The road to 80 per cent: Beyond our current approach
Long-term practitioner and advocate of zero waste, Andy Moore, reflects on changes that could enable a higher diversion recycling system
The current, varied, approaches to recycling in the UK take a business-as- usual approach, inevitably putting limits on what can be done, and even on what one could hope could be done. Some are clearly better than others, but if we want to achieve higher levels of high quality recycling, then a new paradigm is needed. This calls for a revision of the way the waste industry and local authorities think about ‘waste’, as well as behavioural change at the household level.
As the Green Alliance’s recent ‘Recycling Reset’ report notes, a consistent approach to recycling collections would enable manufacturers and retailers ‘to put clear messages on their products and make better use of national marketing’. While those delivering a recycling service are naturally preoccupied with the finer details of collections mechanisms, and those at senior and strategic levels with how these can be further developed and financed, focussing on delivering a consistent (and comprehensive) recycling service across the board would provide a strong baseline for any further green and progressive messages central government and local authorities might want to deliver.
The Welsh Government’s Collections Blueprint and, to a lesser extent, WRAP’s Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling in England offer a foundation for achieving this. If every household were to receive the same recycling service, consistent across all local authorities, it would be easier to start a national dialogue between government and households, flowing back and forth in a virtuous loop. This would provide clarity over what items can be recycled and how best to communicate that.
According to WRAP, currently only a quarter of households effectively recycle everything they can at kerbside, without including non-target contaminant materials. It is hoped that by providing households with clear information on how their local recycling system works and on what can and cannot be recycled, with the introduction of lessons on waste reduction and avoidance into the school curriculum one of a number of mooted strategies, significant gains can be made in terms of material capture and quality.
To help efforts to provide clarity and encourage behavioural change towards recycling, there are also robust arguments in favour of financial mechanisms and incentives. Firstly, at a household level, is the idea of charging people for the waste they produce.
There is nothing novel about this idea, but the UK government has been reluctant to embrace a ‘pay-as-you-throw’ approach, going so far as to remove localauthorities’ power to charge through the Localism Act of 2011. However, there is an increasing body of evidence to support the link between charging households for the residual waste they produce and improved recycling performance. For example, the European Commission’s 2015 report, ‘Assessment of separate collection schemes in the 28 capitals of the EU’, found that ‘cities applying PAYT perform on average much better than the rest. The least performing cities base their funding on flat rates’.
The much-vaunted example of Flanders in Belgium illustrates the potential for this approach. Starting with pilot schemes in the mid-1990s, residents of the region have been charged according to the number of sacks of residual waste collected. This has pushed recycling rates over 72 per cent and residual waste produced below 150 kg per person per year.
PAYT embodies the ‘polluter pays’ principle, but it can be a crude and imperfect approach. If the burden were to fall on large, impoverished families who may well buy more packaging, it would not be seen as particularly socially progressive. If ever it were to be seriously implemented in the UK, it would likely raise local social and political tensions, which would not do recycling any favours. These negative consequences could be avoided by implementing a more equitable manifestation of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, whereby householders pay for collection in advance, preventing later arguments over an extra rubbish bag or two on the kerbside.
An alternative to this is to look at applying a financial mechanism at an earlier stage, such as introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR) with full cost recovery (FCR). Here, it is necessary to establish who bears responsibility at each stage of a product’s life cycle, hopefully taking into account lessons learnt from the past. This time, the householder must accept some portion of the responsibility as the final purchaser of the product, such as groceries or packaged items.
The householder should bear responsibility as the final decision-maker (to buy or not to buy) in the product’s value chain, thus effectively validating or rejecting the liability-inducing decisions made further up the value chain. To achieve full cost recovery, a task noticeably greater than the level of recovery sought by the existing packaging waste recovering note (PRN) system, all relevant actors must contribute.
Furthermore, the purchaser of the goods must realise the cost of a product’s packaging when they buy it, which would be helped by better packaging labelling, as mentioned above. The combination of these factors would represent a game-changer, starting in the supermarket aisles.
Once again, the value of consistency in waste collection comes to the fore, as significant variations in approaches will present challenges for evaluating the financial costs of the recovery of different packaging options, posing a significant obstruction to buy-in from producers and retailers. Alongside a consistency in collection systems, there is also a need reliable and comprehensive waste data, to be able to determine how much each tonne of recycling costs to recover and process. This is vital to ensure that the financial benefits of high-quality recycling can be priced in from the start.
This could lead to better labelling on packaging, providing an opportunity to communicate sustainability and recycling messages, like including the product’s carbon footprint on the packaging, or clear information on which parts of the packaging can be recycled.
