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Level of contamination in household recycling revealed

Contamination in the household recycling stream is driven in part by the public’s mistaken assumption that recycling information on products means they are collected by all councils.

The finding comes from WRAP’s annual Recycling Tracker report, which found that in Wales 83% of households put at least one unacceptable item in their recycling collection compared with 76% in England.

Common items found to contaminate collections included include plastic bags and wrapping (29%), toothpaste tubes (24%), dirty pizza boxes (21%), bubble wrap (14%) and plastic carrier bags (14%).

WRAP found the key factor in contamination cited by 46% of respondents was the assumption that pack labels and guidance meant their local collection would accept the item concerned.

Additionally, 22% said they put items in recycling collections in the hope it could be recycled but without definite information. Around 20% said a lack of bin capacity led them to put recyclable items in with residual waste.

People with communal recycling bins were prone to contaminate them with the plastic bags in which they carried recyclables, with 23% of respondents admitting they did this.

The scope for improvement was found to be greatest among households aged 18-34, who had both the highest levels of missed capture and contamination at 67% and 85%, respectively.

Phil Piddington, managing director of Viridor, which has separately completed its own annual recycling index, said: “Not only are people increasingly confused over what and how they can recycle, they are also becoming less confident that businesses or the Government are playing their respective roles in ensuring resources are given new life.”

Piddington complained that there were “hundreds of different approaches” to collections across the country, and said a more standardised approach would encourage more infrastructure provision.

“People really do want to do the right thing, but they need a clear and concise message from the Government and their local authorities to improve recycling performance collectively and reach national targets,” he said.

The contamination rate at English MRFs has worsened during the past four years, despite a code of practice being set up in 2015.

A recent hearing by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee heard that many people did not know what to recycle or how, and that cuts to council’s communications budgets had worsened this.

”You are just not going to end up making the effort, frankly, to try to scrap off somebody’s tikka masala that is now basically cremated into the plastic.”

Environment minister Therese Coffey told the committee: “You have plastics that are of different polymer types … they get contaminated with excessive food residues, and you are just not going to end up making the effort, frankly, to try to scrap off somebody’s tikka masala that is now basically cremated into the plastic. But it has not been a case of any significant change.”

Committee chair, Labour’s Mary Creagh, said data showed contamination rates of 9.5% for plastics and 8.2% for glass in 2017. “That’s getting worse during the past three years, not better,” she noted.

The WRAP Tracker also looked at food waste and found that 32% of households recycle this correctly, up from 28% in 2017, an increase WRAP said was likely to reflect improved service provision.

In areas where no food waste collection was offered, 31% put this in the residual bin while only 12% composted food waste.

Some 18% had a food waste service but did not use it. Mess and smells were cited as the main reason, followed by a view that their household produced too little to matter.

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