Palmer-Jones says England will drop to 40 per cent recycling

The Chief Executive of waste management company SITA UK, David Palmer-Jones, has told the BBC that he believes that not only is recycling in the UK flatlining, but it will actually fall to around 40 per cent in England in the next few years.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme yesterday evening (27 May), Palmer-Jones said that due to the fact that glass and newspapers are being used less by householders (as we read more online and packaging shifts to more lightweight options such as plastic), and that an increasing amount of local authorities are choosing to offer paid-for, opt-in garden waste services, recycling rates will likely fall as population size increases.

Palmer-Jones had been quoted in The Telegraph yesterday that England’s falling recycling rates could be a symptom, of ‘green fatigue’ (i.e that recycling has got so complicated, householders are not doing it), and when asked by the BBC what the evidence was for this, he said: “What I wanted to do, and I’m very pleased that the newspapers have picked up on this, is to really say to the British public and to the government is that we are, I’m afraid, ‘sleepwalking’ into missing the [European 2020 recycling] target of 50 per cent and this isn’t a good place to be.” (Indeed, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) announced last year that if recycling rates remain at their current level, England’s recycling rate will be ‘insufficient’ to meet the EU’s target of recycling 50 per cent of household waste by 2020. Despite this warning however, Resource Minister, Dan Rogerson, announced that from April 2014, the department would be ‘stepping back’ on some of its waste policy work due to budgetary cuts.)

Changes to material composition affecting rates

Palmer-Jones highlighted the reasons for the drop in recycling were not just due to ‘green fatigue’ or the manner in which recycling is collected (either through separate sort of co-mingled), but that there were several other contributors. He said: “First of all, there are some structural changes in the types of materials we’re collecting. Clearly, some of the ‘easy wins’ to get us to that 43 per cent have already happened, we started collecting the usual types of material: newspapers and glass, and also garden waste. Now what we’re seeing is, we’re not reading as much [sic] newspapers as before, the packaging manufacturers and the retailers are getting better at reducing the quantities and the weights of those [sic] packaging, we’re seeing some replacement for glass for plastics, lighter plastics, and garden waste is now becoming optional. We’re seeing a real structural decline, we seeing we’re going to drop from 43 per cent, probably more towards 40 per cent.”

SITA has said that local authorities needed to do more to make recycling easier, such as introducing controversial co-mingled recycling, instead of making households separate out their rubbish. This is despite the UK’s transposition of the EU’s revised Waste Framework Directive (the Waste Regulations (Amendment) 2012), stating that by 2015, every waste collection authority in England and Wales must have in place separate collections for waste paper, metal, plastic and glass when they are necessary to ‘facilitate or improve recovery’ and are ‘technically, environmentally, and economically practicable’.

However, Andy Moore, from the Campaign for Real Recycling, argued this point, saying: “It is true that in some places recycling has been flatlining, particularly as David Palmer-Jones says, glass and paper, but, I would point to Wales. Wales is head and shoulders above England [most recent figures show Wales is recycling 54 per cent of its waste compared with England’s 43 per cent] and is striding ahead. And they are not mixing the materials there to try and get more out of the waste stream, in fact the reverse, they are going for quite a rigorous separation regime.”

When asked about the problems of mixing waste (or collecting it in a co-mingled system), Moore said: “One material contaminates another, particularly glass, but all of them can contaminate each other. And we’ve seen the trend in recent years for this stuff simply to be exported elsewhere to dubious sites, not necessarily recycling, and avoiding European environmental safeguard whilst it does. The UK at the moment is exporting more paper and plastic than the rest of the EU put together, to Asia for example.”

However, Palmer-Jones said that the reason Wales was performing so much better than England in its recycling rates, was “not specifically because of their choice of source segregation”, but because Wales has its own “regulatory targets and really support local authorities”.

He said: “They [the Welsh Government] ring fence money to ensure that communication is good, it’s simple, they really push recycling, which we’re not necessarily seeing in the UK.”

No ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach

Asked if he would accept that separating recycling is better than co-mingling, Palmer-Jones said: “We’re such a mixed and diverse country in terms of the types of dwellings that we have in the UK, that there isn’t a one-size-fits all. If you take the leafy suburbs around Surrey for example, yes you can do a source-segregated collection quite efficiently, but as you get into those dense areas, and as I say, population increasing, it’s only going to put more pressure on that. There are other systems…  mixing (and mixing the right materials together), can produce – with the sophisticated recycling centres that we have now, within our grasp – the ability to get some fantastic good product out.”

But Moore said that, in his experience, he had “not actually come across a place where it’s not possible to separate, to a reasonable degree, the four main materials which the Waste Framework Directive from Europe is suggesting has to be recycled on 1 January 2015”.

BBC Radio 4’s PM programme featuring recycling is available until Monday 2 June.

Find out more about the argument between separate sort and co-mingled recycling.