Monday, 6 March 2017

Grim news for the success of recycling in England

Guest post by Dr Aidan Bell, director of EnviroBuild, a supplier of sustainable landscaping and construction materials. Please note I am not endorsing this company, but find the post of interest.

For the first time since 2010, the percentage of household waste recycled in England has fallen. The overall drop, from 44.8% in 2013/14 to 43.9% in 2014/15, might seem small, but it’s a troubling statistic nonetheless.

None of this is to say that there aren’t areas that have improved, but as you can see in our map, there are very few areas shaded green and indicating an improvement in recycling. Despite the success stories, the inconsistency in the recycling rates of England’s various local councils raises questions regarding the wisdom of giving local council complete control over recycling measures that they currently have.

Worrying signs for the future

If the fall in recycling rates was the only negative statistic to have arisen in the last couple of months, you could perhaps wave it away. However, there is at least one other significant figure that suggests our issues with recycling are deeply ingrained. As the BBC discovered, the percentage of waste put forward but rejected for recycling has risen by 84% in the past five years. Does this suggest a lack of education from councils as to what can and can’t be recycled?

Some MPs do seem to be trying to carve a path through Brexit’s environmental uncertainty. A cross-party group has recently pushed for a new Environmental Protection Act to be passed before Brexit is completed, which would maintain the UK’s environmental targets and ensure that existing EU environment law doesn’t get eroded into nothingness in the years after the UK’s exit.

Glimpses of success

It is easy to be negative in light of the most recent statistics, but there are councils out there doing a good job, and education seems to be the reason why. Richmondshire District Council was the most improved local authority, and displays a prominent banner on its site informing people of new collection days.

Similarly, high-performing Colchester Borough Council displays a big advert for their Greener Living newsletter, which encourages locals to ‘reduce waste and get involved in your local community’.

When you compare examples like these to the worst performing councils, you see a lack of similar promotional material that would encourage residents to recycle. This, in essence, is the problem that England is facing at the moment: although there are areas performing well, the lack of consistency between local authorities means that benefits and success are unlikely to be emulated beyond the borders of individual councils.

The futility of local recycling schemes

There are over 300 different recycling schemes across the UK today. That’s over 300 different ways of promoting recycling, and over 300 different lists of what can and can’t be recycled. There are at least two major problems with this segmented approach.

The lessons learned by successful local authorities are not being shared with others. On a national scale, it doesn’t matter if Richmondshire has an effective way of advertising changes to recycling collection, or if Colchester has a greener living newsletter that helps their residents live in a more environmentally friendly way, because these ideas aren’t getting used more widely.

The other major problem is the lack of consistency in what is recycled. Different local councils work with different recycling companies, which means that what is and isn’t classed as recyclable waste changes. In a time of high geographical mobility and a bombardment of information from countless sources, it is inevitable that a lot of people will be confused about what they can recycle, leading some to not bother, and others to try and recycle waste that they can’t, which wastes time and money down the line.

Thinking towards a solution

One logical solution would be to coordinate recycling guidelines on a national scale, with a single scheme in place for the whole country. It would be much easier to gain publicity for changes to a nationwide scheme, and there would never be area-by- area confusion as to what can and can’t be recycled.

Of course, there are question marks over this approach as well. Existing infrastructure isn’t identical throughout the country.  There would need to be conversations with the businesses that actually recycle the waste to decide on an optimal process and to ensure the convergence of a system. Under a government determined to slash the budget more and more for environmental issues, it is unlikely that the resources would ever be invested into a unified recycling system.  There would also be pushback from councils who would likely feel suspicious of central control and implications on their budgets.

Another mechanism that has proved successful across Europe is the principle that the polluter pays.  Manufacturers and retailers have to pay towards packaging on products: the more packaging there is, the higher the fee.

There are various solutions available, but their implementation will require political will: technology alone takes too long to implement in a fragmented market that requires large capital investment and the security of long-term policy.

If there can ever be such thing as a definitive solution, it will have to run deeper than a unified environmental policy. It would require a national commitment to good environmental education in schools and further incentives to avoid landfill.

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