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UK recycling: what will it take to get back on track?

MRW considers the future for recycling in the UK with an exclusive round table discussion, produced in association with FCC Environment, with leading representatives from the waste sector.

Paul Taylor_182

Paul Taylor kicked off the debate by asking what a reliance on key targets would achieve, and said he wanted energy to be more a part of the debate. He had concerns about moving from a 50% to 70% target because of the quality of recyclate.

“There is a danger that we could end up recycling simply because there is a target to recycle,” he said.

“That becomes very expensive and the cost is passed on to consumers, the public and to business. Have we got that balance right?”

Liz Goodwin_182

Liz Goodwin pointed out that the balance would always change: “If you look back 10 years, you would have drawn a different line as to what was best to recover energy from and what was best to recycle.

“That has certainly moved in the past 10 years and it will probably move again.”

David Beadle asked whether it was appropriate to set a target for the whole of England: “Pragmatically, we have different communities that interact with waste services in different ways. We also have some structural differences in characterisation of waste in areas.”

Jane Bickerstaffe questioned whether the recycling figures were really stagnating or whether it was due to lower composting rates during a dry summer.

Colin Church agreed that the decrease in green recycling and clippings had had a negative effect. Goodwin said that unless all local authorities started collecting both plastics and food waste, England would not hit its target.

Margret Bates_182

But Margaret Bates wondered what could be done to get to those people who ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to recycle. Church argued that 100% participation was not needed to hit the target but that widespread plastics and food waste collections are needed across England.

“Having said that, yes, there is the question about how you get people to do it. It is a big factor and there are social, economic and political considerations about whether that is the right thing to do - and at what cost and how.”

Richard McIIwain argued that better communication might help, for example, with better packaging labels. People are particularly confused about plastics recycling and some overcompensate - contaminating the waste stream - while others throw plastics in the residual waste. Bates added that, while she understood the need for education, appealing to a level of altruism had its limits and that perhaps more stick rather than carrot was needed.

Goodwin was more upbeat, arguing that WRAP research showed that most people were fairly committed to recycling and we should focus on them. But there was a worrying statistic that only 25% of people were putting the right thing in the right bin every time.

David Beadle_182

Beadle argued that now might be the time for a more harmonised approach to recycling: “Could we get political buy-in to a standard service? It might be by housing type rather than administrative boundary.”

Susanne Baker thought there was still a lack of trust in the system which needed to be addressed. People did not believe that their waste was actually being recycled.

She said that while campaigns around recycling largely focus on environmental benefits, it might now need to shift towards the economic benefits and what councils can harness.

Ray Georgeson_182

Ray Georgeson agreed that poll evidence suggested a lack of trust. But he also argued that some of the messages people held on to were outdated. It was a question of not losing the value of some of the old messages while moving forward.

Goodwin agreed: “When food waste started [being an issue], all the messaging was around ‘wow - that’s a lot of food waste’ and then, when the economic downturn came, the thing that people really responded to was ‘you are wasting £60 a month’.”

Steve Lee_182

Steve Lee pointed out that there was a tendency to focus on household recycling and to talk about numbers. But the industry had to think about the here and now as well as 10 years’ time. Recycling targets, he added, had provided momentum and were a good proxy. Without them we would still be stuck in 1980 where everything went in the same bin.

He agreed that some harmonisation was needed because at the moment recycling was too confusing for consumers. Lee argued for more focused targets, perhaps looking at precious metals such as gallium. What was needed was stimulating the pull of materials: “We need an industry saying ‘give me more of that stuff’.”

Bates argued that focusing on recycling in the industry’s message to the consumer has meant that householders do not focus on reuse or reduction in use. “Maybe what we need to do is try

to go for the best solution and not the easiest solution,” she said.

Baker brought into the debate manu­facturing’s closer relationship with consumers and the impact it can have.

“Manufacturers are thinking about where they are going to position themselves in the future - things like the Government’s office for sciences Foresight report on the future of manufacturing absolutely made it clear that manufacturers will have to be closer to consumers.

“Manufacturers will be more embedded within communities, they will be smaller, they will want to own those resources and they will want to bring them back on-site. And we are starting to see some of the trendsetters really picking apart what that might mean.

