Latest household waste data for England confirm negligible progress on recycling rates, leaving the country well short of 2020 goal
Household recycling rates in England have remained essentially flat for the fourth successive year, putting the country on track to miss EU targets requiring half of household waste to be recycled by 2020.
Official data released yesterday by Defra reveals waste from households recycling rate reached 45.2 per cent in 2017, up just 0.3 percentage points from 44.9 per cent in 2016. However, the rolling 12 month waste from households recycling rate to the end of March 2018 stood at 44.8 per cent, down 0.3 percentage points compared with the previous 12 month period to March 2017.
There was better news in terms of the total amount of waste produced with the total amount of residual waste treated and the amount of recycled waste down 2.1 per cent and 0.8 per cent respectively.
Moreover, the total amount of local authority managed waste sent to landfill fell sharply, primarily as a result of the increased use of waste-to-energy plants.
"Just 12.5 per cent of all local authority waste was disposed to landfill in 2017/18, down by 0.9 million tonnes or 22 per cent to 3.2 million tonnes," Defra said. "Waste sent for incineration has continued to increase, up 0.7 million tonnes in 2017/18 to 10.8 million tonnes. In 2017/18, 42 per cent of all local authority waste was sent to incineration."
There were also encouraging signs of progress in the waste food-to-energy sector, with separate food waste collections for recycling increasing by 8.7 per cent in 2017 to 386,000 tonnes.
A Defra spokeswoman defended the performance, arguing it was "encouraging to see the recycling rate rising in England".
"People are producing less waste, less of that waste is being sent to landfill, and separate food waste collections are increasing," she added. "More councils than ever are now recycling over half of all waste and the increases reported by councils such as Sutton, Stroud and Colchester show what can be achieved by offering residents a comprehensive waste collection service."
Government officials have also highlighted how the UK has drastically improved recycling rates since 2000 when the waste from households recycling rate stood at just 11 per cent.
But industry insiders are increasingly frustrated that recycling rates have barely moved since 2012 and observers are extremely sceptical the EU's 2020 target can be reached - a scenario that could result in the UK being subject to enforcement action and fines from Brussels if the latest round of Brexit uncertainty results in a transition period that leaves the UK subject to EU rules.
Paul Taylor, chief executive at waste management firm FCC Environment, said it was "encouraging to see the continued downward trend when it comes to waste to landfill, however the latest statistics also reveal a worrying trend when it comes to recycling". "Given the long-standing emphasis on increasing recycling rates and the government's efforts to tackle the plastic waste problem, it is disappointing to see that recycling rates have fallen," he added. "In our view this news reinforces the need for Government to take urgent action to help boost recycling rates and encourage waste prevention through reuse schemes."
His comments were echoed by Chris Murphy, executive director at trade body CIWM. "While it is of course reassuring to see that recycling maintained an upward trajectory for 2017, the gain is small at 0.3 per cent and the figure for the rolling 12-month period (-0.3 per cent) shows how fragile the situation really is," he said, adding that the performance in the first quarter of 2018 reflected the initial impact of Chinese restrictions on waste import, which has presented a significant challenge to UK waste management firms this year as they have strived to find alternative recycling capacity.
Government and industry alike are now pinning their hopes on the government's long awaited Resource and Waste Strategy, which is expected to be released before Christmas but could yet be deferred again thanks to the current Brexit in-fighting in Westminster.
The Defra spokeswoman said the new strategy would "set out plans to make sure we continue to reduce avoidable waste and recycle more". Reports have suggested it could contain a number of significant measures, including sweeping reform of the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) regime to require manufacturers and retailers to pay more towards recycling costs, proposals to expand food waste collection services and streamline recycling models across the UK, and the wider roll out of Deposit Return Schemes.
Industry experts are calling for the government to seize the opportunity to overhaul the policy environment and remove barriers to investment in new recycling infrastructure.
"It is clear that the forthcoming resources and waste strategy needs to put recycling on a firmer footing and provide the roadmap for a step change in approach," said Murphy. "Packaging may have stolen the headlines this year but alongside PRN reform and Deposit Return, new thinking is required in other areas too. Potential big wins include the roll out of more food waste collections, extended producer responsibility for other challenging waste streams such as textiles and mattresses, financial instruments to improve the market proposition for secondary materials, and incentives at the top of the supply chain to design out waste and increase recyclability."
He added that the strategy presented "an unrivalled opportunity" for the sector to engage with government. "Our collective objective must be to create a policy framework that will support a smarter, more holistic approach to resources, properly link our sector into the circular economy and the clean growth agenda, and leverage the necessary investment in efficient reuse and recycling services to ensure that current and future targets for household and business waste recycling can be met," he said.
It remains to be seen how ambitious Michael Gove is feeling as he puts the finishing touches to the strategy, or even whether the government will last long enough to deliver the long awaited plans. But what is clear is that unless something changes recycling rates are likely to remain flat for several more years to come.
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