Fly-tipping – the tip of the waste crisis iceberg

With fly-tipping reaching epidemic proportions in England, Nick Oettinger, Managing Director of The Furniture Recycling Group, looks at the issue, the underlying causes and what can be done to buck this socially and environmentally unacceptable trend

Nick Oettinger, Managing Director at The Furniture Recycling Group
Nick Oettinger, Managing Director at The Furniture Recycling Group

Fly-tipping is a scourge for both the environment and local authorities, with half a million (501,226) incidents of fly tipping being recorded across just 77 of England’s major towns and cities in the last two years, according to new research by TFR Group.
Mattresses, which are often seen as difficult and expensive to dispose of, make up much of the problem – nearly seven per cent of all waste illegally dumped in the last two years. In fact, according to the study, more than 33,000 mattresses were illegally dumped in 2018 and 2019, across major towns and cities including Manchester, Bradford and Bristol.

The fly-tipping hotspots

Liverpool took the crown as fly-tipping capital of the country, with a whopping 41,282 total incidents reported over the last two years. The Merseyside city also saw an 11 per cent increase in total incidents between the years 2018 and 2019. Manchester and Bradford are no strangers to the problem and claim second and third place, with 32,627 and 24,362 incidents respectively. Manchester has also earned the title of ‘mattress mountain’ as the worst offender for incidents involving a mattress in both 2018 and 2019.

While areas such as Blackpool and Bournemouth seem to be tackling the problem, areas such as Stoke saw a whopping 411 per cent increase in fly-tipping incidents – including a 402 per cent rise in dumped mattresses. 

The role of local authorities

While the government has made a number of steps towards addressing our waste problem, including granting local authorities the power to issue fixed penalty notices for small-scale fly-tipping, and proposals to launch a ‘fly-tipping toolkit’, there’s still a long way to go to tackle the wider waste crisis at all levels.

Furthermore, inconsistent reporting across local authorities could indicate a much larger problem of dumped mattresses and overall fly-tipping incidents. Our findings also showed that local authorities handle their data in slightly different ways. For example, many track the fly-tipping incidents by financial year or calendar year, whilst other local authorities reveal the number of reported mattresses fly-tipped, and others were unable to detail down into the specific items.

There needs to be a consistent system to ensure the UK can get to grips with the sheer scale, and create a multifaceted solution for our waste problem.

The deeper issue

The government has pledged to hit a 50 per cent rate for recycling this year, aiming to reduce the amount of waste currently sent to landfill, and increasing the amount of recycled household products and packaging from homes and businesses.

Currently, despite 70.2 per cent of UK packaging waste being recycled, the amount sent to landfill per year still stands at around 7.4 million tonnes, according to figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Although it’s important that consumers are educated about the importance of recycling, the bulk of the issue lies with the producers and manufacturers that make products and goods – and package them – in the first place.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is one term that has found its way into the industry phrase book over the last few years, but how does it affect the average consumer and how does it fit into a circular, rather than linear, economy model?

Extended producer responsibility

EPR means that businesses that manufacture, import and sell products are ultimately responsible for the goods and the waste that they generate.

Taking responsibility either means that they’d need to design products with end of life in mind, or contribute to the cost of collecting, recycling and disposal of their products when they have been used. Assigning this particular responsibility to businesses provides them with an incentive to minimise their own environmental impact.

Putting the spotlight on mattresses, EPR schemes could encourage producers to design better mattresses in the first place, whether that’s using longer-lasting materials, recycled materials or simply making them in a way that’s easier to recycle.

Recycling and take-back schemes

For consumable products, including food, drink and toiletries, many retailers are introducing packaging-free initiatives, which allow customers to use refillable containers and packaging to transport products home, meaning there is no packaging required and zero waste.

Another way for retailers and brands to take responsibility is to introduce take back schemes, which incentivise customers to bring back their unwanted or used products or packaging at end of life.

Corporate social responsibility

For many companies, take-back schemes, naked products and other CSR initiatives are seen as marketing strategies rather than ways to help save the environment. This results in a lack of authenticity and transparency surrounding their chosen methods for recycling or reusing materials.

By taking corporate social responsibility seriously and ensuring that it is part of the overall business strategy, the intent can be switched from profit margins to sustainability and transparency.

CSR can also make commercial sense. According to a recent report by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, 92 per cent of millennials would choose to buy from a company committed to ethical business practices. 

The circular economy model

To operate within a true circular economy model, we need to work together to ensure that products are designed with recyclability in mind. Consumers can educate themselves, shop responsibly, lobby brands to change, and take steps to ensure that products and packaging is responsibly disposed of, but ultimately it’s down to manufacturers, brands and retailers to make their products more environmentally sound, and take responsibility for them at end-of-life.

A circular economy model would greatly reduce – and ultimately eliminate – the need for landfill and the practice of fly-tipping. Fly-tipping and the landfill crisis are symptoms, and not the root cause, of a larger waste problem that will not cease until we take this joined up approach.

For more information visit The Furniture Recycling Group website