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Need to raise game on capture of materials

During the past decade, the household waste recycling rate in England has seen a steady year-on-year increase from 18% in 2004 to its current rate of 44%.

If you go back to 2001 it was just over 10%. As we face the challenges of reaching a 50% target, we should give credit to this considerable progress in England in a decade.

Kerbside collections are now widespread – 18.5 million homes have access to a kerbside collection service for the five key material streams of paper, card, cans, plastic bottles and glass – that’s 80% of all households.

Back in the early 2000s, food waste featured hardly at all in terms of service provision and the ability to recycle it. There were a few councils collecting uncooked food waste in with garden waste, but that was about it.

WRAP’s ground-breaking trials in the mid- 2000s, involving nearly 100,000 households and 19 local authorities, was instrumental in understanding how to collect food waste in a way that was acceptable to people and achieved good capture rates. Today, 54% of councils (171) provide a service – either for mixed food and garden waste or a separate weekly food waste collection.

That said, food waste is an area where we can still do more; for example, increasing separate weekly collections could have a significant effect on the target.

In order to deal with increased collections, we of course need the capacity to process material, and there has been a substantial increase in anaerobic digestion (AD) capacity spurred on by the Government’s AD Action Plan and financial support available from WRAP. There are at least 135 AD plants operating in the UK with a capacity to process around 6.8 million tonnes of organic material. And with seven million tonnes of household food waste in the UK, there is plenty to go after.

Data on recycling by the commercial and industrial sectors is reported less frequently, but national statistics show progress on this front, with recycling increasing from 42% in 2002 to 52% in 2009.

WRAP has various initiatives in this area: Courtauld, which increases the recycling of supply chain waste in the grocery retail sector; the Halving Waste to Landfill commitment in the construction sector; and the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement, where we are working with around 200 companies to reduce and recycle food waste.

This increase in recycling has been achieved through a combination of measures and considerable investment on the part of councils, the Government, waste management companies and WRAP. Policy drivers and fiscal measures have been key.

National communications via WRAP’s ‘Recycle Now’ campaign have raised people’s awareness of why to recycle, backed up by extensive local information to let people know about local services. Investment by the reprocessing sector to develop capacity and create jobs has been considerable.

WRAP’s work has contributed here as well. Since 2000, we have helped to increase reprocessing capacity by 49 million tonnes. But we all face the challenge to do more.

The past decade has seen good progress in increasing recycling across England. During this period, a better understanding of the environmental benefits of recycling have been developed, such as the role it plays in reducing our reliance on virgin materials and its contribution to a circular economy.

So what lies ahead? With the latest statistics showing stabilisation of household waste recycling in England, we face a tough challenge. We are already recycling almost 10 million tonnes of household waste but, as stated last month by WRAP chief executive Liz Goodwin, to achieve 50% recycling, we estimate a need to process another 1.7 million tonnes a year and that is not going to be easy. Put another way, it means that the capture of materials through local recycling schemes will need to increase by 20%.

We have come a long way these past 15 years. Much of the ground work is in place, we understand better people’s attitudes to recycling, and we have a good idea of what needs to be done. We just have to ensure the next six years are as fruitful as the last. There are opportunities to make more of the existing infrastructure, helping to reduce collection costs and getting people to use their services effectively.

We know that people put materials in their recycling that are not targeted locally for recycling, and we also know that people are putting materials in their refuse bin that could be recycled. Smarter communications with householders so they are clear on what can be recycled, and showing them what happens to the material they put out for recycling, will all contribute. ‘Recycle Now’ has a role to play here and WRAP is working with stakeholders to refresh the campaign.

Fundamental to this is enabling the supply chain to work more effectively. This is where the latest MRF regulations come into their own because they help to improve the quality of materials for recycling. This means that reprocessors get the quality of materials they require and local authorities get better value for the materials they collect.

There is a role for individuals, businesses, and the waste sector to capitalise on the successes to date and realise the opportunities that exist to increase the value of the sector and its contribution to the economy.

By Linda Crichton, head of collections and quality at WRAP

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