon for an in-depth post-mortem but it seems clear the devolved governments’ extra funding for local authorities trying to boost rates backed up by enforceable targets are reaping rewards.
When MRW asked what Defra thought of Scotland and Wales’ superior progress, the department said a higher percentage of urban residents in England and the greater impact of recycling organics were the cause.
While the challenges of providing collection services in cities is undeniable, London council’s rates were particularly low and organic waste only dropped because the previous year’s arisings were unusually high due to heavy rain.
The uncontrollable fluctuations have caused some in the industry to renew calls for an end to weight-based targets, the environmental credentials of which have been questioned.
As shown by its refusal to recognise the success of Scotland and Wales’ interventions, Defra is clearly reluctant to put its money where its mouth is on recycling rates as it still officially remains “determined” to meet the EU’s 50% target by 2020.
The department instead pledged to encourage best practice among local authorities, suggesting more of the voluntary approach it has favoured in recent years, which would not break from its continued overarching austerity agenda.
It seems a shame that central government does not appear to want to copy the devolved administrations’ success, as it did with the 5p carrier bag charge last year. Interestingly, though, by limiting the levy to bigger retailers, Defra hasn’t embraced the initiative as fully as the devolved administrations.
Defra’s reticence to follow Edinburgh and Cardiff seems to have been heeded by the industry, with no key figures calling for more funding to boost rates despite there being some evidence that a short-term investment in recycling activities leading to a longer term reduction in operational costs.
Instead, Suez, the ESA, CIWM, and Larac have all vowed to intensify their calls for Defra to develop extended producer responsibility (EPR). It seems clear that most value quality equally as highly as quantity. All eyes will be on the department’s framework for its 25-year plan, expected in the coming months, for anything to address this.
On a positive note, some local authorities have shown outstanding improvement in the latest figures. Special mentions go to the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council and the Isles of Scilly, which all soared up the local authority league table.