What would it take to recycle 80 per cent?

While the progress of household recycling rates has stalled in England, other parts of the world, not least Wales, continue to show more is possible. Resource asks what it will take to recycle 80 per cent of what we throw away? 

It’s not that long ago that we recycled next to nothing. By the start of the millennium most local authorities diverted less than 10 per cent of household waste from landfill and few would have believed how far we have come today.

There have been many technical improvements over the past 15 years, but perhaps the most substantial difference has been the change in the public’s mindset. Recycling has become an established norm, when previously it was just something that committed environmentalists did.

What would it take to recycle 80 per cent?

Yet today there are still naysayers that express firm doubt about how much can be achieved, or that say 
it does not make sense to aim for very high levels of recycling as this can not be justified in terms of resource scarcity. Views like this are short-termist and fail to sufficiently appreciate the value to climate change mitigation that increased recycling can deliver.

So, how much can be achieved? According to the recent report ‘Recycling - who really leads the world?’ (published by Eunomia in partnership with Resource), we know that Germany currently holds the gold medal position, with Taiwan and Wales taking the remaining two spots on the podium. The report’s methodology identifies that these countries have an adjusted recycling rate of more than 50 per cent in 2015, accounting for elements such as construction waste, incinerator bottom ash, etc, which are often included by individual countries in their recycling rate.

However, those familiar with compositional analysis will know that over 90 per cent of the household waste stream is recyclable, so there is still a lot of room for improvement. What’s more, there are many examples of people who produce no waste at all, and, while this might be asking a lot for the average person, these exemplars throw the spotlight on the changes required to push everyday recycling to greater heights.

The objective of diverting 70 per cent of waste 
from landfill already has firm roots. It is established as a target for the Scottish and Welsh Governments (by 2025), and the European Parliament is pushing for this as part of the final Circular Economy Package (by 2030). However, what does it take to move beyond this and aim even higher?

Although no country as a whole has done this yet, there are regions that have shown what is possible. Treviso in Italy, which has over half a million residents, has achieved recycling rates in excess of 80 per cent; meanwhile, the Belgian region of Flanders, an early adopter of variable charging for waste collection, recycles in excess of 72 per cent.

This article was taken from Issue 88

The following articles here explore what it would take to match or exceed this target in the UK. The first looks at the existing approach of the Welsh Government’s Collections Blueprint, and asks what needs to be done to optimise the current paradigm.

The second article looks at what fundamental changes might be needed in our approach, from measures targeting producers, to those that might affect the behaviour of the waste producing public. We conclude with a couple of short takes, reflecting a European and Welsh view on what recycling 80 per cent might look like.

After almost two decades of substantial increases in recycling, it is perhaps surprising that there should still be so many pessimists about what can still be achieved. We remember the sharp intake of breath that greeted government targets of 40 per cent ten years ago, but 
it was this ambition that has got us to the point we are today. That in itself should give us grounds to set our sights higher.

You can read our features on how we can optimise today's best practice to boost the UK's recycling rates and how we can take practices further to stretch the recycling rate even more in the future on

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