A new front in the war against waste

Recycling Point

Photograph: Anne Burgess, via Wikimedia Commons

By James Carson

This summer the European Commission announced new measures on waste management. The proposals include a target to recycle 70% of municipal solid waste by 2025. The Commission believes that turning Europe into a “circular economy” will have multiple benefits, including:

  • preventing the loss of valuable materials;
  • creating jobs and economic growth;
  • reducing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts.

The proposed measures add to the waste management challenges already facing local authorities. Under an existing EU directive, councils must achieve a household recycling target of 50% by 2020. Most have invested heavily in waste and recycling services over the past two decades, greatly improving the national waste recycling rate.

But recently progress has stalled. The UK’s recycling rate in 2013 was 46%, but in England the rate slipped back to 43.2%, while in Scotland the figure was 41.2%. Only a 52.3% figure from Wales prevented the UK recycling rate falling further.  The UK figures are in stark contrast to municipal recycling rates in other European countries.  In Austria, 63% of household waste is recycled, while Germany (62%) and Belgium (58%) are well on their way to achieving the 70% target many years ahead of schedule.

One local authority taking the war against waste to householders’ doorsteps is Croydon Council. Recycling officer, Joanna Dixon, believes community engagement is at the core of improving the rate of recycling, as she explained to Materials Recycling World (MRW):

 “We analysed a lot of data and identified those households [with low or non-existent recycling rates] and then knocked on doors to find out why.”

At the same time, Croydon’s householders were informed that non-compliance with recycling regulations would result in an £80 penalty. As a result, participation in recycling leapt from 0% to 69%.

Other councils, however, regard the enforcement element in the carrot-and-stick approach with caution. Ealing Council’s cabinet member for environment and transport. Bassam Mahfouz, told MRW:

“Fining people might work if it is a really bad recycling area where they would fear the possibility of getting a penalty. But it is a very short-term solution, and those people would not be recycling for the right reason.”

One of Ealing’s more eye-catching recycling initiatives was a 6m-tall Christmas tree, made from 900 recycled plastic bottles – the same number consumed every two seconds in the UK. The tree, displayed outside Ealing Town Hall, was seen not only by local residents, but by a worldwide audience when it appeared on CNN’s showcase of top Christmas trees. The clever PR campaign also resulted in an extra 563 tonnes of recycled Christmas trees, doubling the council’s usual tonnage.

Councils have also been rolling out recycling incentive schemes that offer a variety of rewards, including discount vouchers, charity donations and Nectar points in exchange for changes in householder behaviour.

Some of this activity has been funded with the help of Defra’s Household Reward and Recognition Scheme, which aimed to test the effectiveness of incentive schemes. An interim report published in December 2013 reviewed eight different schemes, including those managed by councils in Bath and North East Somerset, Birmingham, Norfolk and Westminster.  Although the report concluded that the diversity of schemes made comparisons difficult, the authors suggested that improvements in recycling and reuse tended to be linked to better services and promotion rather than being attributable directly to the rewards.  In other words, rewards are more likely to reinforce a pre-existing behaviour rather than act as a catalyst for new behaviours.

It’s worth mentioning one more report on this topic:  Investigating the Impact of Recycling Incentive Schemes, published by Eunomia in January, looked at local authorities with incentive schemes, including Ealing, Bexley, Caerphilly, Sandwell and Calderdale. The report found that, in terms of residual waste and recycling, authorities with incentive schemes recorded an average 8% increase in recycling performance, accompanied by an average 3% reduction in landfill. However, the Eunomia report also highlighted the need to assess the impact of incentive schemes, and to compare the different incentives, so that local authorities can make informed decisions about which type of scheme to adopt.

Councils are certainly stepping up their efforts to encourage household recycling, but in the wake of a deep economic recession, there are signs that the public is suffering “green fatigue”.

A poll conducted by Pod Space in May asked residents of the UK and Ireland about their attitudes on recycling. Most said they were motivated to participate by concern for the environment. But the survey also found a large degree of scepticism about how effective recycling can be, with 44.1% saying that their biggest reservation about recycling was that it “won’t make a difference”.

Which indicates that the war on waste is as much about winning hearts and minds as it is about setting ambitious targets.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on a range of environmental issues. Items we’ve recently summarised on recycling for our database include:

Bring a box to the bank (encouraging residents to use bring sites for cardboard), IN Materials Recycling World, Vol 203 No 23 2 Aug 2014, pp29-30

Growing a circular economy: ending the throwaway society (HC 214)

Wasted opportunities: smarter systems for resource recovery

Valuing the opportunity of increased recycling (economic value of waste), IN Materials Recycling World, Vol 203 No 21 5 Jul 2014, pp30-31

Sale time (local authority income from trading in recyclables), IN Resource Management and Recovery, No 229 Jul 2014, p10

Points mean products and prizes (recycling reward scheme), IN Waste Planning, No 105 Jun 2014, p16

Reaping the rewards (incentive schemes for recycling), IN Resource Management and Recovery, No 225 Mar 2014, pp14-16

A recipe for success (recycling in Rochford), IN Resource Management and Recovery, No 223 Dec 2013, pp8,10

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