Resource Use

Suffolk loses £550,000 a year due to poor recycling

The cost of poor recycling has been brought into sharp relief by Suffolk County Council, which has reported losses of £550,000 a year due to people putting recycling in the wrong bins.

The cabinet member’s report came to this estimate by multiplying the tonnage of material rejected from Suffolk’s MRF due to contamination by the disposal cost.

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A recent survey by the British Science Association found that, although awareness of the importance of recycling is rising, there remains a lot of confusion about the specifics. For instance, 35 per cent of participants said they believe kitchen roll is recyclable and and 44 per cent said the same for hand soap pump dispenser lids, which have to be removed and put in residual waste. At the same time, even more respondents were unaware that common items like tin foil and empty aerosol cans could be recycled.

Moreover, only 30 per cent said they would bother to check if an item was recyclable when they weren’t sure, while 22 per cent of 25-34 year olds stated they didn’t recycle at all because it was too time-consuming. As a result, not only is recycling being contaminated but valuable recyclate is needlessly ending up in the residual waste stream.

This point was raised by Hilary Garlick, Service Development Manager at Suffolk County Council, and the Eastern Region Representative for LARAC, the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee. Garlick offered a reminder that the £550,000 figure “doesn’t include any estimate of the lost value of recycling in the residual stream”. Actual losses for councils due to poor recycling could be much higher, given the amount of recyclate that still ends up in landfill due to lack of knowledge or care about what can actually go into recycling bins.

Confusion about the specifics of recycling contributes to levels of contamination meaning MRFs are having to reject more and more loads. In 2016, a BBC Freedom of Information request found that reject rates had increased in England by 84 per cent over four years from 2011/12.

Across the UK recycling industry, the issue of contamination has been brought to the fore as a result of a strict contamination limit imposed by China in January. The UK has long exported recyclate to China (around 70 per cent of mixed paper exports and 25 per cent of plastic packaging) but the Chinese Government has now restricted the import of any materials with more than 0.5 per cent contamination, as well as banning 24 grades of solid waste entirely.

This contamination limit has led many in the UK to call for a greater focus on improving the quality of recycling at home in order that China is not completely closed off as a destination for recycling. Marcus Gover, CEO of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), wrote to the UK government in October 2017: ‘We all need to recognise that improving the quality of recycled materials is critical to the continued growth and success of the whole recycling supply chain. China and other countries importing recovered materials need to feel confident we are not dumping our waste on them.’

Improving the quality of recycling starts with providing clear advice and information to people at home. The Suffolk Waste Partnership, a joint working group of the regions’ county, district and borough councils, has been piloting a series of schemes designed to better inform residents about what can and can’t be recycled, through leaflets, bin stickers and door knocking.

Rob Cole, manager of the Suffolk Waste Partnership, told the East Anglian Daily Times: “We are trying to educate people and make sure they understand what goes where… Recycling is a cheaper option than putting [waste] in the bin - disposing of waste is expensive. It’s better for the environment, better for taxpayers and better for residents.”

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