The latest Defra household recycling statistics have shown Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are now ahead of England for the first time.
England reported a slightly increased recycling rate of 45.2% for 2017 compared with 44.9% in 2016. These are the figures used to report against EU targets.
The EU target is for the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020. The 45.2% rate shows that England’s contribution to the UK’s overall rate has inched forward by only 0.3 percentage points.
But in the figures for local authority collected waste – which includes household plus other non-household waste, but not incinerator bottom ash (IBA) – reported for the financial year 2017/18, the recycling rate was down by 0.4 percentage points.
It is likely that China’s import restrictions in the first three months of 2018 had an adverse effect (see comment box).
The 2017 figure for England does include IBA, which was only added into the calculations in 2016 to bring it into line with figures from Wales and other European countries that have routinely included it. IBA has added around 0.8 percentage points.
Whatever measurement is used, England is behind the latest reported figures for Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and it is highly unlikely the UK will meet the 2020 target.
Although reporting methods differ, Northern Ireland at the start of the month lodged a recycling rate of 48.1% for the financial year 2017/18.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s household recycling statistics for 2017 showed 45.6% of waste generated in Scotland was recycled.
The total weight of waste from households in England decreased by 1.5% between 2016 and 2017 to 22.4 million tonnes. Residual waste fell from 12.5 million tonnes to 12.3 million tonnes. Recycled waste in England also fell slightly from 10.2 million tonnes to 10.1 million tonnes during the same period.
The amount of food waste sent for composting in England, including anaerobic digestion, increased by 8.7% last year to 386,000 tonnes but represented only 2% of the total waste collected. Other organic waste collected, including green waste, also increased slightly by 0.4% in 2017.
Dry recycling volumes declined by 125,000 tonnes to 5.9 million tonnes in 2017 and dry recycling comprised 58.4% of the overall 2017 recycled waste total. This was also down slightly from 59.1% the previous year.
A Defra spokesperson said the department was “encouraged” by the increased figure for 2017, but the industry has been more circumspect.
Lee Marshall, chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, said: “Councils are working hard to maintain waste and recycling services in their areas in the face of years of funding cuts.
”They have done well to keep the recycling rates at the levels they are and it again shows that the system of funding household waste collections needs a complete overhaul and the forthcoming resources and waste strategy needs to deliver this.
”Without new funding to promote new collections and even better public engagement we cannot expect the increase in rates that we are all striving for.”
Comment: David Palmer-Jones, chief executive, Suez Recycling and Recovery UK
“Today’s annual recycling statistics unfortunately continue to show that the country remains in the recycling doldrums, after more than a decade of hard-won behavioural change.
“Although the 2017 figures show an increase of 0.3 percentage points in household waste recycling from 2016, this is undermined by the rolling 12-month household recycling rate to March 2018, which shows a 0.3 percentage point decline compared with the previous period between 2016/17.
“This addition of the extra three months coincides with the introduction of major recycling import restrictions by China, as the world’s largest market for recycled material, which does not bode well for the full figures for 2018.
“The lack of progress is a reflection of the challenges facing the global recycling market, cuts to consumer communication and perhaps consumer apathy, and the majority of domestic political activity being focused on other areas in recent years.
“The imminent resources and waste strategy from Defra offers an opportunity for the nation to make an environmental step change, but is not going to be an immediate panacea to the current dwindling performance. We do, however, believe that Defra’s plan will provide a longer-term roadmap for the nation’s journey towards a circular economy, and will deliver positive direction for businesses, consumers and the environment.”