The devolved administrations have all been bolder and more purposeful in pushing their local authorities to tackle the waste problem, which is reflected in the data for 2019/20. Is England about to embark on a decade where it makes up for lost time? Charles Newman analyses the most recent figures and finds out which councils are sailing ahead, and which are becalmed.
Resource Magazine has been scrutinising local authority waste data to understand trends for almost 20 years. Our focus is the journey towards zero waste. And while that is not going to be achieved anytime soon, rating performance according to the amount of residual waste that people produce is an effective gauge to measure progress.
For obvious reasons, governments, businesses and citizens are focused on tackling CO2e emissions, yet the intensity of our resource use and wastage still warrants consideration. Not only are there implications in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but failure to conserve raw materials has the potential to derail socio-economic stability. Unchecked demand for and supply of raw materials also puts communities and natural habitats at risk the world over.
With this in mind, the decisions that local government makes about how to recycle are significant. The services and approach of each council are the single biggest factor in determining what people in an area can and can’t do with their waste.
As always, we have done our analysis on household rather than municipal waste. Although there is no overriding reason to favour one over the other, as both are good measures of local authority performance, we choose to emphasise the progress made with people, rather than work done dredging highways, managing parks, gardens and other local government commitments.
And, as we have done for over ten years, our league tables are ordered according to residual waste per capita, as this remains our best simple measure of environmental impacts, not least because of the greenhouse gas emissions that are associated with disposal. While recycling rates are to be lauded – and included in our tables – in line with hierarchy, waste reduction should be recognised first.
So how did local authorities fare during the latest reported year? (2019/20 for England, Wales and N.Ireland and 2019 for Scotland, which reports for the calendar years instead.) The answer is, as it has been for some time, that on a national basis the devolved administrations are outperforming sluggish England.
For most of the last decade, Defra ministers did little to invest in tools to further tackle waste resources. The arrival of Michael Gove changed this, putting some wind into the sails and setting the course to overhaul legislation, though it will be some time before we see the results as competing interests wrangle within the Government. So, for the time being, it remains the case that the somewhat more agile devolved administrations show the way.
Once again, Wales heads the pack. Nine of our top ten performing unitary and waste disposal authorities are Welsh, no mean feat as that is almost half of all Welsh councils. Although household waste (our chosen method of calculation) in Wales is less than the Welsh Government’s municipal figure, it is still miles ahead of household waste figures for other countries.
Wales’ reported progress is all the more remarkable as the data includes figures for Caerphilly that are substantially worse than the previous year, with residual waste per capita 76.9kg higher and the household waste recycling rate over 20 per cent lower than in 2018/19.
We have been aware of concern over Caerphilly’s recycling system for some years, notably claims about the low quality of materials collected. The difference these days is that many countries in Asia have set stringent contamination thresholds for recyclables. The reduction in tonnage of fibre and plastic recycled by Caerphilly in 2019/20 suggests this was a factor.
For Wales as a whole, the impact of this underperforming authority is to reduce the national recycling rate by almost one per cent.
Topping our league table for unitary and disposal authorities for the second year running is Bridgend where households on average threw away 132.2 kilos per person during 2019/20, though it is worth mentioning that this was 6kg more than the previous year. This council exemplifies the Welsh Government’s Collections Blueprint, providing residents with a multi-stream recycling service. A couple of notable features that illustrate why Bridgend continues to lead the way is the provision of separate food waste collection from flats and separate collection of nappies and absorbent hygiene products.
The biggest improver in this year’s table is the Isles of Scilly, incredibly reducing residual waste arisings by over 100kgs per person, in part due to the introduction of a commingled kerbside collection scheme for dry recyclables. It still remains bottom of the table (423.3kg per person), though this is to be expected with small island councils as they collect commercial waste alongside household waste, which skews the data.
Perhaps not receiving as much recognition as it should, Northern Ireland continues the recent trend of making the biggest annual improvement among the four countries of the United Kingdom. In 2019/20 it made a significant reduction in residual waste per person and a smaller reduction in total waste, hallmarks of what happens when separate food waste recycling is introduced.
Among Waste Collection Authorities in England, for this latest year of public data, Three Rivers District Council tops our table for the lowest amount of residual waste, with an average of 125kgs per person. It is a reflection of good investment in communications with a comprehensive recycling service, including separate food collection that also covers flats in the area. That said, most fibre and plastic collected by this Hertfordshire WCA is sent abroad for recycling and, as such, any contamination in these streams is not counted in the residual arisings.
One notable feature of this latest table for WCAs is that five councils achieved a better performance in 2018/19 than Three Rivers did in 19/20. This though is in part due to the more recent year being much wetter, as well as warmer during the winter months, resulting in substantially more garden waste.
Scotland, which we present separately due to its reporting on a calendar year, continues to lag behind all other UK countries in terms of residual waste per person, though notably has a household recycling rate of 44.9 per cent, which is 1.1 per cent more than England.
Looking at the individual local authorities in Scotland, it is the performance of table-topping East Renfrewshire that most catches the eye. Waste arisings increased by a substantial 47.3 kg per person, resulting in annual total waste per person exceeding 508 kilos, more in line with a large rural or island local authority. However, East Renfrewshire is the top-performing local authority in terms of recycling, diverting a substantial 67.8 per cent from disposal.
Although the tables presented here show many more councils jumping ahead or falling back, the overarching story is one in which the devolved administrations continue to make incremental progress, while wind appears to have left England’s sails. The UK no longer has DG Environment steering the course, so we wait to see if Defra’s ambitious tranche of consultations delivers the wind of change that is sorely needed.
Some notes about data: We have been compiling league tables of recycling and waste management performance since 2002. During this time our focus has moved to residual waste, although recycling rates remain important, and our methodology has evolved. The way local authorities report waste data has also changed a bit over time.
Inevitably, there are contentious points about the measures we have chosen to use and the reliability of the source data. An explanation of how we have arrived at these figures, drawn from government sources, including wastedataflow, is available on our resource.co website. As always, we welcome any input and discussion about methodology.