Could deposit return schemes turn the tide of plastic pollution?

For decades, plastic has been regarded as something of a miracle product. Lightweight, durable and versatile, it’s been used for practically everything, from food packaging and water pipes to aircraft and insulation systems.

But all of a sudden it seems that plastic has become public enemy number one.  In January, the Iceland supermarket chain announced plans to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic packaging of all its own-label products by the end of 2023. Also in January, the UK government set out its ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years.

A rising tide

The new war on plastic is largely to do with an increased awareness about the highly damaging impact of plastic waste on the planet. Research has found that, since the 1950s, nine billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, a figure that’s likely to rise to 30 billion tonnes by the end of the century. Over eight million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year, threatening marine and bird life, as well as having a wider impact on human health.

The difficulty of disposing of plastic waste has been amplified by China’s decision last summer to ban the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including most plastics. The news was a body blow to the waste management sector, which has relied on China’s dominant position in recycling to dispose of plastic waste.

Tackling the problem, one bottle at a time

More recently, the focus has been on single use plastic bottles for water and other soft drinks. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee last year reported that 13 billion plastic bottles are used each year in the UK. Only 57% of these are recycled, with the rest going to landfill/incineration or litter.

Various solutions have been suggested to reduce plastic bottle waste, such as greater provision of public drinking fountains and bottle refill points.

Another idea is the development of deposit return schemes (DRS). These involve consumers paying a small deposit on top of the price of a bottled drink. The deposit is refunded when the bottle is returned to an in-store collection point or a reverse vending machine. The bottles are then collected and recycled into new plastic bottles.

A 2015 study by Eunomia for Zero Waste Scotland considered the feasibility of a DRS being introduced to Scotland. The research included case studies of deposit return schemes in Germany and Scandinavia. In Germany, the introduction of the deposit on one-way beverage packaging was a big success with 98.5% of refillable bottles being returned by consumers. And in Norway, 96% of bottles are returned for plastic recycling.

The Eunomia study concluded that none of the challenges posed by introducing a DRS to Scotland was insuperable, and in September 2017, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a Scottish DRS. Shortly afterwards, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommended the introduction of a DRS in England, arguing that it would recycle more plastic bottles, save money and create jobs in the long run.

Deposit return schemes – pros and cons

Writing in the January 2018 ENDS Report, Dominic Hogg, chairman of Eunomia, described four benefits of DRS:

  • The return rates can be high, and the climate change benefits associated with recycling the materials are correspondingly higher;
  • Because materials returned are of a high level of purity, they are sought after by reprocessors;
  • Because they now have meaningful value, the rate of littering of used beverage containers falls by about 95%
  • A DRS would reduce the prevalence of plastic found in the marine environment.

However, some local authorities have expressed concern that they would lose money as people would use the DRS rather than recycle through local authorities’ kerbside systems.

Reservations have also been voiced by the soft drinks sector. AG Barr believes that “…the scope for fraud in a Scottish DRS is huge. On a small scale we could see people scavenging in bins for containers, as is the US experience. On a medium scale there is the potential for local authority amenity centre looting. And on a larger scale there is the very real possibility of cross-border trafficking of deposit-bearing containers.”

However, having previously opposed DRS, one major soft drinks company has undergone a change of heart. “A well-designed DRS, targeting the littering of on-the-go soft drinks, could have a role to play alongside reforms and improvements for the current systems,” said Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners.

A future role for plastic

While there is a growing recognition of the need to manage plastic waste, there’s also an understanding that plastic can’t simply be uninvented.

WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), which promotes sustainable waste management, has recognised the value of plastic as a resource:

“Take health care, for example. Most disposable medical items – insulin pens, IV tubes, inhalation masks, and so on – use plastic as a core component because it is sterile and reduces the risk of infection. Plastic packaging preserves and protects food. According to the US Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), plastic film extends the shelf life of a cucumber from three days to 14.”

Even so, it’s clear that we’ve reached a watershed moment concerning DRS. As Dominic Hogg concludes:

“Policymakers should make it clear that this is going to happen. The naysayers can choose either to be part of the solution’s design or to have it imposed upon them.”

