The launch of the Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling in England, which was designed to enable ‘all households to be able to recycle the same core set of materials’ by 2025, has been widely welcomed across the industry. Plateauing recycling rates in recent years and concerns that this is being fuelled by confusing recycling systems, has brought household collections under scrutiny once more.
The core materials set out in the framework account for 60% of household waste and include plastic bottles, plastic packaging (pots, tubs and trays), metal packaging (cans, aerosols and foil), glass bottles and jars, paper, card, food and drink cartons and food waste.
The vision for the Framework is to enable everyone ‘….to confidently and accurately place out for collection a common set of materials and food waste for recycling’, and currently only a maximum of 23% of authorities in England collect the full suite of materials. But, at present it is a voluntary approach, relying on individual councils to assess the benefits and feasibility of implementing it.
Both Wales and Scotland have introduced their own recycling harmonisation plans - in Scotland the Charter for Household Recycling and in Wales the Collection Blueprint. Both Scotland and Wales have taken these plans one step further by underpinning them with statutory recycling targets; Wales has a 60% recycling target by 2020 and a 70% by 2025, and Scotland has targets of 60% by 2020 and 70% by 2025.
Wales is currently leading the field in the UK with a 59% combined reuse, recycling and composting rate for the 12 months to the end of December 2015. Is the Framework in England merely setting the foundations for the future of waste policy in England? Will we see the return of local or national recycling targets beyond those in the Waste Framework, and will there be a statutory nature to these targets?
In order to meet the proposed revised EC Circular Economy Package target of 65% recycling by 2030, the Framework needs to bring about a recycling rate improvement of 20.7 percentage points. Given that the eight core materials set out in the Framework account for only 60% of household waste composition and typical proportions of materials recycled in 2015 range from 10% (food waste) to 71% (glass), we will still be some way short of reaching the desired recycling rate.
Clearly, England will still need to rely on other material streams outside of the Framework’s core materials in order to achieve the step change in improvement needed, unless dramatic reductions in non-recyclable waste can be achieved. This isn’t helped by the fact that there is a clear disconnect between residents’ perceptions of their recycling behaviour and what is actually taking place. Recent research by Suez and YouGov undertaken in August 2016 found that 79% of respondents felt that they were recycling either the majority or all of the materials that they knew could be recycled, but clearly that can’t be true given the actual tonnages being collected at the kerbside.
In order to deliver on the ambitious vision set out in the Framework we need buy-in at every level from central government down to members of the public. The Framework should be seen as an opportunity for authorities to review services to assess whether a move towards one of the three core collection systems would contribute to a collective improvement in recycling performance.
Authorities will need to develop a business case, taking into account the implications of TEEP and use the process as an opportunity to assess the potential for joint and collaborative working. For contracts shortly due for re-procurement, this provides an ideal opportunity to assess the future of service delivery, to develop a clear waste strategy, and to design a future-proof contract with the required level of flexibility to drive improved performance. This needs to be coupled with clear and positive community engagement and communication in order to take the public on the journey with their local authority and secure public buy-in for positive service change. But who will do this for English authorities, with staffing restrictions and immediate operational priorities to deal with, and who will fund it in times of austerity?
Only time will tell if this voluntary approach will drive authorities towards delivering collection systems which are easier for the public to understand and which achieve the step change in recycling performance desired. But at least recycling is firmly back on the agenda.