The problem of glittery Christmas waste unexpectedly made the front page of the Daily Mail this month. The story rightly highlighted the confusion and frustration people feel trying to work out what they can recycle, compounded by the fact that different local authorities have different recycling policies.
But the Daily Mail’s solution: to point the finger at local authorities and demand they give us better information, is asking too much of our hard pressed councils and doesn’t address the source of the problem. Companies should also be taking more responsibility for the composition of their products and packaging and where they all end up. And they should be making sure their customers get the information they need to recycle properly.
Councils shoulder an unfair share of the responsibility and cost
We shouldn’t be blaming local authorities for glitter covered wrapping paper. Councils are burdened with a disproportionate share of the responsibility for our waste and recycling. The dysfunctionality of this approach is highlighted by the fact that annual recycling rates in England fell for the first time in 2015. And, despite councils spending around £300 million every year dealing with waste packaging, businesses that process waste materials are still struggling to get the right quality feedstock, contributing to a string of bankruptcies. And manufacturers that use recycled materials are frustrated by an inconsistent supply.
We need to address the structural problems that are making England’s management of household waste so inefficient, starting with standardising what and how items are collected for recycling. Detailed modelling by the waste and resources experts WRAP suggests that if all local authorities collected the same set of materials, and in a way that maximised their quality, then recycling rates would go up seven per cent while costs would be cut by two per cent. But shifting to this system would require significant upheaval and beleaguered local authorities are understandably nervous about the possible political and financial consequences.
There is also a lot of frustration in local government that they are expected to increase recycling rates without having any power over whether the products people throw away can be recycled or whether householders will actually use the services they provide.
This misalignment of power and responsibility leads to a circle of blame, with businesses blaming local authorities for not collecting their products, local authorities blaming businesses for not designing their products for recycling, and householders blaming both.
How to change the system
The latest report from the Circular Economy Task Force, Recycling reset: how England can stop subsidising waste recommends four positive steps to solve the problem:
- Councils should standardise recycling collections, to improve the quality of the material collected. This will help to stop the confusion over what can and can’t be recycled and cut costs.
- Councils that standardise their service should have some of their costs covered by the companies that create the packaging in the first place, via redirected producer responsibility payments.
- Responsible companies that use recycled materials, design their packaging for recyclability and inform their customers on recycling should pay lower producer responsibility fees, while those that don’t should pay more.
- To be fairer to people who recycle properly, councils should be able to charge those households which don’t.
These recommendations are based on proven policies from abroad. For example, Belgium has one of the most consistent approaches to recycling and managing waste packaging costs 25 per cent less per person than in England. And, in California, a focus on plastic recycling since 2007 has led to a fivefold increase in the amount of plastic being recycled in the state.
Politicians have been nervous about tackling recycling, haunted by accusations of EU bureaucratic interference and ‘bin tax’ media stories. But the recent furore over our unrecyclable Christmas cards shows that people really do care about recycling and believe it’s the right thing to do. As Britain leaves the EU, it’s time to recognise this support and create a fairer, more efficient recycling system that ends unnecessary confusion for householders, wastes less public money and provides a reliable supply of recycled materials for our manufacturers.