If you found this blog post interesting, you might also like to read some of our previous articles on waste management:

From big data to creative ‘binfrastructure’: new ideas for tackling litter

As we’ve previously reported, litter is a big and expensive problem for the UK’s local authorities. A 2015 report by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee put the annual cost of cleaning up litter in England at around £850m. Litter also generates strong emotions. Research by Populus has found that 81% of people are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter lying all over the country.

The CLG committee and the UK government have put forward a range of proposals for tackling litter. But at home and overseas local authorities and the third sector have been looking at inventive ways to keep our streets clean.

 Philadelphia’s data-driven litter index

Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet launched a digital tool to help catalogue the type and location of litter in the city’s neighbourhoods.

The Litter Index provides a full picture of the different types of waste in each of the city’s neighbourhoods, as well as recording the incidence of litter during different weather conditions. Using tablets, city workers record how much waste they’re seeing in their neighbourhoods, take photos and give ratings. The information can then be used to devise a plan for cleaning up litter in different parts of the city, and to pinpoint where resources are needed.

The Philadelphia plan is ambitious, but, as Nic Esposito, the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Director says: “If we’re not changing infrastructure and attitudes, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

 Edinburgh’s intelligent litter bins

New technology has been undergoing tests by the City of Edinburgh Council to measure how full litter bins have become and provide alerts via mobile when they reach capacity.

Sensors positioned inside the bins use ultrasonic technology to measure how full a bin has become. The data is then transmitted to notify the council’s waste management system when a bin needs emptied. The system can also help the council to spot fly tipping when there is sudden spike in the results, and a heat sensor detects fires inside the bin.

During the initial pilot project, collections in areas fitted with the new bins increased by 24% on average, and some collections quadrupled in frequency. The data from the sensors will be used to provide reports on waste generation patterns and can help in planning the most efficient routes for litter bin collections.

Driving litter underground

A growing number of European cities have invested in underground collection units in an effort to make their streets less cluttered.  In the Slovenian capital of Ljulbljana, these units are located around the city centre, with different receptacles for paper, glass, and packaging. In addition, residents of the city have access cards which open receptacles for organic and other specialist waste types, which in turn determines the level of their monthly waste management bill. Separation of waste in this way drives down the cost of managing it, and makes recycling much easier.

In the UK, Cambridge City Council has also taken an interest in subterranean waste units. Steel chutes have been set into the pavement with the aim of replacing thousands of wheelie bins. Residents have corresponding bins for their kitchens, which the city council believes will help create a sustainable living space.

Once completed, the 150-hectare site will have 450 underground recycling and general waste banks across 155 locations.

Thinking outside the bin

Environmental charity Hubbub has examined research and examples from around the world to develop a catalogue of creative and playful ideas for tackling litter effectively. Among the suggestions are:

  • an open-air gallery featuring local people to raise awareness of personal responsibility for waste management;
  • flashmobs to cheer on people who pick up litter and put it in the bin;
  • brightly-coloured bins that draw attention to litter campaigns; and
  • ‘talking bins’ that reward users with belches or coughs.

Hubbub has not confined its efforts to urban waste. Earlier this year, the charity unveiled a campaign targeting countryside litter. A “trashconverter” van toured the Forest of Dean, accepting trash, rather than cash, in exchange for flowers and hot drinks.

Final thoughts

As the Populus survey demonstrates, litter has a negative impact on how people view their own neighbourhoods. At the same time, as the recent Blue Planet 2 programme highlighted, our litter can have terrible effects on the natural environment and on birds and marine life, both in our own coastal waters and in oceans thousands of miles away.

Data, technology and behavioural insights all have important roles to play in tackling the blight of litter. Unusual initiatives, such as those employed in Philadelphia, Edinburgh and Cambridge, as well as Hubbub’s inventive ideas, are worth exploring if they can make an impact on human behaviour, and contribute to the conservation of the natural world.

If you found this article interesting, you might also like to read our previous blogs:

Talking rubbish: the never-ending problem of litter on Britain’s streets

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management

If you think poetry is a load of old rubbish, you might find some agreement in the unlikeliest quarters. Poets themselves have been finding inspiration from the items we discard, and from the people who make a living clearing up our trash.

In October, John Wedgewood Clarke published a book of poetry called Landfill, the result of a year-long residency at two Yorkshire rubbish sites. The collection explores what John calls the “hideous beauty” of places that most of us would rarely describe as poetic.

