Let’s stop blaming councils for bad recycling and reboot the whole system

BBAR0H RF.jpgThe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

3 comments

  • Why all the focus on packaging which is less than one quarter of household waste? What about the products that the packaging is needed for and which have many times the environmental impact of the packaging that protects them. And what about food waste that has a far greater impact. This obsession with packaging – where recycling rates continue to increase – is taking attention away from far greater issues. Packaging is not a product – it is a delivery system to protect products. And on the issue of recyclability, nearly 90% of all packaging is already recyclable, the problem is participation by consumers.
    And on the subject of glitter, if consumers don’t want it then don’t buy it. If they do want it, it’s bizarre then to blame producers!

  • I agree with points made, however there is little discussion in relation to the huge challenges that need to be overcome on each point!
    They are not insurmountable, but do need to be solved in an integrated way. It is also fair to say that there needs to be a redistribution of the costs and liabilities involved, probably requiring new money initially!
    I was also a little disappointed that the last paragraph seemed to suggest that leaving the EU would be an opportunity, or that it was to blame. Nearly all of our problems stem from a lack of clear policy and implementation of EU regulation in a concise manner, as demonstrated by Belgium and others!
    The Localism Act is not an EU regulation, but one that poses problems in taking a strategic approach to management of waste and resources.

  • I agree, the optimal solution, from a recycling point of view, would be a common standard by which goods and packaging is produced. This would then make it easier for local authorities to provide clearer information to residents.

    The question is how to make such a common standard applicable to products manufactured both in the UK and abroad. If businesses that do comply with this standard are not going to be penalised with higher producer responsibility fees, I would imagine it would have to be part of negotiations in free trade deals.

    I also agree that charging households for residual waste collection would force them to be more aware of what and how they buy and/or throw away. I thought the scheme that was introduced by the Labour Government of “charge and rebate” (with the aim of being self-financing) was a good attempt – it’s just a shame that (a) only one council in 18 months had submitted an application to pilot, and (b) the right wing press misrepresented it as simply bin taxes, without the positive incentive element.

    If the move is towards a circular economy, then some sort of positive incentive that rewards households for recycling has to be included. After all, households are essentially economic agents – they buy and they produce material (waste) for others.

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