No simple solution - diving into recycling challenges

The rhetoric of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle is well used. We see it advertising, we hear it in company mission statements and for most, it’s the ultimate circular economy goal to subscribe to. But we’re not there yet. While most people will agree that recycling is important, what they think and what they do are often two different things.

As much as progress has been made in recycling, many challenges remain. Which is why when critics ask: “Why aren’t recycling rates going up?” or “Is recycling even working?” There isn’t a simple answer.

Statistics rarely tell the whole story. There are many factors at play and many different decision makers with their own priorities. Until there’s collective consensus on what it’ll take to achieve a circular economy, challenges will remain. We look at some of the current hurdles the industry is working to overcome.

Collections

The feedback that is consistently received from members of the public is that few people know what they can recycle where and how it’s collected. This may result in households and businesses placing non-recyclables in recycling collection bins which leads to contamination, or simply discarding recyclables into general waste destined for landfills.

No matter how much the industry works to improve processing, until collections can be improved and become more consistent, the problem will remain. A major challenge is that most collections are governed locally, which means that each has its own policies and collection systems. There is a benefit to this in that collections are geared towards meeting local recycling capacity and capabilities, but the downside is that it leaves too many gaps. There’s loss of revenue happening from materials that could be recycled that are not, and collection systems are frustrated by inefficiencies.

Regulations and taxes

There are several new regulations (potentially) coming into play that will impact recycling efforts. The plastics tax, consistent collections, EPR and DRS are just a few. Most regulations are aimed at improving recycling, reducing the amount of virgin materials required, and encouraging businesses to tap into resources already in the economy.

The goals may be well intentioned, but implementation is anything but easy. Case in point is Scotland’s DRS where implementation has been delayed another 6 months as stakeholders work through the many objections and roadblocks to get the program up and running. Whether it’ll ever get there is anyone’s guess and in the interim it’s becoming a very expensive learning exercise.

Policy

When China banned the import of recyclables a few years back, some highlighted that it was an opportunity to scale up local UK recycling capacity. Indeed, it’s a fine sounding solution and something the industry has been consistently working towards. But even as capacity increases, the complexities of recycling remain so there’s no guarantee that ‘keeping it local’ will improve overall recycling rates. There are some excellent recycling routes available overseas.

It’s a similar argument that’s driving the proposed ban of plastic trading and exports. Of course it would be great to realise the revenue potential of more local recycling. But policy makers need to engage more with the industry to understand the various factors that come into play and realise that creating policies without proper consultation could actually do more harm to the industry.

Perception

Public perception can cloud judgements and influence both policy and regulations. Local recycling policies and broader, regional, recycling plans with clear and consistent regulations would help.  But a lack of understanding of the processes and outputs leads local people to object.

Equally planning permissions for projects such as wind or solar farms, or energy recovery facilities are often held up by public objections because people don’t understand the technologies involved. It’s clear that more education is needed at a much broader scale, but whose responsibility is it to get that education out there?

Lack of uniformity

While there is a goal to create more consistency throughout the UK when it comes to recycling, that too is far from being realised. As counties and cities have been able to create their own policies and systems, it’s difficult to find common ground that works for everyone. And that’s just relating to collections and processing.  

An equally big challenge is the lack of uniformity when creating products and packaging from virgin resources. The sheer volume and variety of different types of plastic packaging is one example, and reason why even plastics recycling is not a simple process.  Incorporating percentages of recycled materials is a good start, but a better approach would be greater levels of standardisation in the materials used as part of the initial product design.

This list of challenges isn’t by any means exhaustive, but it does highlight some of the complexities involved in recycling. We can hope that collaborative effort will help move the industry forward, there’s certainly enough expertise to do so. What do you think the primary areas of focus should be as a priority?