Resource Use

England’s ‘dysfunctional’ recycling system must be reset, says Green Alliance

Brexit provides England with the opportunity to change its household recycling system to take financial burdens off local authorities and create a more efficient approach through producer responsibility, says environmental think tank Green Alliance.

England’s ‘dysfunctional’ recycling system must be reset, says Green AllianceRecycling reset: how England can stop subsidising waste’, the new report produced by the organisation, makes three recommendations to make a fairer recycling system, which would help post-Brexit Britain by increasing resource efficiency and reducing the trade deficit and mitigating the impact of a weakened currency on import costs through the supply of recycled materials.

With local authorities spending £300 million a year dealing with waste packaging, and waste from this Christmas alone costing councils £72 million, it is clear that the burden of dealing with waste disposal is one that weighs heavily on local councils.

Yet, Green Alliance says, not only do local authorities have to foot the bill, they also often end up taking the blame when controversies arise, despite having no control over how products are designed and packaged or over people’s recycling habits. This was highlighted this Christmas season, when the Daily Mail prominently reported that councils would be sending glittery Christmas cards to landfill.

Green Alliance believes that local authorities have a disproportionate share of responsibility for reducing waste and increasing recycling, the rates for which fell in England in 2015 for the first time since 2001.

The report, produced on the behalf of Circular Economy Task Force, recommends that a new English recycling policy should:

  1. Reward responsible companies – Producers should be rewarded for designing less wasteful packaging, using recycled materials and getting their customers to recycle as much as they can.
  2. Producers should help to pay for recycling – Producers should take responsibility for the majority of the collection system’s costs as they have the greatest ability to influence the design of products and, therefore, the net costs of recycling systems.
  3. Make the system fairer for local authorities – Encourage local authorities to adopt more consistent, cost-effective recycling collections. Also, to lower the costs for both producers and local authorities, households should be encouraged to make best use of the systems, so local authorities can charge more to those households that waste more through a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) approach.

Recycling in England has ‘become dysfunctional’

Green Alliance has based these recommendations on policies that have proven track records abroad. The Belgian system, where the private sector is responsible for designing collection systems, costs 25 per cent less per person than in England, while in California, a push to improve plastic recycling rates since 2007, which saw plastic reprocessors and manufacturers that used recycled plastic rewarded financially, has led to a fivefold increase in the amount of plastic recycled.

England’s ‘dysfunctional’ recycling system must be reset, says Green AllianceCommenting on the report, its author and Green Alliance Senior Policy Advisor Jonny Hazell said: “Recycling in England has become dysfunctional. Businesses blame local authorities, local authorities blame businesses, and householders blame both.

“The only certain thing is that hard-pressed councils are having to pick up an unfair share of the bill, despite their obvious financial constraints. But they have no power to bring down the costs. Falling recycling rates show that a new approach is needed.

“A more consistent system would cost less and be fairer for all. It would also guarantee that British manufacturers get more of the high-quality recycled materials they need and reduce their dependence on imports.”

Following WRAP’s example

Green Alliance’s report also stresses the importance of following the example of the consistency work published by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) last year.

In September 2016, WRAP published its ‘Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England’, which called greater harmonisation to ease the recycling process for local authorities and citizens alike.

The framework seeks to remove the ‘grey area’ in recycling surrounding materials that many residents are unsure about whether they can be recycled or not. By implementing a uniform set of core materials – plastic bottles, plastic packaging, metal packaging, glass bottles and jars, paper, card, food and drink cartons, and food waste – WRAP hopes that there would be less confusion surrounding what can and can’t be recycled.

The framework also calls for consistency in waste collection and an increase in collaborative action on the part of packaging producers to create packaging that is ‘environmentally beneficial’ and can ‘be recycled and is labelled clearly to indicate whether it can be recycled or not’.

WRAP hopes that by implementing this framework, an additional 11.6 million tonnes of recyclable material could be diverted between 2018 and 2025, potentially resulting in up to £408 million in financial benefits.

The Green Alliance report states: ‘Significantly, these estimates are based on current performance levels so are likely to be conservative, given the added benefits of simpler communication in a more consistent system.

‘With the same set of materials collected everywhere, manufacturers and retailers could put clear messages on their products and make better use of national marketing to explain what could or could not be recycled. This would further increase the quality and quantity of material collected through improved householder understanding.’


While Wales offers a good example to England on how to provide kerbside services that encourage better recycling rates, the Green Alliance report suggests that it also shows that better recycling services and improved communications are not sufficient to improve householder engagement, as food waste is the largest contributor to residual waste in the country, despite separate collections being available to 99 per cent of households.

Instead, it suggests that variable charging based on the amount of waste generated by each household should be revisited as a means of increasing participation.

It argues: ‘The ‘pay-as-you-throw’ approach is a consistent feature of the highest performing systems in Europe. Research into these schemes has shown that it cuts residual waste and increases recycling without negative consequences like reduced recycling quality or increased flytipping...

‘In a new system where businesses redesign their packaging and local authorities collect all the recyclable materials possible, there would be a renewed rationale for charging people who recycle less than they could. As more households receive consistent services, and they are better communicated, it will be increasingly unfair on those businesses, local authorities and householders that play their part if there are people who still choose not to recycle.’

Green Alliance’s ‘Recycling reset: How England can stop subsidising waste’ report can be downloaded from the organisation’s website.

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