“There is a hell of a lot more remanufacturing going on in the economy than we give credit to, and I can only see that growing as the wider economic and environmental pressures start to take their toll.”

Susanne Baker_182

Baker argued that more incentives were needed in the system, and that a lack of support for innovation in remanufacturing needed to be addressed.

“Companies that have entered into this sort of relationship are being driven mainly to compete against low-cost

producers overseas,” she said. “Offering more to their customers gives them a competitive advantage against those who are located far away and cannot have that sort of direct relationship with their customers.

“As companies are exploring it and their relationships with their customers are maturing, they are starting to see extra value. The resource benefits from such relationships are only just starting to be fully recognised and appreciated. But it depends on what sort of material they are using and what sector they are in. It’s widely variable.”

James Skidmore_182

James Skidmore agreed that “a trust thing from us to our consumers was something that Sainsbury’s was definitely interested in. It’s part of our mission to be trusted and I think that is really important.”

McIlwain added that Keep Britain Tidy’s work with Waitrose found the retailer not only interested in communicating its CSR work but also wanting to work with trusted NGOs to help the consumer do the right thing.

Skidmore added: “I was challenged by an MP’s assistant about how reducing food waste would impact on Sainsbury’s profits. But I think the bigger picture is that if we were able to give customers more value that would only increase profit. So it’s a value-driven thing and not price, price.”

Colin Church_182

Church picked up on Baker’s point about incentives, and argued that it was difficult in the current climate for the Government to offer incentives. What what was needed was talk about current opportunities, such as the opportunities for low-skilled employment in recon­ditioning goods. He added that the industry had been created because of regulation.

Baker replied: “I would buy that argument except for the fact that the sort of incentives we are talking about are a slight reduction in VAT rates for secondary materials. That’s not asking for subsidy from the state - it is asking to pay slightly less.”

Taylor added that while the industry had grown on the back of legislation, it seemed clear that the benefits of recycling were not so clear to the public: “You switch the lights off and you save some money. You recycle - where is the benefit?” He was also concerned that the industry did not have a strong business model due to being created off the back of legislation.

However, Goodwin pointed out that resource constraints would bite at some point soon. And Baker added that electronics manufacturer Samsung had invested in a mine in Australia, “because they are absolutely seeing this as a long- term risk and positioning themselves accordingly”.

Church added that this was the sort of thing that started to drive real industrial interest and a political willingness to act.

Jane Bickerstaffe_182

Bickerstaffe was concerned that innovation was being stifled because of concern about whether a product can be recycled rather than whether the product used resources in the most efficient way: “What I’m saying is you can’t let the tail wag the dog - the recyclability or otherwise of these sorts of packaging is not the whole picture. You’ve got to look at the supply chain.”

Beadle agreed that there was a lot of confusion over what packaging could be recycled and what could not, and that this could lead to contamination of recycle or materials being wrongly put in with residual waste.

Bickerstaffe quoted the example of Belgium, which had achieved a 70% recycling rate with 25% going to energy recovery, which she argued has been a lot simpler for consumers to follow.

Georgeson added that Ovam, the public waste agency of Flanders, faced a public backlash at 70% diversion from landfill, with the balance going to energy recovery and practically nothing going to landfill. In order to take that approach it would need to be an integ­rated system and not just one focused on household waste.

Lee said he was hoping that future EU policy would look at resource use: “Morally, it’s not great to be a high consumption society ‘but, hey, look at our fantastic recycling rate’.

“One of the fundamental things we should be doing is to start measuring residual waste rather than recycling - how bad a failure as a country are you rather than what a great performer are you in terms of recycling.”

He said rigorous lifecycle assessments were needed as well as carbon and energy counting, and that these needed to be communicated to consumers. He said the industry and consumers were very reliant on designers, manufacturers and retailers to start taking full life cycle costing into account.

Bates added that having a better resource-efficient business model gave companies a better relationship with their customers. While it often took a bit more of a hard sell initially, she said that once you had sold the message then it was easier for companies to sell them everything else along those lines.