One final mechanism that has been garnering more interest in the UK is a return to deposit schemes for containers. While returning to the shop bottle systems might seem a nostalgic throwback, bottle deposit schemes are ubiquitous throughout the EU and many other countries around the world. For example, it is common in many countries to buy bottled beer by the crate at the supermarket and then return the crate to the supermarket, where you can then fill the crate with more bottles, paying only for the beer itself, not the container. The public in these countries have got on board with such schemes – the UK seems like the odd one out.
Bottle deposit systems work well on a per-item basis, with the customer returning the item for reuse themselves, while the remaining recovery costs covered by the producer. However, corporate beverage interests have been historically opposed to the reintroduction of container deposit systems. Any offers from retailers to contribute to the cost of return systems, especially on a per tonne basis, must be seen in the context of FCR and EPR. Recent expressions of willingness from drinks manufacturers to consider return systems must be viewed with the suspicion that they may be attempts to look green, but in reality avoid their obligations in favour of full cost recovery.
The ideas above elucidated above, whether the ‘polluter pays’ principle or container deposit schemes, face significant opposition from the vested interests that benefit from maintaining the status quo, but failure to appreciate the true cost of waste limits our horizons.
The foundations for this inevitably require the implementation of a consistent and comprehensive approach to recycling across all local authorities. Wales is already well along this road; England less so, as Defra has so far done little to meaningfully back WRAP’s framework. However, if this is carried out with a new approach that actively connects people with waste and recycling and providing clarity around that, then it would be possible to actively plan and set targets that were previously thought to be unrealistic. As with any good new paradigm, the first thing a new approach should attempt is to solve the problems that the old one could not.
Of the world’s 196 countries, Wales is currently in the top three for recycling, and the top spot is now certainly within its grasp.
The kerbside-sort system promoted by Wales’s ‘Collections Blueprint’ engages householders fully and reduces the need for expensive sorting further down the line, but the real zero waste goal isn’t confined to what’s in a black bin bag. The last 30 per cent requires everyone to sort materials for collection in every circumstance – it will take time.
‘System change’ is an intentional process designed to fundamentally alter the components and structures that, if left unchanged, will have continuing negative impacts. So, governments need to embrace localisation and support citizens to create a true zero- waste, circular economy. Waste was always an obvious mistake and no real sustainability can be achieved whilst it exists.
The big question for Wales, therefore, isn’t whether we can go further than our current 62 per cent recycling; of course we can. Many zero waste initiatives, particularly in Italy and Spain, are currently exceeding levels of 80-90 per cent, and have done this in a relatively short time. Each one focused on achieving 100 per cent diversion through community engagement and the removal of organic waste as a vanguard action, because people understand the need to get this back to the soil.
Practical actions that will assist progress in the last, harder yards include container deposit legislation, pay-as-you-throw regimes and a further reduction in the waste collection frequency. That tiny percentage that is ultimately non-recyclable will need to be designed out.
If we enable people in our communities to have a full say in future recycling programmes, we’ll recycle that remaining 38 per cent in Wales that little bit quicker. Design ideas, creative policymaking and courageous government leadership will be needed from us all – but the goal of a waste free world, a truly circular economy, is a goal worth striving for.
The vote of the European Parliament on 14 March on the Circular Economy Package (CEP) showed strong ambition. Although one should expect some watering down from the European capitals when striking the compromise in this co-legislative procedure, it is clear that we are on the path for more and better recycling, as well as reuse and prevention measures.
A growing number of areas in Europe are achieving 70+ per cent rates of separate collection, with some already separately collecting 85 per cent of municipal solid waste (MSW) and sending less than 50 kg per person per year to disposal, such as the area surrounding Treviso in Italy. Taking what is possible as a reference, the new legislation wants to create the legal framework to get all of Europe in the direction of mainstreaming today’s excellence.
As important as increasing separate collection is to increasing the quality of recycling, so we must welcome the inclusion of modulated fees for extended producer responsibility in the CEP. These fees should reflect how circular a product is, and will work well with measures such as the introduction of deposit schemes, the obligation to separate organic waste, and concrete higher recycling targets (measured with the new universal calculation method).
It is important to note, however, that the characteristics of municipal solid waste (MSW) are likely to alter significantly by 2030. For instance, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 30 per cent of current plastic packaging will need to be redesigned or phased out because it cannot be recycled.
In a world of growing scarcity of raw materials and hence growing hunger for secondary raw materials, better designed products, combined with clarity and guidance in waste management, will allow us to reach levels of prevention, reuse and recycling that today might be difficult to imagine. Legislation today needs to take all of this into account and make sure to address this challenging future.