The residency had a profound experience on the poet. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, John described the experience of making his way through the landscape of trash as akin to walking on the moon. And he found that landfill sites have their own seasons, with a blossoming of fairy lights just after Christmas and an upsurge in lawnmowers in the spring. In autumn the dump was littered with pumpkins and glow-sticks.

The collection features poems both about rubbish itself and its effects. Newsprint turns the writer’s skin grey, and he finds himself wandering through a “palace of glistering cans”.

A rubbish dump is also a repository for stories. One of the site workers told John about poignant finds such as discarded war medals and photograph albums.

In recent years, there have been greater efforts to divert more and more of our waste away from landfill. Many of us are recycling waste products, and the idea of a circular economy is becoming a reality.

In spite of these efforts, John’s rubbish residency is a reminder of the sheer scale of landfill, and of its enduring nature. As he told the Yorkshire Post: “our waste doesn’t disappear, it is simply on its way to becoming geology.”

Unsung heroes

In Edinburgh, the city’s Makar, Christine de Luca, has also found poetic inspiration from an unlikely source. A visit to the Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works resulted in a poem called Gardyloo which describes a space-station of engines, pipework and pumps that transform effluent into a purified stream which flows with “the speed and sparkle of a Highland burn in spate.”

Later, Christine persuaded a selection of poets to celebrate other Edinburgh workers whose service for the city largely goes unnoticed or unappreciated. The result was a collection of poems called Edinburgh Unsung, now freely available on Edinburgh City Council’s website.

The subjects are varied, from chimney sweeps and environmental wardens to facilities managers at the Scottish Parliament and book dusters at the National Library of Scotland. Christine herself, more used to writing in praise of the great and the good, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and James Clerk Maxwell, contributed a poem celebrating Edinburgh’s refuse collectors. It describes their daily routine of waste collection and disposal as a kind of dance, with its own repertoire, rhythm and precision.

A strange beauty

Percy Shelley described poetry as “a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”. Many would have thought it impossible to equate the workings of a waste water treatment plant with something beautiful. But, as Christine de Luca, John Wedgewood Clarke and many other poets have demonstrated, there is a strange beauty in the features and functions of the everyday. And if these poets can – even for a moment – shine a light on the people working to make our lives better, then that’s kind of beautiful too.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also find another poetry-related blog post of interest:

Moving stories: how poetry is carrying the message about mobility challenges facing older people

Coming unstuck? New solutions to tackle discarded gum

In April, the Local Government Association (LGA) declared war on chewing gum:

“Chewing gum is a plague on our pavements. It’s ugly, it’s unsightly and it’s unacceptable.”

Representing more than 370 councils in England and Wales, the LGA called on chewing gum manufacturers for more support in tackling the £60m annual cost of removing discarded gum:

“Chewing gum manufacturers must help more with the growing multi-million pound cost to local communities of removing discarded gum, with 99% of the nation’s main shopping streets now spattered.”

A growing market, a costly problem

Chewing gum may be a modern-day product, but its origins go back a long way. The ancient Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans and Chinese all chewed substances made from the extract of plants and trees. But it was the commercial development of chewing gum in the United States in the 1860s that launched an international market that has continued to grow.

Today, sugar-free gum is marketed as a healthy alternative to confectionery and tobacco, with claims of added benefits, such as fresher breath and whiter teeth. Research in 2015 forecast a 32.6% rise in global chewing gum sales to reach $32.63 billion by 2019. Britain’s chewing gum market is seventh in the world.

All of which means that as more gum is being consumed, more is being discarded on city streets. Research by Keep Britain Tidy has found that 99% of main shopping streets and 64% of all roads and pavements are stained by chewing gum. And once a piece of gum hits the ground, it’s likely to remain there. Gum is made from synthetic plastics that don’t biodegrade, so it can only be addressed by costly removal techniques, such as steam cleaning.

As the LGA has pointed out, councils have no legal obligation to clear up gum once it has been flattened onto the ground. Even so, many councils have mounted gum cleaning operations to make the streets more attractive and improve the environment for residents, visitors and businesses.  But local authorities find themselves under increasing budgetary pressures, and are keen to find alternative solutions.

Taking action

Established in 2009, Gumdrop Ltd is the first company in the world to recycle and process chewing gum into a range of new compounds that can be used in the rubber and plastics industry.

