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More than a minor squall in a coffee cup

My previous column here was headlined ‘Recycling’s welcome return to the agenda’. This time around, rather remarkably, the issue has remained in national headlines. 

This was due in some measure to the humble disposable coffee cup and the fact that, despite ‘green’ claims from some café chains, less than 1% of the 2.5 billion used in the UK each year is being recycled under the fledgling Simply Cups scheme.

It was resource minister Rory Stewart’s off-the-cuff Parliamentary comment, “having tackled plastic bags … coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next”, that provoked more froth than a latte.

A Defra ‘rebuttal’ slapped him down immediately because the UK Government remains firmly anti-regulatory and pro-voluntary when it comes to waste policy.

Then came the day the industry has fretted over for some time: the English recycling rate going into reverse – no longer plateauing, it seems, but heading south. There may have been less (heavy) organics collected, and dry recycling may have gone up a tad, but so has residual waste.

There will be several different explanations – for example, more secondary materials sloshing around as the economy picks up. But we must also worry that people will get out of the recycling habit and, with commodity  prices so low, there is not the economic rationale to gee them up.

Suez chief executive David Palmer-Jones is spot on with his call for a ‘waste summit’ to look at what can be done at a time when local authorities have less cash to pay for smart communications campaigns.

These are not just about getting householders to recycle more; they are also about cutting contamination levels. We must also worry that leaner budgets may force councils to favour recovery over recycling when it comes to non-mandatory materials.

But I am encouraged how the coffee cup story and, more generally, fears over plastic waste are raised as popular causes because, ultimately, it drives politicians in ways those within the industry often cannot.

Refreshing, too, to hear Conservative MEP Julie Girling tell fellow MEPs that the new circular economy proposals need more drivers to boost secondary material markets. She specifically referred to constituents being concerned about “mountains of plastic” with nowhere to go.

We must hope that such public concern has an impact on policy.

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