Ministers have been urged to hold a “waste summit” with councils and waste companies, after Defra revealed the first recorded fall in England’s recycling rate.
Suez chief executive David Palmer-Jones said the 0.7% fall in England’s household recycling rate for the year ending June 2015 to 44.3% meant that time was running out for the UK’s ambition to hit the statutory 50% target by 2020 set by the EU.
The decrease has been partly explained by a reduction in local authorities collecting garden and organic waste, along with an increase in black bag waste as the economy recovers.
Palmer-Jones said a summit on waste lead by Defra was necessary to look at options to drive rates back up. He said Defra could learn from Wales, which has achieved a 56.2% household recycling rate.
“Short of Defra pulling the proverbial rabbit out of a hat, these latest figures suggest that the UK’s 2020 target of 50% is receding even further into the distance,” he said.
“Budgetary pressures on local authorities will make it even more difficult to recover lost ground in the short time we have left, if services are cut back. And depressed markets for recyclates only exacerbates an already challenging situation.
“The lesson from Wales is to engage central government in helping to ring-fence local authority environmental funding as part of a wider sustainability agenda.”
In his efforts to kick-start recycling rates, resources minister Rory Stewart is pinning his hopes on persuading councils to harmonise their collections and the inclusion of incinerator bottom ash (IBA) in recycling statistics.
Stewart announced a new trade deal between the UK and the Netherlands to transfer IBA, and indicated that the material could eventually be included in national recycling figures.
He has also repeatedly claimed that if local authorities harmonised their collection and recycling systems, the resulting efficiencies and economies of scale would result in cheaper recycling and improved rates.
Palmer-Jones’ solution to halt decline in recycling
Greater focus is needed on capturing more dry recyclables – paper, card, plastic and glass – which make up the most economically and environmentally valuable component of recycling and where performance, unlike tonnage of garden waste collection, is affected less by seasonal variation and more directly reflects communication and engagement with households.
Progress can also be made in improving recycling tonnages and rates by working with manufacturers of frequently used containers, such as plastic coffee cups and packaging for take-away food, to ensure materials can be more widely and efficiently recycled.
Focus also needs to be within large urban areas, such as Greater London and parts of the Midlands, which have at best remained static or at worst showed significant declines in recycling in the past two years. These regions, given the weighting of population, determine the ability of the UK overall to meet its 2020 50% target.
Households should focus on simply putting as much used plastic, glass, paper and card in their recycling containers as they can, although we all need to remember that contamination can spoil much larger loads, which has a detrimental effect on recycling rates. For example, it is important to rinse out food containers wherever possible.