Its eye-catching receptacles (also called Gumdrops), are made from recycled chewing gum, and placed in public places for the collection of gum that would otherwise litter the streets. Once full, Gumdrops and their contents are recycled and processed to make new Gumdrops.

The company has been working with public and private organisations to install their receptacles in railway stations, shopping centres, airports and universities, and has also formed links with chewing gum manufacturers. In partnership with Cardiff Council and Keep Wales Tidy, Gumdrop joined forces with The Wrigley Company Ltd. in 2013 to locate bins across the city centre and key district shopping centres. Siân O’Keefe, Senior Manager, Corporate Affairs at Wrigley, believes the project is a good model for others to follow.

“Encouraging behaviour change is the only long-term and sustainable solution to the problem of littered gum and we are totally committed tackling this issue”.

 Another initiative aiming to promote a gum-free environment is Keep Britain Tidy’s Chewing Gum Action Group. This campaign unites local authorities, central government and the chewing gum industry to encourage responsible disposal of gum. The group’s annual promotion encourages councils to run corresponding local campaigns across the UK. In 2016, the 11 local campaigns saw a 36% average reduction of dropped gum in monitored areas.

Meanwhile, one inventive individual in London is making a virtue of an eyesore by creating miniature works of art, with chewing gum as his canvas.

Final thoughts

Chewing gum waste is not just a problem in the UK. Across the world, authorities are looking at different approaches to deal with it. As of yet, there’s no sign of the UK following the lead of Singapore in banning the sale of chewing gum. Instead, national and local governments are trying to find less authoritarian ways of tackling this modern-day blight.

The progress made by Keep Britain Tidy, Gumdrop and others in the public and private sectors is to be applauded. But, as the LGA has made clear, gum manufacturers are now being expected to do a lot more, both by switching to biodegradable gum and contributing to the cost of clearing it up.

“While awareness campaigns the industry is involved in have some value, they are not enough by themselves. The industry needs to go a lot further, faster, in tackling this issue.”

If you enjoyed this article, you may also find our other blogs on waste management of interest:

ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 


‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.


‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.

If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy:

The UK generates more food waste than anywhere else in Europe …what’s being done to tackle the problem?


Image: by the lone conspirator [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

October 16 is World Food Day, an annual day of action to raise awareness about the problem of global hunger. It’s also a particularly good day to reflect on the problem of food waste.

Over 800 million people – one in nine worldwide – live with chronic hunger. Yet in the midst of global starvation, huge amounts of food are being discarded by retailers and consumers.

  • Some 40% of all the food produced in the United States is never eaten.
  • In Europe, 100 million tonnes of food is thrown away every year.
  • The UK produces 15 million tonnes of food waste every year, more than any other European country.

The costs of food waste

Apart from the ethical concerns, food waste has significant economic and environmental impacts. Some of these are clear to see, while others are hidden costs.

In 2007 the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that wasted food costs each UK household between £250 and £400 a year. This doesn’t include council tax payments contributing to the cost of local authorities’ disposal of food waste, much of which goes to landfill sites, where it generates methane and other greenhouse gases.

Scarce resources are being used in the production of food that will never be consumed. Every product has its own “water footprint” –  the amount of water consumed in its production. In 2011, research by WRAP found that the water footprint of food waste was 6,200 million cubic metres per year.

Love food, hate waste

Addressing the problem of food waste is clearly a colossal challenge. But that’s no reason to give up. Since 2007, WRAP, the registered charity that works with businesses, individuals and communities to help reduce waste, has been running a highly successful Love Food Hate Waste campaign in partnership with retailers, food manufacturers, local government and community groups. Between 2007 and 2012, the campaign helped reduce avoidable food waste by 21%. That’s more than one million tonnes of food saved from landfill (or enough to fill 23 million wheelie bins). The campaign is also estimated to have saved consumers £3.3 billion a year and councils around £85 million.

Local action on food waste

Individual local authorities are also doing their bit to reduce the amount of public money used to dispose of food waste as rubbish. Councils in areas such as Cardiff, West Lothian and Oxford have been providing separate food waste caddies for collection. The food can then be recycled either by composting for fertilisers, or by anaerobic digestion for conversion to biogas to generate electricity, heat or transport fuels. Some local authorities, such as Central Bedfordshire are also encouraging home composting by providing householders with subsidised composting bins for kitchen and garden waste.

