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Worrying trends in council recycling

David Bowes and Eric Bridgwater examine England’s kerbside collection data to better understand why the latest recycling figures showed the smallest increase in recycling rates since 2000/01

Last month saw the release of the latest figures for England’s waste and recycling statistics. The data, which covered the financial year 2012/13, revealed the smallest rise in recycling rate since these figures were first published in 2000/01 – England’s recycling rate creeped from 43.0% in 2011/12 to 43.2%. This provokes concern of stagnation in recycling performance, with a plateau below the 50% target. To better understand the state of England’s recycling, Resource Futures has analysed the latest kerbside collection data – the most visible, and highly variable, stream of municipal waste management.

The success of kerbside collection schemes is central to recycling performance. They are subject to intense public, political and media scrutiny, and reflect wider attitudes to, and understanding of, recycling as they rely on householders’ co-operation and participation. Here, we find that in the last year, the total recycling rate for kerbside collected waste in England rose from 38.5 to 39.4% - an increase of almost 1%. When considered in the context of the total recycling rate increase of just 0.2%, it could be seen as encouraging. It could be argued that in a challenging climate of budget cuts, local authorities are still committed to improving their kerbside recycling schemes. However, a detailed investigation of the data suggests a more concerning picture: one of widespread stagnation offset by a minority of exceptional performers. This concern is increasingly acute as the 2020 targets loom ever closer.

The national figure of 39.4% conceals a great deal of variation between the 320 English Waste Collection Authorities (WCAs). Figure 1 shows that the range of kerbside recycling rates in English local authorities for the last two years extends from below 10% to over 70%. The highest achiever in 2012/13 was South Oxfordshire District Council with an impressive 69.3% of collected kerbside waste being sent for recycling or composting. The majority of authorities have a kerbside recycling rate between 30 and 50%, while only a fifth of local authorities are achieving the elusive 50% recycling rate. A worrying proportion (18%) sends less than 30% of waste for recycling or composting.

There is clearly huge variation among local authorities’ performance. Of course, there are certain factors which will inevitably cause differing recycling rates; for example urban areas with a significant number of flats will produce far less garden waste for composting than leafy suburbs. Also, numerous studies have shown that areas with higher levels of deprivation face additional challenges in terms of achieving high recycling performance. However, the extent to which some authorities are falling behind suggests that there are significant differences in the effectiveness of kerbside schemes and their accompanying communication strategies. It should be noted that areas with a less advanced kerbside scheme will make up some tonnage through bring banks, but generally yields are far higher when they are collected from residents’ doorsteps. It is therefore imperative that those areas with low kerbside recycling rates make significant improvements if the country is to meet its 50% target by 2020.

Figure 2 shows the year on year change in recycling rates for each English local authority between 2011/12 and 2012/13. A concerning finding is that more than half of councils (53%) saw a fall in recycling rate since the previous year. Of the authorities which saw increases in recycling rates, the Isle of Wight was most impressive, where the roll-out of a new kerbside scheme boosted their recycling rate from 14.6% to 48.6%. Other big improvers include Aylesbury Vale, Waverley, and Reigate and Banstead. Without the top 10% improvers, England’s recycling rate would have fallen between 2011/12 and 2012/13. Nevertheless these examples show how a well-implemented kerbside scheme can transform some of the worst performing areas into high achievers, even at a time of squeezed council budgets.

The longer term national trend suggests that the large gains made by the Isle of Wight and others are becoming rarer. The red line in Figure 3 shows a gradual levelling off of recycling rates since the rapid progress made in the mid to late 2000s. Extrapolating the results of recent years would see recycling rates remain below the targeted 50% by 2020.

There are numerous reasons for the stagnation of recycling rates. One possible cause is the drastic budgets cuts that have affected all councils, and the consequential need to do more with less. Some authorities have started to reduce the provision of free garden waste collections to cut costs, which combined with the bad weather of 2012/13 (cold winter and wet summer), had an adverse impact on garden waste tonnages. The amount of garden waste collected has fallen since its peak in 2010/11. However, a well-run recycling scheme can have financial benefits in the form of avoided disposal costs and increased revenue from recyclate, once the initial capital costs of implementing a new scheme have been paid. The slowing of progress may also reflect a reluctance of some local authorities to risk the negative publicity that can sometimes be associated with the introduction of a new system, as some sections of the media and the public bemoan the perception of “unhygienic” food waste collections and burdening householders with “too many” bins. Whatever the reasons for the stagnation, it is clear that a strong change of tack will be required in order to steer the figures towards 50%.

Waste management performance should not be judged on recycling rates alone. Waste prevention is at the top of the waste hierarchy and therefore total kerbside throughput is an important consideration, as kerbside schemes collect over 75% of England’s household waste. The latest data revealed almost no change in the total kerbside waste arisings (i.e. refuse and recycling) between 2011/12 and 2012/13 – also shown in Figure 3. In all, over 17.1 million tonnes was collected, equivalent to around 320kg per person. Just over half (51%) of English local authorities saw an increase in kerbside throughput.

This continues a stable pattern over recent years where tonnages have remained constant since the decreases during the economic downturn between 2008 and 2010. The extent to which waste arisings are coupled with economic activity will be crucial for the coming years when the economic recovery is expected to gather strength. A recent Defra report, Forecasting 2020 Waste Arisings and Treatment Capacity, predicts arisings to remain close to their current level for the rest of the decade, thus assuming a slight decoupling between economic activity and waste arisings.  This assumption is critical as a reversal of this trend will make the 50% recycling target even harder to achieve.

The data presented here will be difficult reading for those with an eye on the 2020 targets. Although the kerbside recycling rate for England as a whole increased, there are other worrying trends revealed by this data. In the vast majority of authorities there is little progress, and frequently moves in the wrong direction. Only 20% of authorities achieved the combined goal of a reduction in total throughput and an increase in recycling rate. Predicting the future of waste arisings and recycling rates is difficult, but what is clear is that significant improvement is necessary if the targets are to be met.

David Bowes is junior consultant and Eric Bridgwater is principal consultant at Resource Futures, the waste management and resource efficiency consultancy

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