UK Recycling and waste treatment sector worth £24bn

The Environmental Services Association (ESA) has published a market research report valuing the UK's recycling and waste treatment sector at £24 billion. 

Bin operative loading an 1100 litre bin onto back of a refuse collection vehicle in SwindonThe UK Recycling and Waste Treatment Market Overview provides policy-makers, investors, and stakeholders with a detailed snapshot of the sector, supported by consistent baseline data and analysis.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The sector employs approximately 147,000 people
  • An estimated 70.7 million tonnes of waste were collected in 2021, comprising 30.4 million tonnes of Local Authority Collected Waste (LACW) and 40.4 million tonnes of Commercial and Industrial Waste (C&I)
  • Local authority expenditure on waste services in England reached £5.8 billion in 2021/22
  • The sector has reduced its emissions by 46 per cent since 1990 and aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040

The report also provides insights into the market's leading companies. Among ESA members, the top three companies by UK turnover are Veolia (£1.7bn), Biffa (£1.6bn), and Suez (£900m). In terms of tonnage handled, Veolia leads with approximately 11 million tonnes, followed closely by Suez with 10 million tonnes, and Biffa with 8 million tonnes. Details of companies turnover, tonnages and employment levels can be found in the full report.

Commenting on the report, Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the ESA, pointed to the sector's impact: "The only interaction most people have with our sector is when their home or business bins are collected or they need to visit their local Household Waste Recycling Centre. However, behind these valuable and visible frontline services lies a large, intricate, and symbiotic network of organisations, infrastructure, data, policy, and regulation that is forever shifting in response to societal and technological change."

The report, compiled by independent consultancy Tolvik Consulting Ltd, consolidates current data on waste volumes and flows, complemented by charts and commentary on economic and policy drivers.

Chris Jonas, Director of Tolvik, highlighted its potential contribution: "The report brings together a wide range of data sources from many industry segments into a single summary report to provide some clarity and high-level understanding of the scale of activities undertaken in the managing of the UK's resources over recent years."

The report's release coincides with significant policy reforms, including the addition of Energy-from-Waste (EfW) in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from 2026: "The inclusion of EfW in the ETS represents a fundamental shake-up of the economics of the sector which could result in negative unintended consequences for councils and businesses if not implemented correctly."

Additional key statistics from the report include:

  • EfW has become the dominant treatment option for residual waste, processing 55 per cent of residual waste in 2022
  • Landfill use has declined, with inputs subject to landfill tax reducing from 46Mt in 2014 to 27Mt in 2021
  • In 2022, 15.8Mt of waste was exported from the UK, mainly metals (9.2Mt), paper and cardboard (4.1Mt), and Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) (1.6Mt)

The report provides an account of the ESA’s role contributing to the UK's circular economy and decarbonisation efforts.

Hayler added: "Our members invest billions in British infrastructure, put boots on the ground, and serve more than 17 million people every day – playing a pivotal role in the circular economy and protecting the environment."

As the sector navigates reforms proposed by the previous Government, including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging and changes to kerbside collection services under Simpler Recycling, the report aims to equip new policy-makers and nearly 300 new MPs with a thorough understanding of the market.

The full report is available exclusively to ESA members but will be distributed to parliamentarians and relevant stakeholders on request. An abridged version is accessible to non-members for free on the ESA's website.