The road to 80 per cent: Optimising today’s best practice
Paul Jones considers the Welsh recycling performance to date and how it might deliver 80 per cent recycling
Since 2010, the Welsh recycling rate performance has been pulling away from the rest of the UK field by around two per cent each year, exceeding 60 per cent for the first time last year (2015/16). It is likely to reach 65 per cent this year, well ahead of its planned trajectory towards reaching a statutory 70 per cent target by 2025.
In light of its performance, the Welsh Government recently announced that it will consult on raising the target. And so, while the EU as a whole currently has a target of 50 per cent recycling by 2020, and might be instituting a 70 per cent target as part of the upcoming Circular Economy Package, Wales is in a position to consider 80 per cent. But how feasible is this?
The key to success so far has been a clear strategy, backed by funding and statutory targets. The Welsh Government had a ‘blueprint’ long before Scotland had a ‘charter’, or England a ‘framework’. While still largely voluntary, the blueprint specifically sets out the key components of a set of high-diversion, cost-effective solutions. This includes weekly source-segregated kerbside collection for dry recycling and food waste, restrictions on residual waste volume, 80 per cent recycling levels at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs), and residual waste treatment at high- efficiency EfW facilities.
The Welsh Government has invested significant funds in infrastructure and supporting change. Almost all households in Wales now have access to a weekly dry recycling and food collection, with most councils operating source-segregated systems, ensuring lower rejection rates and greater income from material sales. In recent years, some councils have introduced three- and even four-weekly residual waste collections, with a great deal of success.
Despite the increases in recycling, WLGA figures show that councils have reduced costs by £23 million over the last three years and research carried out by WRAP Cymru showed that further savings were likely if the ‘Collections Blueprint’ was universally adopted. This is because, despite potential increased expenditure on collection, the diversion of material from disposal to recycling results in a saving of around £160 per tonne, more than offsetting the costs.
Of course, this isn’t true for every component in the blueprint and, for 80 per cent recycling to be achieved, there will need to be much greater recycling of ‘niche’ materials with less developed markets (e.g. nappies). Smaller waste streams will become more important in the future, and particular support should be given to reuse, possibly with a separate statutory target.
But there is still a lot of recyclable material in our bins that does have a developed market. In 2015, Resource Futures carried out one of the largest ever compositional analyses of the Welsh residual waste stream. The conclusion was that over half could be recycled using existing systems.
The three-weekly waste collection trailblazers in Wales, and elsewhere in UK, are showing significant increases in the amount of material collected for recycling. But to get to 80 per cent, we will need more.
HWRCs, for instance, will need to divert 85 to 90 per cent of waste, and this is already being achieved on a few sites. However, many existing sites will struggle to implement the required policies without investment or replacement. Given that over a quarter of waste in Wales is disposed of at HWRCs, this is a critical consideration.
Trade waste recycling levels in Wales are highly variable. However, the Environment Act places a legal requirement on all waste producers to source segregate their recycling. New regulations are due soon, creating an opportunity to transform commercial recycling, as has already been done with household waste.
Maintaining and improving the best performances across Wales, together with these additional measures, may be enough to push Welsh recycling into the high 70s, but the entire onus cannot be placed on households and local authorities. Producers will need to play a far greater role. Voluntary commitments and packaging lightweighting are not enough; we will need much greater emphasis on the elimination of difficult to recycle materials, and such action may be tricky for Wales to take alone.
But the Welsh Government has shown great ambition in setting the pace for recycling in the UK and, in the words of ’90s indie hipsters Shed Seven, we will soon know if they really are going for gold.
You can read about how the UK must go beyond its current approach to start thinking about 80 per cent in our accompanying feature.