Is there too much localism for recycling?

Recycling is well-known in the public consciousness as an environmentally-minded activity. Yet, despite high levels of awareness, there is some evidence of the recycling industry in England stagnating in recent years.

Figures released this week revealed that the amount of rubbish rejected for recycling by councils has actually increased in the past four years. From 184,000 tonnes in 2011-12, this figure has increased to 338,000 tonnes in 2014-15, an increase of around 84%. If households incorrectly sort their waste, it is possible for a batch of recycling to be contaminated. Resorting waste can be very expensive, and so often councils just send any contaminated waste to landfill.

This blog will briefly examine the recent trends in recycling in England, the benefits of recycling, and the Government’s current policies in this area.

Trends in recycling 

Recycling rates have increased in England in recent years, although progress has been slower than elsewhere in the UK. In 2010, 41% of household waste was recycled. This increased to 45% in 2014. Over the same time period in Wales, recycling increased from 44% to 55%.

The FT reported this month that prices for recycled goods had fallen significantly and were causing recycling businesses to leave the market. For instance, a tonne of recycled plastic has fallen from £400 two years ago to just £300 now. As a result of lower oil prices, new plastic is now much cheaper. Recycled goods are in competition with virgin goods. With many commentators arguing that low oil prices are the new normal, this does not bode well for the medium-term economic prospects of the recycling industry.

Why recycle?

Recycling can have important benefits for both the environment and the economy. First, by preventing waste from being sent to landfill, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from waste currently constitute around 4% of the UK’s warming emissions. In landfill, methane is released by the decomposition of biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen. Landfill emissions have fallen by 79% since 1990. This has been in part a result of biodegradable waste being diverted from landfill by recycling.

Second, recycling also provides an economic opportunity for businesses through encouraging greater resource efficiency. Recycling is a key component of a ‘circular economy’. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that 210,300 jobs could be created by the circular economy in the UK by 2030. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the circular economy could benefit EU businesses by between $340 and $630 billion per year by reducing the amount of raw materials they require.

Current policies

The UK is subject to the EU’s binding target to recycle 50% of household waste by 2020. Recycling is a devolved issue, so there are separate policies in each part of the UK to ensure the target is met. Some believe that England’s stagnating progress makes it unlikely the target will be met.

One of the main policy drivers for incentivising recycling is the landfill tax. Introduced in 1996 by the then Conservative Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon John Gummer MP, this was Britain’s first environmental tax. It is now levied at £84.40 per tonne of rubbish that is disposed in landfill. This creates an important economic incentive for businesses to recycle.

Although central government sets local authorities recycling targets, the local arrangements for collecting recycling are left to individual councils. The Household Waste Recycling Act 2003 mandated that councils collect at least two kinds of recyclable waste from 2010, but gave them freedom to structure the scheme how they wanted.

But this localist approach has not been without problems. For instance, it has led to a proliferation of different recycling systems, with each part of the country having its own types of bins and collection methods. This in turn can confuse households, and lead to greater contamination of recycled waste. At a Bright Blue fringe event at last year's Conservative Party Conference, the then Recycling Minister, Rory Stewart MP, expressed concern about this, and has urged local authorities to work together to harmonise recycling processes across the country.

The current set of recycling policies has enjoyed some success. But it’s clear that now more radical action is required if recycling rates are to increase sufficiently such that the legally binding household waste target and greenhouse gas emissions reduction target are to be met.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue