Slight year-on-year uptick in household recycling welcomed by industry, but green groups highlight 'packaging waste mountain' revealed by latest Defra figures
The amount of household waste sent for recycling across the whole of the UK crept up above 45 per cent for the first time in 2016, setting a new record. But meeting binding EU targets for 2020 remains a near impossibility, and green groups are this week again warning that the UK faces a "growing packaging waste mountain".
According to the latest official figures released yesterday, data for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland shows the UK household recycling rate increased very slightly from 44.6 per cent in 2015 to 45.2 per cent in 2016.
Recycling rates also rose across all UK nations individually. Wales was by far the best performer with a rate of 57 per cent, followed by England - which accounts for almost 23 million tonnes of waste per year, far higher than other UK nations due to its bigger population - on 44.9 per cent. Scotland, meanwhile, lags behind in last place on 42.8 per cent.
That household recycling rates showed an improvement throughout the UK is a welcome sign of progress, but with a statutory EU target of 50 per cent by 2020 just around the corner it is now widely accepted across the waste and recycling sector that the UK ius set to miss the target.
The trend in recent years, particularly in England, has been for fractional improvements in recycling rates and there is little evidence that a step change in recycling practices is in the pipeline ahead of the 2020 target date. Moreover, the slight uptick in the latest figures came in part because of a decision to include an additional waste stream - metals recovered from ash produced by waste incinerators - in the data, rather than due to any major change in actual recycling performance that year.
The news places increased pressure on Defra to produce a waste and resources strategy later this year with some real policy ambition if it is to address the UK's stalled recycling rates. It comes amidst fears China's ban on importing paper and plastics from other countries including the UK started to bite at the turn of the year, a situation likely to further expose the lack of domestic capability or capacity for recycling these materials when figures for 2018 are eventually released.
Jacob Hayler, executive director of waste sector trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said yesterday's figures were further proof that UK recycling rates remain "in the doldrums". He added that based on current policies the UK "will not reach 50 per cent recycling by 2020, let alone the higher rates provisionally agreed at EU level".
"As ESA has already pointed out, Defra's impending resources and waste strategy will need to address the issue of sustainable markets for recyclable materials, as well as the UK's residual waste capacity gap," he said.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has made a lot of noise of late about tackling waste with a particular focus on plastic waste. He today hinted at a possible future ban on plastic straws and has signalled a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles could be introduced.
The mooted government action on plastics has been accompanied by moves by high profile brands such as Wetherspoons, London City Airport, Hotel Du Vin, and even the Royal Estates which have all announced plans to end the use of plastic straws.
Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director at SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, suggested such policies would be a step in the right direction. "We can see the requirement to rejuvenate recycling with new methods and systems such as deposit return schemes for plastic bottles and that will help us transition to higher recycling performances together with better metrics to represent resource value rather than just as weight," he said.
But observers have warned that more ambitious policies are also required to build recycling capacity, improve collection practices, and ensure manufacturers take more responsibility for the end of life processing of their products. Experts have warned that without more concerted action the UK could be at risk of EU fines during the post-Brexit transition period as a result of missing the binding 2020 targets.
However, there are some bright spots to be found in the recycling data. Some packaging materials such as glass and paper already comfortably exceed the EU target of 60 per cent by 2008, while metals recycling from packaging also exceeds its 50 per cent EU target. Even plastic packaging recycling, at almost 45 per cent in 2016, is far above the EU's 22.5 per cent target for the material type.
In addition, revised figures yesterday suggest that UK generation of commercial and industrial waste has fallen overall since 2012, with provisional estimates for England indicating business waste generation fell from around 32.8 million tonnes in 2014 to 32.2 million tonnes in 2016.
Yet the amount of household waste sent to landfill has failed to show any improvement of note, and despite the progress on packaging, green groups still raised alarm over the UK's growing "mountain of plastic packaging waste".
In 2016, 71.4 per cent of UK packaging waste from business and industry was recycled overall, far above the EU's 2008 target of 60 per cent and higher than the 64.7 per cent achieved the previous year.
However, the UK's packaging recycling rate today is lower than 2013 levels, while the amount of recyclable packaging waste ending up in landfill or destroyed is up 15.7 per cent since 2013, equating to an additional 446,000 tonnes of waste. The data comes as supermarkets and manufacturers face growing consumer pressure to improve the sustainability of their product packaging in the wake of the BBC's wildly popular Blue Planet II documentary series, which brought the scale of plastic waste to wider prominence late last year.
As a result, a group of 18 environmental groups led by Wildlife and Countryside Link yesterday called for the government to set "ambitious and legally binding targets" on packaging waste, setting out a policy wishlist for Defra's new waste strategy due later this year. The proposals include calls for investment in developing comprehensive domestic recycling infrastructure, improved labelling of plastic packaging to advise on recyclability, and setting a clear action plan with interim targets towards achieving zero waste across the UK by 2050.
The green groups also urged for a reform of producer responsibility obligations to ensure manufacturers and retailers of packaging are financially responsible for the costs of dealing with the waste they create, rather than taxpayers, which currently foot around 90 per cent of the bill. It is an approach the government is thought to be considering as it develops its Resources and Waste Strategy.
Chris Tuckett, director of programmes at Marine Conservation Society - one of the 18 groups backing the policy wishlist - said public outcry had made clear the situation "can, and must, change".
"The increase in plastic packaging recycling is positive, but there's still a long way to go," said Tuckett. "We are choking our oceans with our plastic - killing marine wildlife and affecting our own health. It is vital the government listens and responds by simplifying recycling labelling and getting manufacturers on board with banishing single use plastics."
We might have to wait until later this year for confirmation on the government's thinking in this area, but with consumer pressure building, businesses may well be wise to get a head start on reviewing their own internal waste policies.
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