Donating food to charities

While the bulk of food wasted annually in the UK comes from households, supermarkets also generate substantial amounts.

In 2013, the British Retail Consortium estimated that seven supermarket chains were responsible for 200,000 tonnes of food wastage. In response, some of the UK’s leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, and Tesco have been working with the FareShare charity to rescue thousands of tonnes of food from landfill for redistribution to vulnerable people across the UK in homeless shelters, women’s refuges and children’s breakfast clubs.

At the moment, these are voluntary schemes, but an initiative by a local councillor in France might ultimately lead to legislation compelling supermarkets across Europe to donate unwanted food to charity.

Earlier this year, Arash Derambarsh persuaded the French parliament to pass a law barring supermarkets from destroying food approaching its best-before date. He is now lobbying the European parliament to follow suit by including an amendment in its new “circular economy” directive.

Consumers also have a role to play, for example by choosing misshapen fruit and vegetables that would be otherwise be destined for the bin, buying just the things we need, and understanding the difference between “best before” and “use by” dates.

Good work has been carried out in raising awareness of, and addressing, food waste. However, given the colossal scale of the problem, further progress will depend on concerted actions by governments, food suppliers, retailers and consumers.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on waste management; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading*

A taste for reducing food waste (in the public sector)

Sector bursts with ideas on boosting bioresources (food waste policy)

Strategies to achieve economic and environmental gains by reducing food waste

The seller of food that the shops cannot sell (food waste)

Waiter! More doggy bags, please (designer doggy bags to reduce restaurant food waste)

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Discarding bag habits: England joins Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in charging for carrier bags

By James Carson

Plastic carrier bags have been part of Britain’s retail landscape since their introduction by supermarkets in the 1970s. Dispensed freely and liberally, the bags were originally made of polythene before evolving to the high density polyethylene (HDPE) bags most commonly in use today.

For decades, the plastics industry has been fighting off environmental campaigners’ claims that single-use bags are damaging to the environment and create a significant litter problem. But there have been increasing signs that the carrier bag’s days are numbered.

  • In 2002, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in Europe to introduce a tax on single-use carrier bags
  • In 2007, Italy banned the distribution of non-biodegradable plastic bags
  • In 2014, California became the first US state to prohibit stores from providing single-use plastic bags – subject to a 2016 referendum.

Next month, charges for carrier bags are being introduced in England. The 5p charge will come into force on 5 October, bringing England into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.


Wales was the first part of the UK to introduce charges for carrier bags, in 2011. The charge is part of the Welsh Government’s strategy to minimise the proportion of waste going to landfill to 5% by 2025, and eliminating it altogether by 2050.

An evaluation of the impacts of the charge on behaviour and attitudes of consumers found that it had helped to increase own bag use in Wales (from 61% to 82%) and was supported by a majority of the Welsh population. However, no evidence was found that the carrier bag charge led to behavioural spill-over to other waste-related behaviours.

Northern Ireland

The levy on single-use carrier bags was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2013. The charge has been a success story, with a 42.6% annual reduction in 2014 following a previous drop of 71%, after the carrier bag charge was introduced.

In 2013/14, £3.4m of the proceeds from the levy were spent on more than 250 projects delivered by the Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL) Challenge Fund, Natural Heritage grants, Sustainability Innovation Fund and Local Clean-Up Support projects.


The Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Scotland) Regulations came into force in October 2014. Before that, Scotland used more than 800 million new single-use carrier bags every year – the highest usage in the UK. Figures published this summer, however, showed that the number of plastic bags provided by supermarkets in Scotland fell by 147 million last year, despite the charge only being in place for the last 11 weeks of 2014.

Scotland’s environment minister, Richard Lochhead, hailed the results as “astounding”, and said the charge was driving behaviour change to tackle litter and reduce waste. Time will tell whether this impressive start can be maintained. After an initial fall in carrier bag usage during the first year of charging in 2011-12, Wales saw a 5.2% increase in usage during 2014.


From October, large shops in England will be required to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags. In 2013, the number of single-use bags from English supermarkets rose from 7.4 billion to just over 7.6 billion. It’s hoped that the forthcoming charge will be instrumental in cutting carbon emissions, and reducing litter.

However, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has described the English regulations as “a complete mess”  The MPs are especially unhappy at the exemptions for smaller retailers, and exclusion of biodegradable bags.

Only retailers with 250 or more full-time employees will have to levy the 5p charge for carrier bags, but trade bodies for smaller retailers say their members want to participate and claim that the exemption will distort competition and cause confusion.

The EAC believes that leaving biodegradable bags out of the scheme could harm the environment by causing litter and damage to wildlife.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on the environment and waste management; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

The single use carrier bag charge (House of Commons Library briefing paper no CBP7241)

Anatomy of a plastic bag

Consumer behavioural study on the use and re-use of carrier bags 2012: final report (Scotland)

The goods, the bag and the ugly (waste control)

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Something old into something new: innovations in recycling


Image by Nicolas Raymond, released under a standard Creative Commons License from

By James Carson

This is Recycle Week 2015, and, in the spirit of the occasion, I’ve been recycling some of the wealth of information contained in the Idox database in order to highlight innovative work by local authorities in the UK.

I conducted a search of our database to retrieve recently published items on innovations in recycling. I found about 70 reports and journal articles, which shows not only how much information our database has on recycling, but also underlines the considerable interest that’s attached to the subject.

The importance of recycling

Many of the resources highlight the benefits of recycling:

  • recycling lessens the impact of waste on the environment
  • it helps conserve important raw materials and protects natural habitats for the future
  • it reduces the amount of waste going to landfill sites
  • using recycled materials in the manufacturing process uses less energy than that required for producing new products from raw materials.

Progress on recycling

The most recent statistics for the four UK nations show a mixed picture on recycling of municipal waste. In England, recycling rates in 2013 rose by  0.1 percentage point on the year before to 44.2%. The comparable figures were 42.2% in Scotland and 46% in Northern Ireland. Wales recorded a more impressive recycling rate of 54%, almost level with Europe’s recycling champion: Slovenia.

The national figures mask a more complex picture. Local authorities are responsible for municipal waste management, and recycling rates vary enormously from one council to another, with the best recycling as much as 66% of waste and the worst as little as 18%.

Innovations in recycling

Many of the recent resources on our database highlight the innovative ways in which organisations are working to reap the benefits of recycling, and to comply with European waste management regulations.

Stackable bins in Newtonabbey

In Newtonabbey, County Antrim, a recycling trial was carried out by a social enterprise to help local authorities meet new EU waste management requirements to separate different types of waste, which came into force in January.

An innovative stackable bin system, known locally as the ‘Wheelie Box’, comprises a 40-litre box with separate compartments for different types of material (a red flap for cans, aerosols and cartons, a green one for bottles and jars, and so on).

The Wheelie Box has been well-received by residents in Newtownabbey, and refuse collectors report that the new system is much easier to use (and lighter on their backs). The scheme is expected to be rolled out more widely to households across Northern Ireland over the next few years.

Pioneering waste management in Milton Keynes

Milton Keynes Council’s recycling record is outstanding. Its 2012/13 recycling rate was 53.5%, well above the English average. Paper, plastics, glass and cans are collected by the council and processed at one of the largest material recycling facilities in the UK.  Now, the council is building on this impressive performance with the development of a fully integrated waste treatment plant to deal with all household ‘black-sack’ waste.

The facility, due to begin operations next year, will incorporate three separate waste management systems:

  • mechanical treatment technology will extract recyclable materials from residual waste
  • an anaerobic digester will treat any food or organic waste to create renewable energy and a compost-like output for use on brownfield sites
  • an advanced thermal treatment facility will turn any remaining, unrecyclable waste into a gas, which is combusted to generate high temperature steam which then creates electricity in a turbine.

The facility is expected to process 132,000 tonnes of municipal waste each year, and to generate £50m of savings against the cost of landfill.

Recycling cycles in Oxfordshire

In 2013, Oxfordshire County Council won a National Recycling Award for its innovative scheme where discarded bikes are quite literally recycled into roadworthy vehicles.  Old and unwanted bicycles are collected at a local household waste recycling centre (HWRC), then taken to one of the council’s Early Intervention Service (EIS) sites.  It’s there that qualified mechanics teach young people how to strip down, repair and rebuild the bikes. As Materials Recycling World reported, the initiative is not only having a transformative effect on the bicycles:

“One young person attending the Hub repaired six bicycles for friends and family, and had gone from being unemployed to starting an apprenticeship, none of which would have been possible without the supply of bikes from the HWRC.”

