Despite heightened public concern about single-use plastics in recent years, UK household recycling rates fell in 2018
The UK's household recycling rate looks to be heading in the wrong direction, with the latest official statistics showing a decline in the amount of waste sent for recycling in 2018, leaving the country almost certain to miss its EU targets for 2020.
Data released by Defra today shows the recycling rate for UK households stood at exactly 45 per cent in 2018 - the most recent year of data available - slipping back from the 45.5 per cent rate achieved the previous year.
With the UK's recycling rate having stagnated around the 45 per cent mark for several years, the government faces a near impossible job to rapidly raise the rate in time to meet the EU's target for member states to recycling 50 per cent of their waste by 2020.
Richard Benwell, CEO of environmental group the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the latest statistics again demonstrated the need for far more policy ambition in order to stop waste, excessive packaging, and plastic pollution "choking our natural world".
"These figures show we can't simply recycle our way out of this problem," he said. "We need to prevent pollution at its source by slashing packaging and single use items."
Regionally, England makes up the lion's share - 85 per cent - of the total waste produced in the UK due to its larger population, and its recycling rate fell to 44.7 per cent in 2018, a drop of 0.5 per cent on 2017.
Defra said the decline in England was driven primarily by a reduction in organic waste - such as that from garden - sent for recycling, which it said was linked to "adverse weather conditions for plant growth".
Wales remains the strongest performer in the UK, having recycled 54.1 per cent of its waste in 2018, although this nevertheless marks a decline of 1.1 percentage points from the previous year. And Scotland had the lowest recycling rate at 42.8 per cent, a decline of 0.7 per cent from the previous year.
Only Northern Ireland bucked the wider UK trend, becoming the only region of the UK to see its recycling rates increase in 2018, rising 1.4 percentage points to reach 47.7 per cent.
The government's Environment Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, sets out a range of measures to try and tackle unnecessary waste and incorporates proposals for statutory environmental targets to be overseen by a new Office for Environmental Protection.
Measures in the Bill include a ban on exports of waste to other countries; taxes, levies and restrictions on certain single-use plastic items; and the establishment of a deposit return scheme across the UK to enable consumers to take back packaging in return for incentives.
However, Benwell said that while the Environment Bill could lay the foundations for an improved waste and resource system, further ambition was still needed.
"It should introduce powers to curb use of single-use items of all materials, alongside an 'all-in' deposit return scheme, and ambitious targets for waste reduction and resource efficiency," he argued.
It comes amid testing times for the UK economy as strict measures are introduced throughout the country to try and halt the spread of the coronavirus, prompting calls today from waste trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA) to "keep vital waste services moving".
The ESA said recycling and waste should be prioritised as a critical sector for the UK during the current time of crisis, with staff in the industry classified as "key workers" so they could continue to gain access to childcare in order to perform their jobs and prevent waste from piling up on streets.
"The current circumstances are unprecedented and with the closure of schools across the country there is a risk that essential recycling and waste services grind to a halt - allowing waste to pile up in our homes and streets," said ESA executive director Jacob Hayler. "Protecting the ability of employees to come to work is our number one priority so we are urgently calling on government to classify frontline recycling and waste operatives as 'Key Workers', so they can continue to provide the vital services upon which we all rely."
Other waste statistics released today also point to a rise in the amount of waste generated by construction and industry, reaching 37.2 million tonnes in 2017 - the most recent year of available data for landfilling - marking an increase of more than a million from the previous year.
More positively, however, the amount of UK waste sent to landfill continues to fall as more waste is sent for energy generation via incineration or anaerobic digestions. As a result, the UK sent 7.2 million tonnes of waste to landfill in 2018, a figure almost four-fifths lower than the EU's baseline year of 1995. It puts the UK well within the EU's 2020 target to restrict the amount of waste landfilled to 35 per cent of the figure in 1995.
Today's statistics also show the amount of packaging recycled or recovered fell from 71.4 per cent in 2016 to 70 per cent in 2017. But the performance does still exceed the EU's target to recycle or recover at least 60 per cent of packaging waste by 2020.
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