England’s household recycling rate falls 1.7 per cent for 2020/21

Recycling of ‘waste from household’ fell back sharply in 2020/21 due to the covid-19 pandemic according to England’s annual household waste statistics published today (15 December) by the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs.

The latest figures show that recycling fell from 45.5 per cent in 2019/20 to 43.8 per cent, as local authority waste management services were disrupted, particularly during the first quarter of April-June 2020.

IncineratorThis year’s report notes that collection of dry recyclables and garden waste were particularly impacted due to ‘staff shortages and the introduction of changes to working practice’. The closure of household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) was also cited as a major contributing factor, contributing 16 per cent towards the dry recycling rate compared to 21 per cent the previous financial year.

The impact of the national lockdown is also highlighted, with the jump of 1.8 per cent in total arisings of ‘waste from households’ to 22.6 million tonnes, from 22.1 million tonnes the previous year. This reflects the increased amount of time people spent in their homes, rather displacing waste from some on-the-go or workplace settings that might otherwise be classified as commercial.

Although bulky waste collections fell during April to June 2020, overall these collections were up 7.3 per cent for 20/21 when compared to 19/20. This would appear consistent with retailer reports that spending on home furnishings rose markedly in the early phase of the pandemic. As such, increased collections reflect the churn in furniture as households were remodelled, in many cases to accommodate home offices.

Despite the impact of Covid-19, two recycling streams that continued to grow were the incinerator bottom ash (up 10.6 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous calendar year) and separate food waste collections (up to 485,000 tonnes, 11.0 per cent higher than 2019). This reflects the longer-term picture in infrastructure investment by local authorities and their partners. 

Regionally, the ongoing trend persists that southern regions, other than London, have a higher recycling rate than elsewhere in England. The South West (48.3 per cent), Eastern (45.7 per cent) and South East (45.4 per cent) currently perform best, though notably less than two of the UK’s devolved administrations, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In terms of households’ recycling London continues to be the worst performing region (29.9 per cent), in part reflecting challenging demographics, as well as the highest proportion of high-rise residences in England.

Looking forward, Defra points to the long-term target of recycling 65 per cent of the slightly different category of municipal waste by 2035, as required by the The Waste (Circular Economy) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.

However, recent track record suggests this will be challenging. In 2010/11, England’s household recycling rate was 41.2 per cent.The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 set a target to recycle 50 per cent of waste from households and even if there had been no pandemic the 2020/21 data shows that England was nowhere close to achieving this target.