England recycling rates still below pre-Covid level
Recycling of waste from households remains below pre-Covid levels according to the 2020/21 figures published by Defra today (24 March 2023).
The headline rate of waste from households that was recycled rose 0.3 per cent to 44.1 per cent for 2021/22, from 43.8 percent a year earlier. However, this figure is notably below the 45.5 per cent that England reached in 2019/20.
Defra’s narrative of the figures points to the impact of Covid during 2020 and 2021, in particular the impact of reduced household waste services at the height of the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. Notably, total household waste arising rose compared to pre-Covid levels in both years, to the extent that total waste from households was 4.7 per cent higher in 2021 than in 2019.
The abnormalities in terms of services and restrictions on behaviour limit the scope for identifying a year-on-year trend between 2020 and 2021. However, looking at comparisons between 2017-19 and 2021, it is apparent that England has made little progress in terms of the amounts recycled. Overall dry recycling has increased from 5.92 million tonnes in 2017 to 5.97 million tonnes in 2021, which can mostly be accounted for by the increase in recycling of metal from incinerator bottom ash from 0.18 to 0.23 million tonnes.
One area of progress has been the increase in separately collected food waste from 386 thousand tonnes in 2017 to 512 thousand tonnes in 2021. Of note is that the amount of food waste collected rose during the pandemic, from 437 thousand tonnes in 2019 to 485 thousand tonnes in 2020 and 512 thousand tonnes in 2021.
Looking at the trends in composition, there is a significant rise in glass in the waste from households sent for recycling during 2020 and 2021, in line with the limitations on movement and closure of bars and restaurants resulting in higher level of drink consumption happening in the household. The proportion of glass in the household waste stream was 23.7 per cent in 2021, down from 24.5 per cent in 2020, but still much higher than 20.9 per cent in 2019. The notable material streams that have reduced in their share of household recycling during the pandemic are WEEE and other scrap metals, and textiles. This, Defra attributes, in part to the closures and subsequent restrictions of household waste recycling centres.
In terms of regional performance, it remains the case recycling rates are lowest in London, where in 2021/22 just 32.7 per cent of waste from households was diverted.
In it’s commentary, Defra cites the influence of geographical and demographic factors, such as the size of the dwelling and whether the household presents garden waste for recycling. Inevitably, the higher proportion of flats in London means there is less space for keeping recycling as well as lower proportion receiving kerbside recycling services. In addition, a more transitory and diverse population are less engaged or aware of the services available from local authorities.
The top performing region in England was again the South-West where 48.9 per cent of waste from households was recycled. This is to some extent a result of three of the top performing Unitary Authorities in England coming from the region – including South Gloucestershire Council with a household recycling rate of 58.9%, North Somerset (58.8 per cent) and Bath and North East Somerset (57.9 per cent). The top performing Unitary Authority overall was East Riding of Yorkshire Council at 60.1 per cent.
Top performing Authorities
Two of the top three performing Waste Collection Authority are located in east England – headed by Three Rivers District at 63.5 per cent and with St Albans City and District at 62.4 per cent. South Oxfordshire District came second at 62.7 per cent.
Several authorities also saw significant improvements from the 2020-21 recycling rates to 2021-22 with Unitary Authorities taking the top three spots. Reading Borough increased its recycling rate the most at 15.4 per cent from 36.1 per cent to 51.5 per cent. Blackpool Borough came second and increased its rate 14.2 per cent from 27.5 per cent to 41.7 per cent, followed by Bracknell Forest which increased by 12.8 per cent from 43.4 per cent to 56.2 per cent.
The most improved Waste Collection authority is Oldham MBC with a 9.8 per cent improvement from 36.7 per cent to 46.5 per cent. This was followed by Eastbourne Borough (6.1 per cent) and Trafford MBC (5.5 per cent). They now sit at 38.9 per cent and 58.8 per cent respectively.