Should we be worried about England's falling recycling rate?
Recently, England’s household recycling rate fell for the first time since records began, but should we be panicking about it? Eunomia consultant Peter Jones analyses the stats
The recent downtick in England’s household recycling rate has led to wailing and gnashing of teeth in some quarters, and something more like gloating in others. However, there has been little examination of what the numbers tell us about what underlies the change, and thus the appropriate policy responses.
The first thing to note is that the drop (from 43.7 per cent in 2014/15 to 43.0 per cent in 2015/16) was small. 2014/15 was a record high, but not by much; the plateauing results mean that last year’s drop returns us to the rate achieved in 2011/12, but there’s been very little change either way since then.
Interpreting the stats is not straightforward. For starters, while the detailed data is organised in financial years and counts household waste and other local authority collected waste, much of Defra’s commentary looks at calendar years and discusses ‘waste from households’: these adjusted figures allow consistent comparisons across UK jurisdictions, but don’t match up with the authority-specific stats for England.
Small changes can easily be over-interpreted. Many reports have echoed Defra’s observation that organic recycling dropped because garden waste arisings fell between 2014 and 2015, which it seemingly attributed to the weather. Some have suggested that the spread of charged-for garden waste services is a contributing factor. However, comparing 2014/15 with 2015/16, organic waste recycling is actually up 17,000 tonnes (0.4 per cent). Charging for garden waste has been around a while, making the picture complex. For example:
- Halton introduced charging in 2015, and organics tonnage went down by almost 4,000 tonnes (17 per cent).
- Kirklees introduced charging in 2011. Last year, it recorded a 4,500 tonne (35 per cent) increase in organic waste collected.
- Medway doesn’t charge, but saw a 3,100 tonne (10 per cent) decrease.
- Organic waste recycling has increased in unitary authorities, but is down in two-tier councils.
While there would be value in further analysing the impact of charging, it’s hard to make a case for a grand narrative about garden waste when the total national change is exceeded by the change recorded by several individual authorities.
Dry recycling throws up a different set of puzzles. The 2015/16 figures show a 23,000 tonne (0.4 per cent) decrease in household dry recycling, which is the same direction of travel as Defra’s 2015 figure (down 64,000 tonnes, or 1.1 per cent). I haven’t rummaged around in the raw data to check which materials are up, and which down – but simple calculations can be done with Defra’s waste from households compositional analysis:
Card and paper are down, which might reflect newsprint’s continuing decline. Plastics are up, as is WEEE. However, the roll-out of WasteDataFlow Q100 means there’s a need for caution – Defra notes: ‘Since 2015, local authorities have been able to provide more material specific information to report more accurately their waste which would previously have been reported as “other materials”.’ So, the decline in ‘other’ is probably more apparent than real, with much of the tonnage moving to named categories.
Question and answer
It may surprise readers that the decline is not down to people setting out less material for recycling. In 2015/16, councils actually collected 45,000 tonnes more household material for recycling than ever before. However, of the 10.5 million tonnes collected, a record 417,375 tonnes (4.1 per cent) were reported as rejects, up 87,000 tonnes (26 per cent) on the previous year. This increase is double the reported decrease in dry recycling and accounts for 27 per cent of the 322,000 tonne increase in waste that was not recycled.
The inexorable rise in the rejects figure has prompted a tremendous amount of press coverage, not all of it accurate. Back in October, a colleague and I analysed the change in rejects to see what conclusions could be drawn (see Resource 86). There appeared to be several factors at play, but we assessed that most of the increase ‘occurred across a wide range of councils that formerly had improbably low rejects’. The likeliest explanation appeared to be a piecemeal improvement in data quality from councils that collect recycling co-mingled.
We also noted that many councils were still reporting improbably low figures, meaning the roll-out of Q100 was likely to mean rejects may remain high or increase in 2015/16, even if input contamination remains constant or decreases.
Indeed, the number of co-mingling councils reporting improbably low reject figures (below two per cent) has decreased by 62 between 2011/12 and 2015/16, while those reporting less than 4 per cent rejects fell by 45, and these councils account for most of the change in tonnage. Authorities that reported a reject rate of less than 3 per cent in 2014/15 showed a 57,776 tonne increase in rejects. Meanwhile, councils with reject rates above 10 per cent in 2014/15 reported a 15,000 tonne decrease.
This suggests that rejects may have previously been under-reported (and most likely, remain so). If this is the case, a greater tonnage of household waste may actually have been recycled this year than last!
Some might wonder whether collection methods have had any bearing on the change in recycling rate. There are differences: overall, kerbside sort systems reported an increase in recycling, as did a couple of less widely used two-stream systems, while other systems reported a reduction.
The results are interesting, but the tonnages involved are small, so I’m cautious about inferring any pattern here.
Questioning the question
2015/16’s recycling rate fall does not appear to be the calamitous reversal some have suggested. The tonnage difference between a flat recycling rate and a small fall is not enormous, and when data collection has been changing, it is difficult even to be sure that a real change has occurred. ‘Why has the recycling rate fallen?’ seems like an urgent question – but perhaps we’re getting upset over nothing more than a bit of noise in the data.
It may be more fruitful to regard 2015/16 as a continuation of the plateau that started in 2011/12, after recycling increased steadily through the 2000s. Then the question becomes: ‘Why is England’s recycling rate no longer rising?’ There are many possible answers, but changes we’ve seen since the days of rapid rises include:
- Councils have fewer staff and a lot less money. Previously, there was greater willingness to make changes that would increase the recycling rate at little or no cost. Now, it’s imperative that changes make savings.
- The quick wins have largely been made, and most councils now offer a pretty comprehensive kerbside collection service. Just 29 rely on bring banks for glass. More don’t collect pots, tubs and trays (90) and cartons (over 100) – but these won’t contribute hugely to tonnage. Only incremental changes are now available in terms of materials targeted.
The main measure that pushes up recycling while cutting costs is controversial: reducing residual waste collection frequency. Bury went three-weekly in October 2014, and its rate is up 6 percentage points since 2013/14; Rochdale followed a year later, and is up 7 points since 2014/15. If the task of boosting recycling is left to councils and the current policy framework, it’s hard to see that it can be achieved unless many others follow suit.
While we shouldn’t read too much into the nominal decrease in the recycling rate, it might highlight the need for fresh action to boost recycling. Wales’s achievements demonstrate that more can be done within the local authority model, but there is growing recognition that making progress under current spending constraints means England may need to overcome its aversion to placing responsibility on those who ultimately produce waste. If Defra comes to share this view, the tiny fall in the recycling rate might prove to have been significant after all.