Resource Use

UK recycling rate increases as industry welcomes methodology revisions

The UK’s Waste from Households recycling rate has increased to 45.2 per cent in 2016, up from 44.6 per cent in 2015, according to official statistics released yesterday (22 February) by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The report, ‘UK Statistics on Waste’, provides an update on the UK’s waste statistics and a breakdown of the figures for each type of waste disposal, such as packaging waste and biodegradable municipal waste.

The UK’s recycling rate for 2016 represents an increase of 0.6 per cent on the previous year, with recycling rates in each of the four UK nations increasing from 2015 to 2016: England moved from 44.3 per cent to 44.9 per cent, Northern Ireland from 42 per cent to 43 per cent, and Scotland from 42.1 per cent to 42.8 per cent. Wales remains far out in front of its neighbours with a figure of 57.3 per cent in 2016, up from 55.8 per cent the year before, though the Welsh Government has independently reported recycling figures of 64 per cent for 2016/17.

Given that England accounts for 22.8 million tonnes of the total 27.3 million tonnes of waste arising across the UK, the overall UK recycling rate is heavily weighted towards and influenced by England’s recycling performance.

The increase in both recycling tonnages and the overall rate can partly be attributed to the inclusion of metal recovered and recycled after incineration (IBA metal) in official recycling figures, whereas previously IBA metal would have been reported as ‘recovery’ of waste.

UK recycling rate increases as industry welcomes methodology revisions
Recycling rate from Waste from Households, UK and country split, 2010-16

Despite the overall increase in the UK recycling rate, it remains some way short of the EU’s 50 per cent target to be achieved by 2020, a target that the UK will continue to be beholden to for as long as it retains its status as an EU Member State. The increase represents a slight nudge in the right direction, but meeting the 50 per cent target will require a massive hastening of improvement following over five years of stagnation in recycling rates.

A number of data revisions have been included in the report, with commercial and industrial (C&I) waste generation estimates for 2010 and 2012-14 having been substantially revised following a detailed review of the measurement methodology. Minor revisions have been made to estimates of historical Waste from Households after the inclusion of bottom ash metals in recycling estimates to ensure consistency between all four UK nations.

While the UK’s total recycling rate remains far behind the 50 per cent EU target for 2020, there has been rather more progress in certain individual waste streams. The amount of UK biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) sent to landfill in 2016 was similar to that in 2015, registering only a slight increase from 15.3 million tonnes in 2015 to 15.7 million tonnes in 2016, while the percentage of BMW landfilled remained at 22 per cent of the 1995 baseline value - EU member states are bound to a target of restricting BMW landfilled to below 35 per cent of the 1995 baseline by 2020.

UK recycling rate increases as industry welcomes methodology revisions

Meanwhile, the UK remains well above the minimum packaging waste recycling targets set by the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, which compels member states to keep their packaging recycling and recovery rates above 60 per cent, which was the original target for 2008. The overall target includes material-specific targets for glass (60 per cent), paper and cardboard (60 per cent), metals (50 per cent), plastics (22.5 per cent) and wood (15 per cent).

The UK remains ahead of the minimum recycling target for every material, with the highest recycling rate achieved for paper and cardboard (81.9 per cent), followed by 68.7 per cent for metal and 67.1 per cent for glass. It will be interesting to see how these figures are affected, especially for paper and plastic, by China’s ban on the import of 24 grades of solid waste, including post-consumer plastics and mixed papers.

Commenting on the latest figures, Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), Jacob Hayler, said: “While the UK’s 2016 recycling rate for Waste from Households shows an improvement over 2015, partly due to the inclusion of IBA metals, it provides further proof that on current policies, the UK will not reach 50 per cent recycling by 2020, let alone the higher rates provisionally agreed at EU level. As ESA has already pointed out, Defra’s impending resources and waste strategy will need to address the issue of sustainable markets for recyclable materials, as well as the UK’s residual waste capacity gap.”

Revised commercial and industrial (C&I) waste figures

Much attention following the report’s publication has centred on the revised methodology for measuring C&I waste in England. The term ‘commercial and industrial’ spans a range of economic activities (based on the European NACE statistical classification of economic activities in the European Community) including manufacturing, industrial processes and service-based enterprises. C&I waste generation is very hard to estimate due to data limitations and data gaps, meaning that there is a much higher level of uncertainty than for Waste from Households and, as such, drawing conclusions from the data should be done so with caution.

The previous methodology provided reliable estimates for landfilled and incinerated waste and organic recycling, but dry recycling estimates relied heavily on assumptions regarding intermediate treatment sites and tonnages processed under exemption, creating uncertainty. To remedy this, alternative ‘end-point’ data sources have been found and the exemptions-based methodology has been removed. Additional improvements have been made to capture missed tonnages of ‘mixed municipal waste’ that are re-categorised as secondary waste at waste transfer stations.

The latest methodology was developed with significant industry input, and Defra will continue to work with industry to ensure that C&I estimates remain relevant to what is a constantly evolving industry.

The revised figures estimate that a total of 41.9 million tonnes of waste were generated by the UK C&I sectors in 2014, with 32.8 million tonnes being produced in England. These figures represent a drop in the total C&I waste generated since 2012, down from 44.2 million tonnes. England’s provisional figures for 2016 show a slight decrease in the amount of C&I waste generated since 2014, down to 32.2 million tonnes.

The revised methodology has been welcomed by representatives of the UK waste and resources industry, with Jacob Hayler commenting: “ESA and its members welcome the revised figures on C&I waste published today in ‘UK Statistics on Waste’. Last year, ESA members raised concerns about the data published by Defra on this waste stream, which in their view significantly underestimated the amount of waste out there.

“ESA is pleased that by working with the industry, sharing knowledge, and cross checking against other datasets, this year Defra have been able to come up with a much more transparent and reliable approach to estimating the total amount of C&I waste. The new approach tallies better with industry’s own analysis and other data sets, which gives more confidence and clarity around the reported figures, and establishes a better platform for understanding future trends and changes.

“This collaborative work has been particularly important at a time when the UK is looking to develop its own post-Brexit resources and waste strategy and trying to encourage investment in much-needed UK waste infrastructure and services.”

Jeff Rhodes, waste management company Biffa’s Head of Environment and member of the Data Group, added: “This is exactly the type of collaborative working the sector needs when it comes to data, policy and regulation – bringing together all those with an interest to examine the problem and identify a solution.

“The waste industry has undertaken much analytical work over the last couple of years and is only too happy to engage with regulators and policy-makers to use that research for the benefit of the sector, and the country as a whole.

“These analytical projects are of key importance at a time when the UK is developing its own post-Brexit waste strategy and trying to encourage investment in UK waste infrastructure and services.  By working with industry, sharing knowledge and cross-checking against other existing, relevant datasets, Defra has been able to come up with a much more transparent and reliable approach to gathering and presenting C&I waste arisings data.

“Not only does this give more confidence and clarity around the reported figures, but it establishes a better platform and approach going forwards, which will also help to enable trends and changes to be better understood and proactively addressed.”

Defra’s full ‘UK Statistics on Waste’ report for 2018 can be viewed on the government’s website.

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