Identifying the UK's recycling issues is the only way to reach the country's 2020 target

Written by: Stephen Wise | Published:
Stephen Wise is waste director and waste technical leader at Wood plc

The decline in the UK’s household recycling rate has increased concerns over the ability of local authorities to collectively meet the 50% target for 2020.

There are many obstacles to achieving the performance target. Therefore, identifying these challenges and possible solutions is pivotal.

Home recyclers

Some of the challenges can be found in waste collection systems and public attitude towards recycling. Operating a comingled dry recycling scheme increases the likelihood of material contamination, as the different targeted materials are generally compacted prior to transportation to MRF sites.

If contamination levels exceed thresholds, MRFs will reject the load presented by local authorities because high levels of contamination negatively impact the quality of MRF outputs and their market value.

Householder apathy or confusion about recycling can also lead to the introduction of contaminants into the dry recycling waste supply chain.

Problems across the board

To compete effectively with virgin commodities, recovered waste materials must be of similar quality to be used in closed loop applications. However, because many product manufacturers do not prioritise recyclability when designing their products, many potentially recyclable materials present quality challenges for MRFs and reprocessors.

Furthermore, the presence of composite materials in the household dry recycling waste stream poses issues for MRF operators as many do not have the infrastructure in place to efficiently segregate composites, thereby requiring manual picking. They are considered contaminants because their presence reduces the quality of target MRF outputs. Also, recycling composite materials in the UK has proven to be troublesome.


Likewise, the dependence on China as a reliable destination for recovered household waste materials, has been put into question by recent shifts in Chinese government policy on imported waste.

With the introduction of its Operation Green Fence initiative in early 2013 and its subsequent waste crackdown in 2017 (National Sword 2017), the Chinese government has signalled its resolve to enforce stricter controls over the quality of recovered waste materials imported into the country.

This is likely to have a long term negative impact on UK exporters of recovered plastics and paper, especially if alternative export destinations, such as Indonesia and India, are either unable to accommodate materials rejected by China or implement similar import controls.

Reprocessing technologies

Not all materials in the waste stream benefit from reliable reprocessing technologies. A prime example is recovered sanitary waste. Sanitary waste reprocessing technology has struggled to gain a strong foothold in the UK due to difficulties in acquiring local authority planning approval and establishing sustainable commercial operations. Hence, the technology remains an emerging sector.

Also, problems are also faced in well-established material markets in this country. The market for PET reprocessing has experienced some unnerving moments in recent years due to the significant decline in the price of virgin plastics linked to the crash in crude oil prices since 2014. The reduction in virgin plastic prices, coupled with their perceived quality advantages, has made recycled plastics less attractive as an alternative to virgin material.

Access to, or the availability of, reprocessing capacity strengthens the rationale for the collection and segregation of recyclable materials by local authorities and MRFs, respectively. Local authorities are less inclined to divert potentially recyclable materials from their residual waste streams to their dry recycling schemes if they perceive there are no viable end markets.

Some materials, such as polystyrene (PS) packaging and Polyethylene (PE) film, are considered to be of no or very little value in the UK and have few end markets readily available to incentivise their separate collection and reprocessing.

So, is there an easy way out?

Increasing household recycling rates in the UK to 50% by 2020 is still possible if the incorporation of circularity into the resources sector is facilitated. Hence, government policy is critical for creating a conducive environment for circularity.

These policies should, for example, require product manufacturers to incorporate recyclability in their product design process, as well as stimulate the sourcing of raw materials from the local reprocessing sector. This would both reduce the negative impact product design can have on recycling rates and guarantee markets for reprocessed materials.

Legislation should also be introduced in England and Northern Ireland geared towards creating the critical mass required to direct local authorities towards the adoption of more efficient systems for targeting and capturing high quality recyclable materials.

This would play a major contributory role in strengthening the financial rationale for investment in MRF and reprocessing infrastructure. Legislation which enforces the use of a proportion of recycled materials in the production on new products would be another way to create more stable markets and prices for recyclables, helping to stimulate increases in recycling.

Stephen Wise is waste director and waste technical leader at Wood plc

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