Some councils such as Enfield had been running campaigns highlighting the tangible benefits of recycling to the public, said Beadle. But this type of message can be difficult to get across when the public believe that councils make profits - for example, from parking fines.

“Councils don’t make profits, they have a budget and a set of statutory duties. But do they get any support from central Government - no they don’t,” he commented.

Richard Mcllwain_182

McIlwain suggested that if councils received an income from recycling and this money was put towards improving a park or other facility, then that should be communicated to residents. Having an individual rebate was a clear benefit and, while some people might understand the wider benefit to society and the economy, the middle ground of how it benefits the council locally was important too.

He argued that the information given to the public needed to be framed in such a way as to simply communicate the different waste routes - energy, anaerobic digestion, recycling, pyrolysis - and their clear benefits.

“We need to have a debate about the proportion between recycling and EfW, the 70/30 Belgium type split. Do we want to create a market for EfW or is that actually something we would like to see decline significantly over time?

“Clearly, what is running alongside this is the whole energy debate,” he said. “We have to remember that there are clear signals - okay, not tomorrow but in the longer term - about low-carbon energy. Maybe that energy intensity in the UK will become less of an issue if it is predominantly renewables or nuclear that are supplying it.”

Church argued that there was broad agreement about how to achieve the goals discussed.

“The key question is when is the time for those things to happen? There are a lot of elements still missing. How can we show that resource use is real so there are the science and the evidence; and then what does it mean to people? Once you get people to buy into it and start to worry about it, then things will happen.”

McIlwain argued that something needed to change to move beyond the current inertia: “You can create a great communication message now and push it out. But if nothing’s underneath, it is just more information and the inertia is still there for people to not buy in.”

Baker said that a significant piece of work examining the implications of climate change on resource availability over the longer term could help with the communication message, but by itself this would not be enough.

And Georgeson, who was involved in the ‘Recycle Now’ campaign 10 years ago, compared it with today.

“We were well-resourced. Defra was also strategically funding local authorities with roll-out kerbside recycling schemes - millions were being poured in,” he said. “The communications campaign was devised to support it. And the primary objective, in which it was successful, of accelerating fairly low recycling rates up to the target levels had worked.

“We are not in those circumstances now. We have got a different set of issues in terms of where do you take it next. I think it is probably best to park what we did a decade ago in terms of trying to learn a lesson from it. We were running conferences 10 years before that saying ‘towards 25% recycling’, and there wasn’t anybody in the country who thought we could do it.”

Taylor and Goodwin both said the industry needed to be clearer about where it wanted to be in 10 years’ time. “I really don’t think the benefits of recycling are properly sold. And I think we’ve got to get around this energy versus recycling debate,” said Taylor.

He argued that using tonnages to drive recycling was a “blunt instrument” and added that most people at the round table appeared to favour a more targeted approach: “Pick the materials where there is an obvious benefit - the rare metals. This way the public should be able to see the benefits of recycling more clearly.”

Source: MRW/FCC Environment/Pelican Communications

Members of the MRW-FCC round table reflect on the key issues raised by the discussion


Susanne Baker, senior climate and environment policy adviser, EEF; Margaret Bates, manager of the Centre for Sustainable Wastes Management, University of Northampton; David Beadle, managing director, North London Waste Authority; Jane Bickerstaffe, director, INCPEN; Colin Church, director, resource, atmosphere & sustainability, Defra; Ray Georgeson, chief executive, Resource Association; Liz Goodwin, chief executive, WRAP; Steve Lee, chief executive, CIWM; Richard McIlwain, Programmes director, Keep Britain Tidy; James Skidmore, environmental resource manager, Sainsbury’s; Paul Taylor, chief executive, FCC Environment


FCC logo

The article was produced in association with FCC Environment. The company’s chief executive Paul Taylor looks back on the event here

UK recycling: what will it take to get back on track?

Readers' comments (1)

  • I'd be interested to know what was discussed regarding textiles.

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  • Hi Michael - thanks for the observation. We did not spend much time on individual materials: I think it could be a round table of its own! There are specific issues for all materials in turn and I imagine one of the current challenges around textile recycling is the fall in value in 2014.

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