Resource Use

Could new consistent recycling plan sort out confusion?

More consistent recycling collections could be heading to every English home
Every English resident could be able to recycle the same set of core materials by 2025, addressing issues of confusion over recycling, growing contamination and stagnating recycling rates.

The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) says that, should it be adopted, the ‘Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England’ could herald a ‘step change’ in British recycling.

The announcement marks a change of focus in the consistency drive that has been developed over the past year from harmonising the systems through which recyclable materials are collected to instead zeroing in on the materials themselves. The initial drive to end the ‘Berlin Walls’ of different recycling systems was started by former Resources Minister Rory Stewart when he convened an advisory group on the topic, although he appeared to row back from the aim in his last address to the industry before being moved in Theresa May’s reshuffle. 

Input or endorsement from his successor, Waste Minister Thérèse Coffey, is notably absent from the final framework published today (13 September), and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is only involved in one of the steps of the ‘5-Point Action Plan’ presented in the framework to achieve the vision (looking into and removing potential policy and regulatory barriers).

Framework aims to remove ‘grey area’

If adopted, the framework will enable all English households to recycle a core set of materials, including ‘grey area’ ones like plastic pots, tubs and trays and food and drink cartons, which are primarily made from material included in recycling collections but not themselves collected in many.

The eight material types included in the framework make up around 60 per cent of waste (both residual and recyclable) collected from households. They are:

  • plastic bottles;
  • plastic packaging (pots, tubs and trays);
  • metal packaging (cans, aerosols and foil);
  • glass bottles and jars;
  • paper;
  • card;
  • food and drink cartons; and
  • food waste.

By implementing a uniform range of materials covered by kerbside collections across the country, WRAP hopes to increase participation by removing resident confusion. A WRAP survey found that 73 per cent of respondents were uncertain whether at least one or two materials could be recycled where they live, while an ICM poll carried out this year found that 70 per cent of people are unsure about what they can recycle when they travel outside of their local area.

The WRAP survey also found that 66 per cent of people contaminate their recycling because they are not sure if it can be recycled, and so include it out of hope rather than knowledge. Last month it was revealed that the amount of recycling rejected, and in most cases sent to landfill, has risen dramatically by 84 per cent in the past four years. Contamination, the main cause for rejected recycling, costs UK reprocessors more than £51 million a year, according to a study by the Resource Association.

11 million extra tonnes of recycling

The framework draws on local authority and industry good practice, and WRAP estimates that should it be adopted up to 11.6 million tonnes of extra recyclable material could be diverted in the eight years between 2018, when changes would be implemented, and 2025. That equates to a year’s worth of recycling at the current rate (11 million tonnes of recycling were collected in 2014/15).

Those extra tonnes of recycling include over eight million tonnes of food waste, the main beneficiary resulting from all local authorities providing food waste collection, and WRAP predicts the framework could bring a number of other environmental benefits. These include the avoidance of around five million tonnes of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and an increase to England’s recycling rate of seven percentage points.

The UK’s recycling rate has stalled in recent years, primarily because of England’s stagnation, and in the past year regression, cancelling out good progress in Wales and Scotland. It is currently around the 45 per cent mark, with a European target of 50 per cent by 2020 quickly approaching. A boost of seven percentage points would see the UK surpass this target, should it happen.

WRAP also says that greater consistency could lead to up to £478 million more being made from the sale of recovered materials and that the extra food waste collected could generate £280 million in renewable energy sales.

More consistent recycling collections could be heading to every English home

Change of focus

The framework has been developed by a working group led by WRAP and featuring representatives from across the sector, including local authorities and the packaging, retail and waste and resource management industries. The work has been supported by the government in the form of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and Defra, which kicked off the drive towards consistency.

The working group has been developing this vision since last October, when former Resources Minister Rory Stewart stressed a desire to help the English public by using more consistent recycling systems, bemoaning the array of different systems in use across the country and calling the lines between boroughs in London ‘Berlin Walls’ for recycling.

While the focus was initially on limiting the number of different systems that local authorities could choose from, it seems that further investigation, and input from local authorities themselves, quelled this desire. Speaking at the Resourcing the Future Conference in June, Stewart appeared to have changed his views, saying that his “gut instinct” was that “all of this stuff is deeply, deeply local” and referencing his “no-one-size-fits-all mindset”.

Coupled with a delay to publication of this framework earlier in the summer, it was thought that the consistency drive had hit a wall, and this week’s publication shows that the vision has changed from the systems to the materials that they collect.  

The consistency framework does touch on rationalising the range of collection approaches, and identifies three very broad collection systems: multi-stream, two-stream and co-mingled, each with separate food waste collection. Essentially, this boils down to using one or more recycling containers, but does bring with it the necessity of providing separate food waste services, something heavily back by the Renewable Energy Association (REA).

Packaging improvements

As well as addressing consumer confusion and working with local authorities to collect the core materials in one of the ways listed above, the framework also sets out a goal to increase the recyclability of packaging through collaborative action.

It sets out a vision where ‘by 2025 packaging is designed, where practical and environmentally beneficial, to be recycled and is labelled clearly to indicate whether it can be recycled or not’.

A group chaired by Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager for The Co-operative, has been formed to tackle key issues on the recyclability of packaging. The group will attempt to identify opportunities to remove elements of packaging that hinder the recycling process, whilst taking into account practicalities and the total environmental impact (something that packaging industry is concerned does not come into the conversation enough with waste-based initiatives).

The group will also identify opportunities to rationalise packaging formats to those that are recyclable and that have a steady market, and brands that do not currently use the On-Pack Recycling Label will be ‘strongly encouraged’ to adopt it on all products placed on the UK market.

Future steps

WRAP will work with seven local authority partnerships, which will evaluate the business case for consistency locally and Charlotte Carroll, Sustainable Business and Communications Director at Unilever, is to chair a group looking at innovative communications and messages.

Could every English home be set to recycle the same set of materials?
The front page of the ‘Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England’
In addition, a review of sorting infrastructure in support of greater consistency will commence soon.

To aid with communications and a universal approach to recycling, an association of colours and containers has been identified as the next step in public engagement and WRAP considers the adoption of a national colour scheme for containers as a long-term aspiration to be undertaken as ongoing work under the framework.

Framework developed with ‘wealth of experience’

Marcus Gover, WRAP CEO and Chair of the Advisory Group, said: “When Defra asked us to investigate the opportunities for greater consistency, we were delighted to lead this, and to work with representatives from each stage of the recycling supply chain.

“By pooling the wealth of recycling experience from across the sectors, we have developed a vision that offers the opportunity to increase recycling, improve the quality of recycled materials, save money and offer a good service to householders. It is only by joining together that we can now realise the benefits of the vision and I look forward to working with all those involved to do that.”

Carroll added: “It is vital that we maximise the value of our waste by capturing and recycling used packaging and unavoidable food waste. To achieve this ambition we need a consistent recycling system which leverages action across the supply chain.

“Building consistency will enable clear and simple communications nationwide which supports our mission to help drive up recycling rates.”

More information on the Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England’ can be found on WRAP’s website.

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