These initiatives offer just a flavour of the many innovative schemes devoted to recycling. But they demonstrate that the impacts of recycling are not only environmental, but also social and economic.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on environmental issues – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

 Further reading*

Going separate ways (dry recyclables in England and Wales)
State of the union (waste management approaches in UK)
Information drive for those non-recycling residents
Stacking up (dry recyclables in Newtonabbey)
All systems go in Milton Keynes (innovative waste treatment plant)
A real circular economy (recycling bikes and providing training for young people)

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Talking rubbish: the never-ending problem of litter on Britain’s streets

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher launched a campaign to rid Britain of litter. Returning from a visit to Israel, the prime minister contrasted the spotless streets of Jerusalem with the littered pavements of London. Shortly afterwards, she appointed Richard Branson as Britain’s first ‘litter tsar’, who promised to set thousands of young unemployed people to work cleaning up the streets and clearing derelict sites.

Fast forward three decades, and the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee has found that litter remains as big and expensive a problem as ever. The cross-party committee estimates that the annual cost of cleaning up litter in England is around £850m, with chewing gum, smoking materials and fast food litter identified as the most frequently littered items.

Describing the problem as ‘endemic’, the Committee’s chairman, Clive Betts MP, said:

“Litter levels have remained largely static over the last 12 years, with councils spending hundreds of millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money fighting a losing battle.”

The Committee’s proposals for tackling the issue include allocating a portion of any increase in tobacco levies to local councils to help pay for the cost of street cleaning, and legislation compelling fast food shops and restaurants to keep their pavements free from rubbish. Although it stopped short of calling for a ‘chewing gum tax’, the Committee warned that the industry:

“…now has one last chance to put its house in order….by making a greater contribution to the cost of clearing gum and staining and by placing larger anti-littering notices on all its packaging, wrappers and adverts.”

Meanwhile, the government insists it is doing what it can to address the problem. In November, the Telegraph reported that ministers were planning a major push to achieve a cultural change towards dropping litter. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s campaign, the plans were said to include a ‘clean up Britain day’, as well as making it easier for local councils to prosecute drivers throwing rubbish from their vehicles.

Litter can be an emotive issue, and for some the UK government’s proposals don’t go far enough. Giving evidence to the CLG Committee in January, the American writer David Sedaris recommended that litter louts be given heavy on-the-spot fines, noting that:

 “In Massachusetts there are now $10,000 fines for littering. It makes people think twice.”

More controversially, Sedaris, who now lives in West Sussex, suggested that poorer consumers were more likely to drop litter than wealthier shoppers:

 “I don’t see opera tickets in the street. There’s a Waitrose supermarket near where I live [yet] I found just one Waitrose bag last year. There’s also a Metro Tesco store and I find Tesco bags all the time….”

The writer’s observations sparked a debate on litter as a class issue, and whether Britain could learn from Singapore’s zero tolerance approach.

Although the CLG Committee’s report was confined to England, litter is a blight affecting the rest of the UK.  Launching its national litter strategy in 2014, the Scottish Government noted that at least £46 million of public money is spent removing litter and fly-tipping from the environment each year. And earlier this year a survey revealed that there was more litter in Northern Ireland’s streets and parks in 2014 than there has been in a decade.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, the country that Mrs Thatcher once held up as a litter-free model for the UK, things seem to be going downhill. The Tel Aviv daily newspaper Haaretz has observed a growing impression that:

“… almost everywhere in urban areas, and even in open areas. Israel is full of filth, and it looks like the situation is not about to improve anytime soon.”

The paper reported on one campaigner’s efforts to chronicle the problem:

“In one short walk near the Old City walls in Jerusalem, one of the most important tourist sites on earth, he found 641 pieces of trash. The inventory ranged from dog droppings to cigarette butts.”

Tackling litter, it seems, is a worldwide work in progress.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on environmental issues. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Hidden cost of litter spoiling the environment

How clean is England? The local environmental quality survey of England 2013/14

How clean are our streets? All Wales local environment audit and management system report 2012-13 and 2013-14

Time to kick butts (cigarette end litter)

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.”

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