New recycling figures show rates are falling

Provisional figures for the final quarter of 2012 (October – December 2012) have revealed that England's household recycling rates for the year ending December 2012 rose to 43.6 per cent.

However, the recycling rate marks just a 0.6 per cent rise on the year ending December 2011, and, more worryingly, accounts for a drop of 0.5 per drop on the same quarter the year before (October – December 2011), and almost seven per cent on the quarter before (July-September 2012). Defra has said that the reason for the 0.5 per cent drop was 'mainly due to higher levels of material being rejected from recycling streams and a nine per cent decrease in green waste'.

The provisional data also shows that of the 25.3 million tonnes (Mt) of waste collected by local authorities in the year ending December 2012, 34 per cent was sent to landfill, 21 per cent was sent for incineration with two per cent going to ‘other’ processes.

Indeed, local authorities have been increasingly relying on incineration to deal with their residual waste, with the final quarter of 2012 seeing a 12 per cent rise (from 1.3Mt to 1.5Mt) in incinerated rise on the corresponding period the year before. The last five years have seen a huge increase in the role played by energy from waste facilities, with the level of waste being incinerated increasing by 65 per cent.

Speaking of the figures, Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator for the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) said:"The latest waste figures show incineration still impeding recycling, with those local authorities most tied to incineration having some of the lowest recycling rates in England. Instead of burning this valuable material, local authorities should be improving their recycling rates by increasing the range of recyclables that they collect and by sending food waste for anaerobic digestion. The figures also show that fears of existing landfills running out in the near future are unrealistic."

Chief Executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management Steve Lee added: "We still have a long way to go in order to meet our 50 per cent 2020 target and, if recycling is slowing and waste production growing, we have an even bigger task ahead. It's not yet time to panic, but we must keep a very close eye on future trends and adapt our responses accordingly."

England on course to miss 2020 target

The figures released by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), mark a worrying trend for recycling, as if rates continue on the 2012 level of 0.6 per cent, England would miss the EU’s 2020 recycling target ­­(of 50 per cent recycling) by almost two per cent (however, the UK posts its rates as a whole - with England making up the largest weighting of the devolved governments). 

Government’s lack of investment in waste infrastructure and innovation has been a source of contention recently, with members of the waste industry writing to the government department yesterday (7 August) warning that its recent withdrawal of waste infrastructure funding could ‘damage the confidence of investors in the waste sector’ and harm the UK’s ability to meet its EU landfill targets.

The letter reads: ‘2020, when the UK has to meet strict targets on the amount of rubbish it sends to landfill, is no longer on the distant horizon, and like all major infrastructure projects, waste schemes take years to come to fruition and cannot be brought on stream at a moment’s notice. Rather than dismissing warnings from the very organisations that are at the sharp end of implementing their policies, ministers should recognise that the government’s commitment to long-term funding for infrastructure, and the UK’s strategy to stop waste being sent to landfill, are in peril.’

Resource asked Defra whether it is concerned that the 2020 targets will be missed, and was issued with this response: "Recycling rates continue to improve year on year with nearly half of all household waste now recycled. We are on track to meet the 2020 target." The spokesperson added that it is 'normal to see seasonal fluctuations in recycling rates', as the winter months see a 'significant fall in garden waste'.

"The data we published today covers October to December 2012 and is in line with expectations", the spokesperson concluded. 

Figures ‘likely to be overestimates’

Defra has warned that the provisional figures are liable to a degree of error, as the levels of waste sent for recycling, composting or reuse do not include anything that is rejected during collection, sorting or further treatment. 

Indeed, writing in its Quality Action Plan, published in February 2013, Defra advised that current recycling rates reported to WasteDataFlow are ‘likely to be overestimates as many do not account for material rejected by the MRF during the sorting process in a robust manner’. 

Defra said that it will ‘amend guidance to local authorities to clarify that they should ask MRFs to provide robust information on reject rates when reporting recycling rates to WasteDataFlow’. It is hoped that this wil ‘incentivise’ local authorities to request ‘robust information’ from MRFs on quality and reject rates, and ‘take greater interest in the performance of their collection systems and the MRFs with whom they contract’. 

Commenting at the time, Ray Georgeson, Chief Executive of a professional advocacy body for the reprocessing and recycling industries – the Resource Association – argued that “until there is real transparency of data and reporting – from the point of collection, through sorting and on to end destination – debate about trends and performance on anything other than the real diminishing amounts of landfill will continue to be inadequately informed.” 

No more regional quarterly estimates

In a new move, Defra has said that it intends to stop producing quarterly regional estimates of waste, but will continue to produce general quarterly estimates for England, and annual statistics by region and by Local Authority. This is planned to take effect in the February 2014 publication covering April to June 2013. Further, Defra intends to show annual estimates for calendar years rather than financial years. This is planned for August 2014 when Defra 'intends to publish calendar year estimates of waste up to and including 2013'.

Lee commented: “We need to be keeping as close an eye as possible on the current state of play, and this move will only serve to deter our efforts. Presenting the statistics by calendar year rather than financial year has its merits, as it will make the information easier to digest for many, but councils will still work to financial years in their budgets so perhaps for them, the change will not be so practical.

“If the UK is creeping out of the recession, as is widely suggested, and with a resultant ‘bounce-back’ in waste production, we are concerned that recycling performance could potentially start to flat-line. This would be a most inopportune time to stop the [regional] publication of quarterly statistics.”

Read the provisional quarterly figures for October – December 2012.