Gove could revive recycling consistency drive to increase UK recycling rate

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has reportedly laid out plans to make recycling easier for families by requiring greater consistency in recycling collections across the UK, as well as reducing the total amount of plastic used in the UK, as part of a four-point plan reported on last night (18 December).

BBC News originally reported last night that Gove wants to:

  • Improve consistency in recycling collections across the UK and make it easier for householders to know what can and what cannot be recycled;
  • Reduce the total amount of plastic in circulation, targeting single-use plastics in particular;
  • Reduce the amount of different plastics used by processors in order to make recycling easier for local authorities and operators; and
  • Improve the UK’s stagnant recycling rate.

Last night, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reiterated the views of the Environment Secretary, telling the BBC: “The Secretary of State wants to make recycling as easy as possible for households. That is why we will look to accelerate making local authority recycling schemes as consistent as possible through the resources and waste strategy.”

Gove could revive recycling consistency drive to increase UK recycling rate
Gove giving evidence to the EAC in November

When contacted by Resource today, a Defra spokesperson said: “We are taking significant steps to tackle plastic waste. We are introducing a ban on plastic microbeads and we have taken nine billion plastic bags out of circulation with our carrier bag charge.

“We recognise more needs to be done to protect our environment from the scourge of plastics, and have launched a call for evidence around deposit reward and return schemes for plastic bottles and other drinks containers."

The UK’s recycling rate has been flatlining in recent years, with figures released at the start of this month (5 December) showing that England’s ‘waste from households’ recycling rate stands at 45.1 per cent for 2016/17, some way short of the 50 per cent target set by the EU for 2020.

It remains to be seen how Defra will incorporate Gove’s reported plan into the upcoming 25-Year Environment Plan and the Waste and Resources Strategy slated for late 2018, although this could be complicated depending on whether and how the EU’s Circular Economy Package applies to the UK after the final package was agreed on Sunday (18 December), setting a 60 per cent recycling target for 2030.


Gove has supposedly identified consistency as a key target in an effort to make recycling easier for households, as local authority recycling schemes often vary between councils, meaning an item that may be accepted for recycling in one local authority may not be accepted in another, depending on the facilities and budget available to that council.

With Gove suggesting that he would like to see common standards introduced across all local authorities, with clear information on what can and cannot be recycled, he may like to be reminded that such standards have very recently been investigated for the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) ‘Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England’, released last year (13 September 2016), which was commissioned by former Resources Minister Rory Stewart in 2015.

The Framework aims to see local authorities recycle the same set of core materials by 2025 in order to address issues of confusion of recycling, growing levels of contamination and the UK’s stagnating recycling rates.

The Framework was initially welcomed by industry and local authority figures alike, and a summary of a series of local authority pilot projects released by WRAP in November 2017 showed that adopting the Framework would lead to improved recycling rates of up to 18 percentage points for many local authorities at no additional cost, however, this could also lead to increased costs where a separate food waste collection is not already operating.

Furthermore, there is further precedent for consistency in the UK, with the Welsh Government’s ‘Collections Blueprint’ setting out a preferred system for recycling collections for all Welsh local authorities. Though it is not compulsory, Welsh councils are encouraged to adopt the model system, which consists of a kerbside sort system, with weekly separate collections of dry recyclables and food waste, and fortnightly collections of residual waste.

Although the Blueprint only applies to Wales, which is far smaller geographically and in terms of population than England and the rest of the UK, there have been calls to roll out the Welsh approach, which is also supported by the Welsh Government’s Collaborative Change Programme and has been credited with helping Wales achieve its reported 64 per cent recycling rate, across the UK.

Plastic reduction

As part of his four-point plan, Gove also singled out plastic reduction in general and a streamlining of the number of different polymers used in plastic packaging production to make recycling easier for both residents and local authorities, a cause that he has dedicated a significant amount of attention to since his appointment as Environment Secretary back in June 2017.

After announcing that the UK would be banning plastic microbeads in wash-off cosmetic products from January 2018, as well as opening a consultation on a bottle and can deposit return scheme (DRS) in England to combat plastic pollution back in October, Gove now wants to go further after stating he had been “haunted” by the images of marine plastic waste and the plight of wildlife affected by it in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II.

While, for the sake of the frayed nerves and scalps of recycling industry leaders, it is probably best not to dwell for too long on the question of whether the government’s environmental policy is being based on ten minutes of footage from a BBC natural history documentary, those that understand that the issue of plastic waste is a global problem will be buoyed by Gove’s wish to liaise with the Department for International Development (DFID) to see how UK official development assistance can be used to help developing economies tackle plastic waste.

The international aspect of plastic waste is brought into sharp relief, no more so than by the impending Chinese Government ban on the import of 24 grades of solid waste, including all post-consumer plastics, into China from the start of 2018. Gove told BBC News that he wants the UK to increase its domestic recycling capacity and to stop “offshoring our dirt”, although he conceded that, in the short-term, alternative destinations in Southeast Asia for the 494,000 tonnes of plastic waste that the UK sends to China for recycling every year will have to be found.

Seemingly, Gove has stopped neglecting his homework since he admitted to Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last month that he had “not given sufficient thought” to the consequences of the impending ban, or at least since it was reported in The Times last week (14 December) that Gove’s department had been informed of the likely negative impact of China’s ban by recycling industry leaders back in September, with some 350,000 tonnes of waste plastic without a place to go.

Following the report, Mary Creagh MP, EAC Chair, stated that Gove has been “asleep at the wheel” and had spent too long “pursuing eye-catching green headlines while neglecting bread-and-butter issues, like recycling”.

While Gove’s indication that he is determined to tackle ‘bread-and-butter’ issues such as recycling will be welcomed by many, any definitive judgement over Defra’s direction of travel on waste and resources policy will have to await the publication of the Waste and Resources Strategy, expected sometime in late 2018.

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