Working in harmony

Andrew Bird, Chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), considers whether harmonisation in recycling collections is really the way forward.  

Continued funding cuts in local authority budgets and the announcement on the European Circular Economy Package have highlighted to me that there now needs to be a fundamental change in the way we manage waste, and importantly how that is paid for moving forward.

As well as these issues, the new Resources Minister, Rory Stewart, has stated that he would like to see greater harmonisation in recycling collections, believing this is a barrier to higher recycling rates due to resident confusion resulting from the ‘hundreds’ of different collection systems offered.

He has a point, but not, in my opinion, about the way materials are collected, but more what materials are actually collected by local authorities, which does vary widely depending on markets and infrastructure available to deal with materials.

Plastics in particular are the major challenge: most authorities collect plastic bottles, but only around half collect pots, tubs and trays, and virtually none collect plastic film. The same is true with cardboard – not all collect it as part of their dry recycling service, despite the fact that it is a growing resource, resulting from increasing online shopping.

The reasons, as mentioned above, are due to market restraints and the availability of economical reprocessing infrastructure. For me, it is this that causes so much confusion for residents; they simply, and understandably, just don’t understand why, when it states on an item of packaging that it is recyclable, they can’t recycle it in their area.

So for me this is where we need to have the real debate around harmonisation: the materials we collect, not how we collect them.

Harmonisation of materials collected would facilitate the ability to run national communication campaigns with the same messages being given either by the local authority, or by retailers, building trust and transparency in what happens to materials that are put out by residents for recycling.

In addition to this, we need to agree nationally other messages about materials. So, do we leave tops on glass jars and bottles or not? And with plastics, do we wash and squash or not? Currently there is no consistency with this; although campaigns such as Alupro’s ‘Leave your cap on!’ are the right way to go, it needs to be adopted by everyone.

If we are serious about circular economy processes, we have to address these issues, and I am not yet convinced by the proposals set out in the Circular Economy Package Action Plan.