Time to regroup on recycling and resources

After over a decade of progress on recycling, during which time the UK has become the ‘fastest improver’ in Europe, there are worrying signs that the future may be a little more bumpy than we expected.
In its recent evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee on waste policy in England, The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management warned that the UK may not meet the EU Waste Framework Directive recycling target for municipal solid waste (MSW) of 50 per cent by 2020.
While recycling rates in some parts of the UK, and most notably across Wales, are already hitting or exceeding the 50 per cent mark, there is growing evidence that recycling is flatlining in England and Northern Ireland, and in some cases declining.
There are a number of factors contributing to this stalling. While there is no doubt that the UK has done a good job to date, with a high percentage of householders engaged and active on recycling, we have now pretty much picked the low hanging fruit. As well as keeping our current recyclers engaged, any future increase will mean tackling some of the more difficult performance areas, include engaging harder-to-reach and transient audiences, and developing effective services for challenging housing stock including flats and privately managed estates.
Driving up recycling in these population groups will be more resource intensive, requiring targeted communications and engagement, and service models that make it easy for residents to engage in the right recycling behaviour.
The pressure to deliver this push, however, is coming to bear at a time when local authorities are facing unprecedented budgets cuts and the focus on recycling is moving from quantity to quality, putting existing collection services and performance under the spotlight.

Quality and quantity
Against the backdrop of the EU Waste Framework Directive requirements to separately collect paper, plastic, glass and metals from 2015, and changing regulations governing the quality of mixed recyclables being processed by Materials Recycling Facilities, we are in the middle of an important debate about how (and whether) higher quality recycling can be achieved by local authorities at the point of collection without compromising on the quantity collected.
It is a politically charged debate, with multiple agendas playing into the mix. Faced with ongoing budgets cuts, local authorities are worried by the prospect of being asked to do even more on recycling with even less money, particularly in England where the lack of statutory targets weakens the ‘business case’ for investment in recycling at a time when other services are facing significant cuts.
In Wales and Scotland, where the national governments have expressed a strong policy preference for source separated collection, councils who have opted for, or were considering, co-mingled collections for financial and/or performance reasons are concerned at the potential prospect of having to change their approach.     
Overall, there is a strong feeling among many authorities that policy at a national level across the UK does not sufficiently recognise the tension between recycling quality and quantity and overestimates local government’s ability to deliver further performance improvements.
Economic factors
There are other longer term pressures; the EU Directives driving waste and resource management, especially diversion from landfill and increased recycling are currently being reviewed. Early indications from the EU Commissioner for the Environment are that recycling targets could be increased to 70 per cent or even 80 per cent in the future.  
Population growth, economic conditions and consumption patterns are also major influencing factors. According to EU statistics, the UK’s population grew faster than any other EU member state in 2013 in terms of absolute numbers of people, and while household waste arisings have been falling in recent years, there are signs that this is reversing.     

A recent survey of 25 local authorities by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT) found that residual waste arisings had showed an overall 0.8 per cent increase between 2012/13  and 2013/14, and other authorities are reporting a similar shift. Given that the downward trend in the amount of waste we generate had been linked by many to the economic downturn, there is the potential for a further growth in waste volumes as the UK economy continues to recover.
A unique role
So, we are in a very important transition stage between waste and resource management and if we can navigate these difficult waters successfully, there are some big prizes to be won. Quite aside from the growing focus on ‘big picture’ global concepts and issues such as the circular economy and resource security, the EU Commission estimates that better waste and resource management in Europe could contribute an additional three per cent to GDP, and local authorities have a unique role to play in realising this benefit at a local level by providing UK householders with one of the few ways in which they can make a personal day-to-day contribution to creating a more sustainable future through recycling, re-use and waste prevention.
They can also help by exploring and supporting the local economic benefits of better resource management, for example by helping local businesses gain competitive edge through improved resource efficiency or by collecting recyclable materials that can be reprocessed and used locally to boost jobs and growth. Additionally, they can work to provide a stable and high quality supply of recyclable materials to benefit the wider UK economy.

Local government should not think it is expected to rise to these challenges alone. Over the course of the last 12 months, we have seen wider recognition across the sector that some of the underpinning economics of the current system are not working. The Producer Responsibility regime is under scrutiny, with many questioning whether enough of the revenue resulting from the recycling of packaging materials flows back to those tasked with their collection. There is growing debate about who carries the risks associated with fluctuating market prices for recyclates and whether both the risks and the revenues can be better shared between the public and private sector. There is talk about how taxation can be used to ensure that there is a sufficient price differential between virgin and secondary resources to stimulate demand for recycled materials and make the business case for recycling more compelling.

And, there are also more and more examples of local authorities working in partnership – not just to deliver core efficiency savings but also to realise the benefits of a joint approach to the market on equipment, infrastructure and recyclate contracts.  
The sector also has a strong line-up of organisations and bodies that can and are weighing into the fray. The Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP) confirmed at the CIWM conference last week that it will be reinvigorating the national Recycle Now campaign, providing overarching national messages to underpin and support local communications activities. Bodies such as CIWM, the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, the Environmental Services Association and the Resource Association have worked together to bring pressure on the government on issues such as support for and investment in waste infrastructure. And, in the absence of English policy guidance from Defra on the separate recycling collection regulations, a joint working group comprising Local Authority Waste Networks, LWARB and WRAP, with a range of other organisations in support, produced a ‘routemap’ to help local authorities assess their collections against the requirements. This is perhaps the real glimmer of hope on the immediate horizon; the fact that the different parts of the waste and resource management industry are starting to rally together, joining ranks to tackle the challenges and to speak to the policy makers with a more unified voice.

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