Defra endorses single-stream commingling and frequent residual bin collection

The statutory guidance for Simpler Recycling shows convenience for the public uses waste services is its overriding priority, despite well-grounded doubts from industry

Bins near WestminsterThe UK Government has announced its "Simpler Recycling" plan, aiming to standardise recycling collections across England and 'boost recycling rates'. The proposal, unveiled by Recycling Minister Robbie Moore, includes allowing households to use the same bin for plastics, metals, glass, and paper/card in all areas, and the potential co-collection of food and garden waste.

The Government also pledged to support more frequent and comprehensive bin collections, with a minimum expectation for councils to collect residual waste at least fortnightly, alongside weekly food waste collections. Again, in making this pledge, Defra pointedly disparaged the trend for three-weekly or four-weekly bin collections seen outside England.

Moore commented: "We all want to do our bit to increase recycling and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill – but a patchwork of different bin collections across England means it can be hard to know what your council will accept. Our plans for Simpler Recycling will end that confusion: ensuring that the same set of materials will be collected regardless of where you live."

However, the recycling industry's consultation responses reveal significant concerns about the proposed changes.

Defra's plan to permit the "commingling" of dry recyclables like plastic, glass, metal, and paper/card into a single collection was supported by 76 per cent of the 202 consultation respondents, which included 170 local authorities.

Advocates of this approach argue that it will simplify recycling for households and potentially improve recycling yields. 28 per cent of respondents considered that co-collection leads to higher recycling yields due to being easier and less confusing for residents. 33 local authorities who already co-collect dry recycling supported this view.

However, 22 per cent of respondents expressed concerns that the quality or value of co-collected recycling materials is lower. Mixing different materials together, particularly glass with paper and other items, can lead to increased contamination, making the materials more challenging to recycle into new high-value products.

In setting out its stall for single-stream collection of dry recyclables, Defra references unpublished research conducted by WRAP. This, it says, found that there was a ‘4 per cent contamination rate for separately collected dry recyclables, 9.5 per cent for twin-stream collections and 13.5 per cent for co-mingled mixed dry recyclable collection’. This view differs from research recently published by the European Commission that finds co-mingling to be economically and environmentally detrimental.

In response to the consultation on Simpler Recycling, 16 per cent of respondents believe that current sorting technology is sufficient for separating commingled materials, with just 6 per cent confident that this capacity exists at scale across England.

Some respondents (4 per cent) questioned the evidence base behind co-mingling, calling for more research into its real-world impacts on material quality and actual recycling rates.

Supporting the Government’s plan, Patrick Brighty, Head of Recycling Policy at the Environmental Services Association (ESA) said: “The ESA supports measures that provide local authorities with the flexibility to determine their own collection model based on their own individual circumstances but, whatever the chosen solution, councils will need to demonstrate that their service choices deliver the efficient and effective recycling performance required by the new packaging Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regime.

“Appropriate commingling of materials – which must be done carefully to avoid contamination and preserve quality – would minimise the number of bins required for householders and businesses and maintain an efficient collection service.”

Defra at odds with industry over residual waste collection

The Government's proposal to set a minimum frequency of fortnightly council collections for residual waste has been met with strong opposition. Over half of the local authorities consulted argued that reducing the frequency of residual waste collections is crucial to driving up recycling rates, advocating for collections every three or four weeks instead.

This requirement is likely to have significant ramifications for the five English councils currently operating a three-weekly collection. These are:

  • Bury Metropolitan Borough Council
  • East Devon District Council
  • London Borough of Waltham Forest
  • Mid Devon District Council
  • Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council

When asked about the implications for these councils by Resource, a spokesperson for Defra stated:
“We have consulted on the draft statutory guidance for local authorities – however, as policies are subject to the parliamentary process, this does not represent the final statutory guidance. The final statutory guidance will be published after the regulations relating to Simpler Recycling have been made later in 2024. It would not be appropriate to comment on the circumstances of specific local authorities until the guidance is published.”

He also noted that ‘statutory guidance must be followed by local authorities unless there are exceptionally strong reasons to diverge from it’.

Commenting on the decision, the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers (NAWDO) said it was ‘disappointed by the decision around guidance on the minimum fortnightly collection frequency for residual waste’.

NAWDO added: “The responses to the consultation are clear: 80 per cent of respondents disagree with the proposed minimum collection frequency for residual waste. This is on the basis that there is extensive evidence proving that 3 and 4-weekly residual waste collections both increase recycling and reduce the total volume of waste that households produce. This is also the only effective way for local authorities to reduce the excessive financial burden they will face from the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) including energy from waste thermal treatment.

“The Government’s position here shows a disconnect with the waste hierarchy and it is at odds with existing evidence on this topic. It also lacks the urgent need to tackle the issues of consumption and waste reduction as part of achieving net zero carbon targets. We expect that this position will undermine the Government’s own target of halving non-recyclable (residual) waste by 2042, including the interim reduction target of 28 per cent by January 2028.”

Cathy Cook, Chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) expressed a similar view: “The decision to encourage not less than fortnightly residual waste collections completely undermines what the Government is trying to achieve through the rest of the Collection and Packaging Reforms (CPR).

“The Government has put in a lot of resources to ensure that householders have the ability to not only recycle the most common dry recyclable materials but also food waste. This is a great opportunity to encourage householders to do the right thing and place the correct items in the correct bins in order to reach a 65 per cent recycling rate by 2035. But this will not work if the Government continues to encourage unrestricted residual waste collections.”

Although broadly welcoming the details, John Scanlon, chief executive officer for SUEZ recycling and recover UK echoed the concerns expressed by the local government trade associations: “The journey may have taken longer than we would have liked but today’s publication is another positive step towards all households in England being able to recycle their food waste and more of their packaging waste.

“That said, given a number of councils have successfully pioneered three weekly residual collection services, a requirement for councils to provide minimum fortnightly residual waste collections feels like a backward step.

“Evidence shows that reducing residual collection frequency encourages people to use the food and recycling collection services provided by their local council more consistently.

“In SUEZ’s own experience, three weekly residual waste collections, supported by reliable, frequent food and dry recycling collections, are clearly effective in boosting recycling rates.

“Restricting the options available to local authorities with high recycling ambitions whilst at the same time ‘actively encouraging’ more frequent residual collections and promoting a three bin collection system, risks jeopardising our ability to meet the recycling targets that are a key part of the UK’s net zero ambition.’

Despite the concerns raised, there were some areas of broad agreement. Respondents widely supported the expansion of recycling collections to businesses, schools, and hospitals, and the prioritisation of separate food waste collection.

Mixed views on garden and food waste co-collection

The proposal to allow food and garden waste to be collected together also drew a divided response, with 62 per cent in favour and 18 per cent against. Many local authorities appreciated the flexibility to choose the collection system that works best for their specific circumstances.

However, some respondents raised concerns that co-collection could lead to lower food waste yields and make the material more difficult to process effectively. Currently, separately collected food waste is often sent to anaerobic digestion (AD) plants, which produce renewable energy and fertiliser. Co-collected garden and food waste, on the other hand, is more likely to be composted, a process viewed by some as environmentally inferior to AD.

Another challenge highlighted by respondents is the difficulty of collecting mixed garden and food waste when garden waste collection is a chargeable service, but food waste must be collected for free by law; 12 per cent of responses suggested that this "would be confusing for residents and make it difficult to provide transparent data on the performance of both systems."

Jenny Grant, Head of Organics and Natural Capital at the REA (Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology), said: “The REA welcomes the Government’s post-consultation response on Simpler Recycling with further clarity on the requirements, enabling industry to make progress towards implementation.

“We welcome the proposals that Local Authorities can choose to co-collect food and garden waste together without the need for a written assessment as it gives flexibility and enables them to choose the most effective system for their area.

“With the requirement for weekly food waste collections and the removal of putrescible waste, it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the requirement for residual waste to be collected at least fortnightly, or preferably more frequently. Local authorities should be free to choose the frequency of residual waste collections that will drive high performing recycling collections.

“It is also disappointing that Defra have no plans to fund Local Authorities to provide caddy liners for food waste collections, not even at least where food waste (whether or not co-collected with garden waste) goes to in-vessel composting, where it’s important that liner types used are certified industrially compostable ones.”

Balancing consistency and local flexibility

The consultation responses revealed the well-known tension between the government's aim for nationwide consistency and local authorities' desire for flexibility to meet their specific needs. 62 per cent of responses emphasised that "councils are best placed to know how to deliver effective local services."

This push for local decision-making was evident in responses to proposals such as mandating the provision of free caddy liners for food waste bins. While the government sees this as a way to encourage food waste recycling, most respondents preferred guidance over requirements, allowing for variations in local practices and treatment infrastructure.

Funding emerged as a significant concern, with many respondents questioning how cash-strapped councils will manage to implement enhanced recycling services without substantial transition funding from the central government.

One-third of respondents sought clarity on how the proposed changes would interact with the extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging, which is intended to cover the costs of recycling. Respondents called for more detail on the funding mechanisms and the process of EPR reimbursements.

Some also suggested that the implementation timeline is unrealistic, advocating for a phased approach over several years rather than a sudden switchover. As one industry body noted, "Any changes to materials in scope would need to involve consultation of the whole value chain," underscoring the complexity of the required changes.

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