Local authority budget cuts and new MRF standards could lead to a reduction in England’s recycling rates for the first time this century.
With a tiny 0.05 percentage point increase in English local authority household recycling between 2012 and 2013, to 44.16%, it is now considered highly unlikely that the UK will meet the 2020 50% target set by the EU.
The Chartered Institution for Wastes Management (CIWM) said there was a “real risk” that recycling rates will decline over the next 12 months, partly due to the MRF code of practice coming into effect.
Chief executive Steve Lee said: “We have seen a lot of welcome emphasis recently on recycling quality, now the Government has to put quantity back at the top of the priority list.”
The code is intended to boost the quality of recyclates so one consequence could be waste management companies increasing the quality threshold for material they receive from local authorities - thereby hitting the recycling rate.
There is a view in the sector that the first official decline in the rate will deal a body blow to those trying to get a recycling message across.
Steve Rymill, consultant at Ricardo-AEA, told MRW that councils’ environmental and regulatory service budgets had fallen by 16% between 2010/11 and 2013/14.
“Authorities have been evaluating what their statutory service requirements are and this has meant that a number of areas, such as communications and food waste collections, have been subject to significant cuts,” he said.
“The budget just isn’t there to fund the much needed communications campaigns required to further improve recycling performance. The authorities that have seen big increases in their recycling rate are where they have generally coincided with a service change – something which requires positive communications messages to residents.”
Rymil added it was a particular concern that some councils had actually seen a decline in rates, which was partly blamed on street sweeping being reclassified and garden waste services being retracted.
“We’d expect this to continue next year, as more authorities are considering paring back their service, where permissible, and whether they can introduce revenue generating activities such as charging for certain materials at HWRCs, garden waste or bulky waste.”
Ricardo-AEA is currently carrying out research for CIWM on the impact of austerity measures on council’s waste and recycling services.
Phil Conran, director at consultancy 360 environmental, told MRW some councils with high rates were seeing a significant proportion rejected with contractors complaining the material was not good enough to recycle.
“High recycling rates achieved at the expense of quality are generally not sustainable,” he said. “There’s also the question of TEEP and whether councils can continue to collect glass along with other materials.
“Some MRFs might prevent local authorities from delivering commingled materials with glass in it, because of quality issues and because of the potential impact of the code of practice. If they revert to bottle banks to collect glass rather than as part of the mix, that would potentially depress recycling rates.
“I think there is every possibility that the rates will decline.”
Conran added that many questions remained over why some English councils achieved high rates when others flounder. “The UK clearly can achieve 50%, it’s just a matter of bringing everyone up to best practice.”