January 31st, 2014
by Roy Hathaway
One of the biggest questions facing UK waste policy makers and commentators is: why have recycling rates in England levelled off?
Until recently it was assumed – not least by Government – that the steady increase in UK recycling which marked the last decade would continue indefinitely, thanks mainly to the landfill tax escalator.
Not any more. On present trends the UK won’t reach the European Union’s target of recycling 50% of household and similar waste by 2020. If that happens, the UK will face multi million Euro fines by the European Commission. This ought to make Ministers sit up and take notice, despite their current lack of interest in issues of resource efficiency and environmental protection.
We badly need to know exactly why progress towards higher recycling rates has stalled at just over 43%. To state the obvious, if we don’t correctly diagnose the cause of the problem, we won’t identify and apply the right policy solutions.
There is no shortage of theories out there which try to explain what is happening. But – perhaps due to a lack of hard evidence – there is no consensus. Here is my personal critique of some of the likely (and less likely) contributory factors, designed to provoke comment and (I hope) stimulate some proper research.
The garden of England
Let’s start by looking at the available data. According to the latest Defra annual statistics on waste managed by local authorities in England in 2012/13, published in November 2013, the total tonnage of household waste being collected for recycling and composting has been static for the last two years. Since 2010, any increases in the percentage recycling rate are attributable to the continuing fall in total household waste arisings, rather than any absolute increase in recycling or composting.
Even more striking is the heavy dependence of England’s recycling rates on green waste collected for composting. According to Defra’s figures, it made up about 40% of the waste collected for recycling, composting and reuse in 2012/13. Moreover, due to adverse weather conditions, the amount of green waste sent for composting in the first quarter of 2013 was over 27% lower than in the same period in 2012, exerting significant downward pressure on England’s overall recycling percentage.
Last year’s bad weather was (we hope) exceptional, and 2014 may well see garden waste collections return to earlier levels; unless, that is, other factors intervene. Several councils have introduced charges for garden waste collections in the interim, which can be expected to reduce collections; others may be changing policies to reflect the Environment Agency’s recent advice against composting of street sweepings, further reducing the amount of green waste composted. Be that as it may, many doubt that green waste is the whole story. Here are some of the other theories out there.
Perhaps people are getting fed up with recycling because it’s too much effort and because some newspapers are telling them it’s a waste of time. According to this theory, all those who are prepared to recycle are already doing it, while the “antis” or “don’t cares” will not start now. I’m not sure I buy this. It doesn’t explain regional variations, and seems to overstate the power of inertia, while underplaying other influences. Kids are being switched on to recycling early on at school nowadays and they are the future recyclers – quite apart from the pressure they already exert on parents!
A more nuanced version of this argument recognises the huge divergence between urban and suburban/rural recycling performance, and suggests each has reached its practical maximum. The latter have all now raised their game and their recycling rates have levelled off. Meanwhile, inner city councils are unable to replicate that performance given demographic factors, e.g. high density housing and transient populations. Therefore councils and the waste industry need to make recycling easier and provide better services in these areas. I think there may be something in this argument.
Recyclables are forming less of our waste. For example, some believe less paper is being collected for recycling as we switch to on-line sources of news and other information. Others argue that any decline in newsprint is being offset by a rise in cardboard. Lightweighting of packaging materials for which the recycling rate is above the average may also be having a negative impact on rates; as will products switching packaging from (say) glass jars (heavy and recyclable) to multi-material sachets (light but not generally recyclable).
Another potential factor is that more products are offered on the go and disposed of in public residual waste bins. This could be significant – think of all the copies of the Metro left on trains and buses, and all the drinks cans and water bottles put in litter bins or just dropped in the street. Whether or not we’re wasting more on the go, we need to get better at recycling this material.
Yet another quirk is the current confusion over whether sending food waste for anaerobic digestion (AD) constitutes recycling, composting or just recovery. Defra itself seems unclear on this point. With the rapid growth in the AD sector, the definitive answer to this question could turn out to be statistically significant for recycling rates.
Ministers, MRFs and markets
Other theories are less “techie” and more controversial. Some say the fault lies with – you guessed it! – DCLG Ministers. The argument is that their hostility, and the lure of the Weekly Collection Support Scheme, have slowed the rate at which fortnightly residual collections and improved food waste collections are being rolled out by councils. If this is true we can expect to see the trend reverse when the weekly collections scheme money runs out in the next year or two. And to be fair to Mr Pickles (why not?) some local authorities have grabbed weekly collection fund money to introduce separate food waste collections; so this is far from a one way street.
Some see the operators of Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) as the bad guys. The argument here is that in the past, MRF reject tonnages from co-mingled collections were not netted off the recycling statistics by councils reporting their figures to Defra under Waste Data Flow, whereas now they are. This one is hard to prove or disprove – is the difference between past and present netting off statistically significant? If not, are we simply saying that past waste statistics were an exaggeration? That won’t help bring us closer to our European target.
Another potential culprit in some eyes is the export of “Green List” recyclable waste to the Far East. With economic growth in China relatively sluggish, and the introduction of the “green fence”, exports to China are less buoyant than formerly, cutting the financial incentive to recycle. It is hard to see a direct link between lower recyclate prices and the household recycling rate. But in the longer term insufficient demand could be a potential worry for some recyclable materials.
Last but not least, perhaps the most controversial theory of all blames the slowdown in UK recycling on the rapid increase in EfW capacity in recent years. According to the Defra statistics for 2012/13, the amount of local authority managed waste going for EfW in England has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and now accounts for about 22% in all (compared to 34% going to landfill). Critics point out that EfW plants are often associated with long term contracts obliging councils to deliver set tonnages of feedstock over significant time periods; and that in some areas this is beginning to draw in recyclable materials as well as residual waste. This is a complicated question, worthy of detailed investigation in its own right. But I don’t think it can explain all of the slowdown in recycling we’ve seen to date. Defra’s figures show England still landfills 8.5 million tonnes of local authority managed waste, and nearly 30 million tonnes in total when C&I waste is added in. On the face of it, there is plenty of headroom for recycling to continue to grow. Those European countries which have reached 70% recycling rates also have big EfW sectors of 25-30%, alongside less than 5% landfill, so why can’t the UK follow suit?
The jury is out, and their deliberations could take some time. I’ve offered my educated guesses, but what do you think? Which of these theories are true; and how much difference does each make, whether singly or in combination? Over to you!
Like other Isonomia authors, Roy writes in a personal capacity. The views above do not necessarily reflect those of the Environmental Services Association.