Defra’s latest recycling figures show an increase of a quarter in rejected recyclable waste in England.
Figures for 2015-16 show 417,000 tonnes (4.1%) of the just over 10 million tonnes of household waste sorted for recycling was rejected.
This is up from the 329,948 tonnes rejected in 2014-15, which amounts to 3.3% of the 10.1 million tonnes collected that year.
The amount rejected has consistently increased since 2011-12, when 9.8 million tonnes were collected, with 180,000 tonnes (1.8%) rejected.
Last year’s data provided fuel for some commentators to suggest that residents were becoming increasingly confused by complex recycling systems.
Mainstream media outlets including The Sun, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail reiterated this assertion in response to Defra’s annual figures for 2015, published on 15 December, showing an unprecedented decline in the UK and England’s recycling rates (see below).
The real story here is that the data confirms a complete indifference on the part of Whitehall government as to what happens with our waste
Peter Jones, Eunomia
The Sun explicitly does so in a story with the headline ’Recycling rates fall for first time – because Brits are confused about what bins to use’.
But consultancy Eunomia says that lower recycling and greater contamination are not evidence that residents are confused, arguing that authorities with simpler systems have more material rejected than those with multiple bins.
Principal consultant Peter Jones said: “Rejected recycling is up, but that seems to be more associated with the spread of single-bin recycling and better reporting of the rejects that it produces due to the roll-out of new data collection systems, than any real change in people’s behaviour.”
He maintained that most rejects were the product of the MRF sorting process rather than households.
Defra’s confirmed figures show that national recycling dropped from 44.9% in 2014 to 44.3% for 2015, putting the UK even further from meeting the 50% EU target by 2020.
England, which is responsible for the vast majority of UK waste arisings, fell for the first time since Defra began publishing annual figures in 2010: down from from 44.8% in 2014 to 43.9% in 2015.
Rates in Wales and Scotland, both of which have more ambitious recycling strategies, improved by one percentage point.
Commenting generally on Defra’s figures, Jones said: “The real story here is that the data confirms a complete indifference on the part of Whitehall government as to what happens with our waste. The contrast with the efforts of the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland is stark.
“Well before the Brexit vote, government had absented itself from policy making in this arena. These data simply confirm what was already blindingly obvious.”