In the early days of recycling quantity-based targets and tables were a good tool. But times, behaviours, landscapes and even regulatory approaches have changed; what once looked good feels clumsy and blunt, says the Recycling Association’s Simon Ellin
Without early quantity we couldn’t develop infrastructure or markets. But when it comes to key recyclable materials that is no longer the case. In reality, it hasn’t been the case for many years. And yet we still persist with quantity-based reporting. Why?
Looking back to those early days, the phrase that we heard over and over again was that ‘we had to make it easy for the householder’. Failure to make it easy equated to failure to recycle, primarily because householders didn’t understand how they could make a difference.
But behaviours, in the main, have changed. Where recycling was once the preserve of sandal wearing tree huggers, it is now accepted as mainstream. Most people talk good recycling; many do it; and almost all expect us, the industry, to do good things with their recycled materials post collection.
Trouble is, the early (and very necessary) focus on quantity has left several issues in its wake.
Firstly, league tables based on the quantity of material diverted from households are misleading. Material collected does not equate to material that can be (and is) suitable for use in a manufacturing process either here in the UK or abroad, no matter how many processes it undergoes.
And while we want to collect more, and remain focused on the EU’s 50% by 2020 target, it is clear we need also to emphasise what happens beyond collection. Because collection is not recycling.
Issue number two isn’t really an issue – it’s a fact. Sub-standard material driven by a focus on quantity alone can only be sold at sub-standard prices and so results in lost revenue opportunities. Or worse, is traded illegally. As materials markets harden this situation will only get worse.
For many recyclers the consequence is that they have pulled out of the household recycling market and are instead focusing on commercial waste where contamination is low, where there is an understanding of material as a valuable commodity. The challenges of quantity have proved just too big.
Good For Headlines?
My third point is one of trust and communication. Quantity-based tables have been good for creating headlines but can’t withstand in-depth scrutiny of what happens next. That’s not good for householder trust – and certainly not good for shutting down Daily Mail journalists!
Surely, knowing that most householders want to recycle it’s high time we made it easier for them to understand and make decisions based on the difference between good and bad recycling. For the ardent/informed recycler this will also provide them with more ammunition to pressurise brands into designing for recycling. Quantity-based league tables are, without doubt, masking some of these opportunities.
By contrast, if recycling targets evolved to include quantity, quality and value of material collected there would be a clear indication of who is recycling successfully – and who is simply collecting material.
I believe that it would also provide the impetus to improve and innovate further, and in time this could be just what’s needed to reach higher targets.
I’m not saying this will be easy. It won’t. But it will be important.
We can’t keep doing the same old same old and expect to step up to the next level. In fact, we can’t keep doing the same and expect to stay at the same level. Our European and Global peers are innovating and improving. We need to do the same.