Separation Anxiety: How To Tackle Stagnating Recycling Rates

According to the latest research from WRAP*, household recycling rates in the UK have started to stagnate. Mat Prosser, UK Managing Director at DS Smith Recycling, discusses how achieving consistency in collections is key to kick-starting the industry

For a decade, recycling rates in the UK climbed. From 19% in 2004, to 44.8% in 2014, we made impressive progress towards meeting our national goal of 50% municipal recycling by 2020.**

The past three years, however, have followed a slightly bleaker trend. Statistics from Defra highlight a noticeable plateau in recycling rates, with 2015 seeing the first ever domestic decline (-0.9% year-on-year). This fall to pre-2012 levels*** has led to legislators and industry organisations and commentators asking why and how this trend – if it is a trend – can be arrested.

At face value, it seems that the UK has become somewhat disengaged with recycling. Scratch beneath the surface and it’s easy to see why – unsubstantiated attacks on recycling by certain sections of the media, confusion around the recyclability of many waste streams, a lack of clarity around the end to end process of recycling, and a  general lack of consistency around recycling collections and communications.

As a country, we’ve managed to make great strides forward in our recycling infrastructures, but recycling targets are getting more challenging. A framework for success will need to include legislation and voluntary measures, along with a focus on commercial and consumer behaviour. Sectors cannot work in isolation if we are to reach the next level of behavioural change and achieve a truly world-class recycling sector here in the UK.

Breaking The Glass Ceiling Of Recycling

Local authorities (LAs) have a tough task to deliver. They need to weigh up existing infrastructure, available finance, and accessibility, to develop a bespoke approach deemed suitable for their area – one that will drive recycling forward in the face of budgetary constraints.

As we know, the recycling processes for two identical streets, situated minutes apart, can be entirely different. One authority may segregate glass, paper and plastics, while another may bulk all dry recyclables together in one single bin. When considered on a national basis, the notion of good recycling is lost in a maze of alternatives.

A lack of a centralised, authoritative approach creates a situation that, for the consumer, is confusing. A confusing situation is off-putting. Being put-off leads to disengagement.

Here lies the issue of plateauing recycling rates – our lack of national consistency is disenfranchising the public. The solution seems simple. If we can inspire a uniform approach to recycling, we not only make recycling easy, but also realise the economic benefits of doing it well.

Residents do have a part to play as waste producers. However, LAs and the recycling and waste industry have our roles, too. We need to be consistent in our messaging, and we need to make recycling easy to if we are going to make it universally accessible.

DS Smith, as recyclers, want the best quality paper we can get, but we have to balance that with not over-complicating the process for residents. Likewise, the march towards higher recycling targets must not pursue quantity to the detriment of quality. So how do we achieve both higher quantity and better quality recycling?

We need to make recycling simple, seamless and, dare we say it, enjoyable, all while communicating the benefits of achieving an upturn in rates.

Clarity, Consistency, Continuity

WRAP have already undertaken noteworthy work to find a solution to the consistency conundrum. Their Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling in England****, for example, sets out an ambitious voluntary roadmap to unify our national approach.

Outlining a series of possible processes, alongside a supporting action plan to help bring a clear structure to local collections, the report demonstrates how simplifying the system could drive greater efficiencies – inspiring a rise in rates, while providing significant economic and sustainable benefits.

Key recommendations include:

  • Ensuring that all packaging is sortable and recyclable
  • Clarifying a common set of materials and separating food waste for recycling
  • Supporting the adoption of a more consistent approach to recycling (including embracing a common colour container system)
  • Integrating the supply chain to ensure all collected materials are turned back into products/packaging

If we were to adopt the recommendations identified in the report, WRAP believes that an additional 11.6 million tonnes of materials and food waste could be collected for recycling, adding several percent to the national household waste recycling rate.

For LAs specifically, the delivery of higher quality materials for recycling – due to less non-target materials in the recycling stream, more effective sorting, and cleaner materials – would result in reduced total costs. For the recycling reprocessors, the removal of contamination would eliminate costs of more than £33 million. For the homeowner, the impact would be simple – their councils could receive improved revenue from recycling collections, which can be invested back into local services. All in all, a highly viable solution.

Working Together To Deliver Consistency

At DS Smith, we wholeheartedly support the WRAP report and believe that it is paramount that materials intended for recycling should be segregated  as close to source as possible. We need to remember that recycling streams can by contaminated by other recyclable materials. In our paper mills, we can only make paper from paper, not plastics – and glass can damage our recycling machinery.

A move to WRAP’s two-stream (fibres separate) with separate food model, suggested in the report, would be an important step in the journey to world-class recycling. This would help greatly to reduce the contamination of valuable resources, and would produce high volumes of clean, separated product for recycling. It would also be easier on residents across the country.

To secure buy-in from a policy-making level, we must all work together to stress the benefits of uniformity in national recycling collections. But not just any consistency: it has to be the right type of consistency. To me, the benefits are clear – rekindle commitment at a household level, reverse the impact of stagnating recycling rates, meet international targets and drive the economic imperative.

There is a lot of talk about ‘easy’ recycling – but easy for whom? That is what we need to define. Of course, over-complicated recycling collection systems can confuse us and lead to less engagement in recycling. On the other hand, simply assuming that ‘easy’ means collecting all residents’ materials in a single bin will compromise quality by putting the burden on recyclers to segregate. This in turn can result in materials meant for recycling not actually being recycled, and if residents feel that their efforts to recycle aren’t successful, we find ourselves facing the positive engagement issue again. It is about getting the balance right – but perhaps that is a discussion for another time.

To quote Henry Ford: “If you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you have always got.” This is an opportunity we mustn’t waste. Let’s make recycling easier for everyone.

Resources

* www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/15/recycling-rates-england-drop-first-time

** www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/mar/19/uk-recycling-rates-europe

*** www.static.wrap.org.uk/consistancy/Read_more_about_the_framework.pdf

**** www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/577716/FINAL_Stats_Notice_Nov_2016.pdf

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