Can the UK meet the Circular Economy Package’s recycling targets?

Peter Clayson, General Manager for Business Development and External Affairs at DS Smith Recycling, looks at what the UK needs to do to achieve the recycling targets outlined in the Circular Economy Package.

Peter Clayson

The EU Council has now formally adopted the Circular Economy Package, which incorporates binding recycling targets of 55% municipal waste recycling by 2025, rising to 60% by 2030, and 65% by 2035. The ambition is similar for the recycling of all packaging materials, with targets of 65% by 2025 and 70% by 2030. Targets for paper and board specifically rise to 85% in the same time frame. But when these aspirations are compared with reality, there’s a real concern that the UK is going to fall short. With a current municipal recycling rate of 45.2%, the country is well below the place it needs to be in order to increase its recycling by 10% within the next eight years.

In their ‘Who Really Leads the World?’ report, Eunomia placed the UK at 18 out of 24 on the European recycling table and rates are already struggling. Without a step-change in the way that we recycle, we’re not going to hit the Circular Economy Package’s targets – but we must avoid short-term or knee-jerk responses to the problem. We need a joined-up, thematic approach that ensures every part of the national supply chain is moving in the same direction.

Legislative leadership

The challenges for the UK’s recycling rates are widespread. Local authorities are battling against budget cuts, there’s limited investment in recycling infrastructure, and the government has laid out ambitious visions – but is yet to transform this vision into the legislative framework needed to create better recycling infrastructures. In the past we have seen some significant policies and regulations – such as the Landfill Tax and the PRN system – make positive impacts on recycling performance, but to some degree recently we have relied on voluntary measures to plug gaps in our recycling systems. However successful voluntary initiatives are, such initiatives tend to only target specific areas of recycling and waste management.

To really push forward, we need a holistic, thematic approach to waste and recycling – one whose theme focuses on resource efficiency, and clearly looks to incentivise sustainable practices while legislating out unsustainable ones – or at the least, provides clear economic benefits for acting more sustainably. We must bust any remaining myths that sustainable practices come at a net economic cost – on the contrary, the twin goals of economic and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive.

The first thing we need in order to meet the target of 55% municipal waste recycling by 2025 is a strong legislative framework that prioritises the quality of material collected for recycling, along with a review of the financial levers we have in place to deliver investment into collection infrastructures. A drive for quality domestic recycling collections needs to adopt a solution similar to WRAP’s ‘Greater Consistency Framework’ two-stream with fibres separate option, which proposed that all households in England have paper and board, as well as food waste, collected separately from other dry recyclables and from general waste.

Adopting a solution that’s consistent across England – ideally across the whole UK – can help ensure that we collect larger quantities of material that is of a high enough quality to be recycled.  Just a cursory glance at global recycling markets emphasises the need to make sure that materials collected for recycling meet the quality requirements of the actual reprocessors. Failure to do so presents a real risk that material intended for recycling will struggle to find end markets – and that will do nothing to improve recycling rates. A focus on quality will go a long way to finding long-term sustainable outlets for the material the UK collects.

Education and engagement

Consistent domestic collection schemes would simplify recycling for householders. If there were consistencies across municipalities, householders would benefit from clarity over what can and can’t be recycled, and importantly what does – and doesn’t – belong in each bin.

Several recent polls, from groups including Ipsos MORI and the British Science Association, have confirmed that UK residents struggle to identify which products and packaging are recyclable – and which are not – in part because the rules for what can and can’t be collected are different for each local area. As a consequence, residents can place items in the wrong bin, and the risk there is that their material won’t be recyclable, and might even be rejected from reprocessors, at a cost to local authorities and to the disappointment of residents.

Consumer behaviour will play a significant role in our ability to improve recycling rates. Being able to communicate with these groups will help shape attitudes and behaviour. We have to get the balance right between maximising recycling quality, while making it easier for everyone to segregate materials for recycling. This balance is easier to find if we can achieve consistency in our recycling systems, making the positive messaging that drives behaviour change easier, whilst limiting the voice of the doom-mongers who have a negative effect on attitudes toward recycling.

Infrastructure investment

Another area for focus is our recycling infrastructures. The UK has recently prioritised an investment in Energy from Waste (EfW) over recycling facilities, which has resulted in landfill rates halving while incineration has doubled – and led to discussions of a proposed incineration tax. But if we follow the waste hierarchy, we should only ever burn material that is too contaminated to be recycled, so our investment priority should be in facilities and infrastructures for recycling.

If we focused on developing recycling systems that collected high quality material, then not only would the UK be in a better place to market our recyclables in a changing global market place, but there would be an opportunity to further invest on our own reprocessing facilities. This would in turn help stimulate growth in the recycling and waste management sector, providing our own sustainable end markets with the consequent job and other economic opportunities.

The UK needs to meet the challenge of the Circular Economy Package with a joined-up approach that focuses on prioritising resource efficiency through material quality. In fact, such are the opportunities presented to us by adopting sustainable ways of living in a rapidly changing world, that we should be looking at how the Circular Economy Package becomes a minimal target, and we should challenge UK plc to be the leader in overall resource efficiency, and top of the recycling league tables.

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