The industry has renewed calls for a Government waste strategy in response to media reports of a rise in contamination in household collections.
BBC Breakfast reported that “rejected” recyclable waste had risen by 84% in England since 2011, and followed the news item with an interview with WRAP head of collections and quality Linda Crichton.
Following a freedom of information inquiry to Defra, the BBC said councils were unable to recycle 338,000 tonnes of waste in 2014-15, up from about 184,000 tonnes in 2011-12, which equates to about 3% of collected materials.
The Environmental Services Association said waste companies and councils were working together to tackle the issue but asserted that progress had been made despite the figures.
Head of regulation Sam Corp said: “While efforts should and will continue to be made to reduce contamination, we should not forget the progress that has been made to increase recycling in the UK – from near zero in the early 1990s to almost 45% today.
“The reports in the national press are about the much smaller quantities of material which, although collected for recycling, cannot in practice be recycled because it is contaminated.
“However, this increase in contamination does still highlight the need for a long-term framework from the Government to help drive recycling and reuse, and reduce the levels of contamination that have been shown in these figures.”
England’s recycling rate is flatlining at about 44%, and there is concern within the industry that, despite improvements in other home nations, the UK may miss its 50% recycling target for 2020.
Commenting on the BBC figures, FCC Environment communications director Kristian Dales said the targets were “increasingly unrealistic” in light of a declining quality of recyclates.
“What is needed is a sustainable waste strategy that balances and aligns environmental imperatives with hard, economic realities. As part of this, the options for creating energy from waste that cannot be recycled should be considered in greater detail,” he said.
The BBC figures appear to be identical to those used in a controversial Daily Mail article in January, to which Eunomia consultant Peter Jones forced a correction to be made.
The article, ’Great green rubbish farce: Hundreds of thousands of tons of recycling is burned or buried after being carefully sorted by homeowners’, by the Mail’s environment editor, also reported the 338,000 tonnes figure.
The article was also issued through the Associated Press and picked up by the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express.
Jones contacted the papers to say the “reject” figure represented only 3% of the 11 million tonnes of recycling collected by councils, with most of the rejects being the product of the MRF sorting process rather than households.
As a result, he said, the Telegraph removed the piece while the Express and the Mail “argued the toss at some length” before retracting their stories and issuing corrections.