How likely is it that, 15 years from now, the UK will be recycling 65% of its municipal waste?
JOE PAPINESCHI AND DOMINIC HOGG
In the current environment in England, when squeezing out another few percentage points to reach the 50% target for 2020 has been made to look far more difficult than it needs to be, this ambition might seem rather distant. But for those feeling downcast about the prospects, a backward glance offers some encouragement.
With Eunomia celebrating its 15th anniversary, we have been reflecting on how far we’ve come. Back in the early 2000s, some commentators took the view that, while a 40% recycling rate might be possible, 25% was a realistic aim for the next decade. Some doubted that even this was likely. Eunomia saw things differently and, based on evidence from other countries, we were confident that with the right policies and services, the UK could quickly surpass these figures. There was no obvious upper limit: innovation in product design and recycling would allow the bounds of the possible to advance over time.
England actually surpassed 25% recycling of household waste by 2005 and 40% by 2010. In the first half of the decade, recycling targets and the landfill allowances schemes helped to drive the change. But increases in landfill tax gradually made this the more influential instrument. Funding to support the expansion of recycling services was also important.
Eunomia has always believed that pursuing waste prevention, and designing collection schemes that are optimised for cost and performance, are at the heart of what councils should be seeking to achieve.
Against that backdrop, we promoted a model of separate food waste collections, in which removing the ‘smelly stuff’ enabled a reduction in refuse collection frequencies. Separating food and garden waste could make anaerobic digestion a more cost-effective option.
On at least three occasions, we thought we might see pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) systems introduced for household waste, but tabloid journalism and political opportunism joined forces to ensure that common sense did not prevail.
Latterly, with investment giving way to austerity, the emphasis on cost-optimised services has been reinforced, the aim being to help councils (and others) achieve the same or better performance at lower cost.
Innovations for which Eunomia has been a prominent advocate now appear well established. Constraining residual waste capacity through smaller bins, a ban on bags left beside bins and reduced collection frequencies mimic the effect of PAYT. Fortnightly collections now predominate and seem an integral part of a high recycling culture, but it is easy to forget that they simply were not part of the picture in 2001.
More councils are now moving away from free garden waste collections and, while this may be slowing progress towards 50% recycling, on economic and environmental grounds it is hard to argue against.
More difficult to change is the legacy of infrastructure investments, many funded through the Private Finance Initiative which was prominent in the noughties. Effective though they are proving in diverting waste from landfill, some of those long-term contracts now look expensive. And because their size was often based on high estimates of arisings and low estimates of recycling, they risk holding back progress.
Indeed, the degree to which waste growth has undershot conventional projections has been a key positive feature of the past 15 years.
In 2001, few would have envisaged what a significant driver of waste policy devolution would become. Little now happens in England unless Europe decrees it, but Scotland, Wales and, increasingly, Northern Ireland are forging strategies that make European Directives look like an irrelevance.
Emerging approaches include further reduced collection frequency, pioneered in devolved administrations by Falkirk and Gwynedd councils. We may see deposit refunds introduced on beverage containers or other packaging – Eunomia has been helping the Scottish Government evaluate their potential to reduce litter, boost packaging recycling and increase materials quality. We might yet even find PAYT returning to the agenda, as Wales and Scotland strive for performance in excess of that envisaged by the EU.
In the lifespan of our company to date, policy, technology and behaviour have transformed recycling performance to levels that many described as impossible 15 years ago.
If there is one lesson to learn, it is that we should not fence in our ambitions. We see no reason why the UK cannot lead the global recycling league table and, increasingly, export our knowledge of efficient, high-performing recycling systems. It is certainly our intention to keep pushing the bounds of the possible wherever we can.
Director Joe Papineschi and chairman Dominic Hogg of Eunomia