Are we in or are we out?

Marcus Gover, Director at WRAP, shares his vision of an England where householders know exactly what goes ‘in’ recycling bins and what stays ‘out’.

Are we in or are we out? Yes or no? In or out? We should all know the answer come the summer.

But I am not talking Brexit. I am talking about a vision for what we should be recycling.

It is a vision where householders in England will confidently know if an item goes ‘in’ the recycling bin or stays ‘out’ of the recycling bin. It is a vision where they can look at empty packaging and be able to answer what should be a relatively simple question: does my local authority recycle this – yes or no?

Recycling has become confusing. We all know it. WRAP even has the research to prove it. And if we’re honest, we – the people of the waste and recycling industry – have probably all experienced it ourselves at some point, which is concerning, seeing as we’re the ones who should know!

You could say that we’ve become victims of our own success. That’s right – recycling is a success. Just 15 years ago, England recycled a mere 10 per cent. But, as we’ve continued the push to recycle more materials, the complexities have grown. And they’ve grown on a number of levels – the variety of different materials used in products and packaging, as well as the variety of different collection methods and containers.

Just last year, Resources Minster Rory Stewart highlighted that there are currently more than 100 different collection profiles in England. This has to change for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because we need to do better by our householders. And by ‘we’ I mean the manufacturers and retailers who put materials onto the market, as well as the local authorities, waste companies and reprocessors who do the recycling.

Doing better doesn’t necessarily mean fewer bins, or even standardising the colours of all the bins. It’s more than that; it’s about a holistic approach to the whole system and supply chain.  

This is at the heart of our cross-industry project to develop a vision for greater consistency in household waste and recycling collections in England.

If we had a ‘consistent’ set of materials collected for recycling, communications would be much easier. We could easily tell householders what is and what is not recycled. On-pack labelling could reduce to just ‘recycled’ and ‘not recycled’. It would also mean that, when specifying packaging, retailers and brands would know up front what would be recyclable and use this to inform decision making. They could then play their part in making recycling more consistent.

Are we in or are we out?

A consistent set of materials would also mean food waste recycling becoming the norm. Currently, around four million tonnes of food waste from English households still end up in the residual waste stream. This is a significant contributor to our carbon emissions and must stop. We also have a growing AD industry waiting to convert it into renewable energy and fertiliser. This has to be good for our economy and our environment.

Collecting materials in a more consistent way will also be part of the vision. If we are going to collect a consistent set of high-quality materials in the most cost-effective way, there are not so many options really. Once collection methods are more consistent, then there are also opportunities to rationalise collection containers and possibly even colours!

The plan is to develop and publish the vison by the summer. A local authority working group will be established, and we will be working with a number of local authorities keen to evaluate the business case in their areas and offering them support through the change. These will be the exemplars that others can follow. There will be another initiative working with retailers and brands to rationalise the packaging that is put on the market and make it clearer to households what can be recycled. There will be opportunities for reprocessors too – more and better quality materials.

When we unlock these solutions, the prize is huge. We’re talking about residents who are recycling more effectively, less waste sent for disposal, less contamination and better-quality recyclate.

I am sure you are all thinking, ‘This all sounds good, but HOW MUCH is this going to cost?’

Well, we have used our model to make estimates, and we will publish the business case for change along with the vision. The cost implications vary depending on the level of ambition and the time period over which any change might reasonably be expected to occur. This is an aspect that will be looked at further as any solution needs to be cost effective for the supply chain as a whole. It will involve collaboration, partnerships and exploring opportunities for further efficiencies – for example, cross-boundary collections, procurement and simplifying communication.  

The vision is not about imposing change on local authorities. It’s very much up to them to make their own decisions. But we hope it’s a vision that local authorities can aspire too – then change becomes easier, and so too will recycling.

Consistency – or rather the lack of it – has been a hot topic for a while, but I don’t believe there has ever been a serious attempt to assess its feasibility and make it a reality until now.

So, in the spirit of another hot topic, let me ask you: as an industry, are you voting ‘in’ for recycling consistency or ‘out’?

As a director of WRAP, I vote ‘in’ for recycling change. As Marcus Gover, a resident in England, I vote for a simple ‘yes or no’ to the question ‘Can I recycle this?’ 

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