Recycling is broken, why bother?

At the end of October 2021, leading up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow, our illustrious PM decided he would weigh in on the topic of plastics recycling in the UK. “It doesn’t work,” he claimed “And is not the answer.” Not that he is known for his wisdom on topics that actually matter, but he might have wanted to check that his words didn’t completely contradict government policy and undermine the efforts of the waste and recycling industries.  What made it worse was that he was not speaking to policy makers, it was instead a group of school children, the very people we’re trying to engage with and save the planet for.

Yes, plastic is a major problem that we’re not close to solving yet, and yes we all do need to reduce use of plastic, but saying that recycling doesn’t even begin to address the problem really communicates an attitude of “Why bother?!” This is not something that anyone with any level of influence should be spouting, especially when DEFRA is asking producers to carry the full disposal costs of the products they put into the marketplace. A plan that is set to be implemented by 2024 and carries with it an industry cost of £2.7 billion a year.

The latest UK recycling rates (released in July 2021 and including data up to and including 2019) reflect that total recycling is 46.2%. This is not a particularly impressive figure considering it’s up only 1.7% since 2015. Almost everyone agrees that more needs to be done to close the loop and reuse more materials that already exist in the economy. But implying that people shouldn’t bother with recycling is really damaging to industry efforts. There’s already so much confusion about what can be recycled and how and where collections of materials of recycling take place. The low increase in recycling rates is proof of this. If any public statements are being issued it should be that everyone needs to do more to support recycling and circular economy efforts. We have to bother because we’ve run out of other options. While recycling in the UK may not yet be where it could be, there are other countries where recycling is more successful. They’re further down the recycling road and we could learn from them.

The Netherlands Recycling Success

I’m biased.  I’ve got a Dutch wife.  I’ve seen how well The Netherlands has performed for the past 25 years.  While The Netherlands has a similar household recycling method to recycle different materials, they’re been far more successful at it. Kerbside recycling was prevalent in the early 90's in many Dutch provences. Latest figures indicate that the Dutch recycle 67% of their plastic. Perhaps it’s the lack of space that makes the Dutch realise that sending materials to landfill is an absolute last resort and this shows. Only 12% gets sent to landfill compared to 26% in the UK. But what else are they doing differently that is enabling higher recycling rates?

Landfill and incineration taxes – The Netherlands implemented taxes to discourage landfill and incineration as a way to deal with waste and this helped significantly. Unfortunately a similar policy in the UK seems to have little effect on landfill use. This is an indication that perhaps it’s not the rules that make the most impact, but rather the mentality towards recycling.  If the cheapest method is landfill, who cares, right?

Symbiotic relationships – When you take a closer look at the Dutch economy there is strong evidence of businesses and industries working together to find a better solution. As one example: A tax was implemented on unsorted waste at recycling facilities. But rather than pay or pass on the cost to the supply chain, recyclers worked with industry to improve sorting and reduce the amount of unsorted waste being sent to facilities.

Recycling innovation – In The Netherlands there is a strong culture of recycling and this in turn has led to a great deal of innovation. Startups have found ways to make packaging from compostable materials, reducing the burden on recycling. There’s a constant evolution aimed at finding better ways to recycle, reduce and reuse and this is paying dividends. A great deal of investment is being made available to support startups and established businesses in their circular economy efforts.

Perhaps the Dutch are further along the path of recycling success because they value their landmass more and recognised the benefits of recovering energy over landfill.  This realisation became part of the culture and generated the essential mindset towards better recycling efforts and finding circular economy solutions. The UK may be further behind, but there is an opportunity to learn from areas where the Dutch have met with success. Implementing similar policies is a good start, but most importantly the UK needs a mindset shift. An understanding of the urgency of the problem and that every person has a role to play in either being part of the solution or remaining part of the problem.

What is very clear is that those in the sector are absolutely committed to best practice in reduction and recycling.  Boris may say what he likes, but we know the importance of our sector and the role we play in the development of the circular economy, and beyond.