August 20th, 2013
by Peter Jones
What is it about the Daily Mail and stories about recycling? Back in April, I took apart a story they ran on the front page of the newspaper, versions of which claimed that 12m tonnes of household recycling ends up in Chinese landfill sites each year – when a little basic fact checking would have told them that only 10.7m tonnes of household recycling was actually collected in 2011/12. I followed this up by launching a complaint through the Press Complaints Commission – although more than four months on this remains to be resolved.
I had hoped that, after the extensive correspondence around my complaint, the Mail might apply a slightly more circumspect eye for the factual when its next opportunity to speak out on this topic came around. That time duly came on Saturday 17th August 2013, when the Mail’s website published a piece under the striking headline: “Now EVERY weekly bin collection is to be axed and families made to separate rubbish into five containers”.
At least this time the claims were based on a government minister’s speech – although one made by Lord de Mauley back in June, so not exactly breaking news. But the entire article rests on a simple, fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of “separate collection.”
The key quotation from de Mauley is that now local authorities are obliged “separately to collect the four dry recyclate materials where this is necessary to facilitate recycling and recovery and where this is practicable”. Of course, this is a pretty uncontroversial rehearsal of the requirements of the revised Waste Framework Directive.
However, the Mail clearly hasn’t been keeping up with the debate on this topic. Its hacks read the comment to mean that the four types of material must be collected separately from one another, so that, to quote the article, householders will be required to “sort metal, paper, plastic and glass into separate waste bins”.
In this interpretation the Mail is rather wide of the mark, as anyone who has been keeping up with recent developments will know. The meaning of “separate collection”, written into UK law through the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, has been litigated twice, amended by the Waste (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 and remains somewhat unclear pending the issuing of guidance by Defra.
The issue has been whether “separate collection” means ‘separate from one another’ or can mean ‘collected together but separate from other, non-recyclable waste’, with Defra seeking to maintain the latter interpretation. The complexity of the issues has been widely discussed in the trade press under titles such as “Judicial Review – Commingled Collections OK”, and the current lack of clarity is well explained here. In this context it is rather amusing that a Defra minister should now be reported as having announced the end of the commingled collections his department has so staunchly sought to defend.
As Lord de Mauley explained in his speech, Defra’s view following the judgement is that it remains for “local authorities to make local judgements about where separate collection is necessary and practicable”. They will need to take account of Defra’s guidance and consider “how best to reduce cross contamination by materials such as glass, and whether different collection arrangements might be appropriate in different parts of the same local authority.” These will not be straightforward judgements to make.
However, if local authorities conclude that materials should be collected separately from one another, I doubt that any will require each stream to be presented in separate bins. Kerbside sort works perfectly well using a couple of boxes and a stillage vehicle. And there’s nothing to stop an authority from combining a kerbside sort collection with a weekly residual waste service, as Bath and North East Somerset does.
The Mail’s error is a basic misunderstanding of what “separate collection” means in law, combined with a complete lack of understanding of waste logistics. As a result, it has published a highly misleading article, and appears to have unnecessarily caused distress to Doretta Cocks, who is reported as feeling disappointed and let down as a result of the Mail putting its utterly mistaken interpretation of Lord De Mauley’s speech to her.
The Mail advocates simple, single bin “commingled” recycling systems. At the same time, it is angry that there is low quality recycling which contains contaminants and that is sent overseas for further separation before it can be reprocessed. Yet the main source of contaminated recycling is commingled recycling collections, which are terrifically difficult to separate out effectively.
If the Mail’s editorial team is interested in presenting a coherent viewpoint, they might do one of the following:
- Call for more investment in high quality MRFs that will separate out recycling to a higher standard. However, it will need to accept there are physical limits to how good separation can be.
- Accept that, if recycling is to be collected in a single bin, the result will be low grade recycling that will typically be exported
- Accept that it is hardly any more difficult for householders to place recycling in a couple of boxes than in a bin, and campaign for more local authorities to adopt the kerbside sort method of recycling.
I have of course written to the Press Complaints Commission to make these points. I’ve asked that the Mail corrects this mistake and withdraws the online version of the article, which will clearly mislead any of its readers who assume that the paper conducts basic fact checking before printing its articles. I would encourage Isonomia readers to make free with the text of this article to prepare their own complaints. A bigger backlash might lead the newspaper to think twice about continuing its apparent campaign of misinformation about recycling in the UK, which risks undermining the whole sector’s attempts to deliver better waste services.