It’s not about the number of bins! What will bring about simpler recycling reforms?

If there’s one thing that almost everyone agrees on, it’s that recycling in the UK is far too complex. Different bins for different types of packaging. Different days for different collections. Compulsory and optional collections, with little consistency between counties. A public survey showed that more than 80% of the UK are in support of recycling reforms that simplify the process. With most households admitting they’re not sure what can be recycled, where to place it or when it’ll be collected, or even if it’ll be collected or they have to take it to a depot.

Inconsistent policy making and flip flopping on policies such as EPR and DRS have left manufacturers, retailers, waste management companies in limbo. It’s hard to make investments when there’s no clear guidance on regulations or taxation that could affect the return on those investments. With little collaboration between areas, mostly it’s been left it up to local authorities to figure things out for themselves. It may seem like a good idea to focus on what a local area needs, but when you’re trying to standardise materials to improve collection and recycling rates, letting everyone do what they think is best just ends up creating more chaos and confusion.

Testimony to the level of confusion around recycling was evidenced by the PM’s announcement that the 7 bin recycling scheme would be scrapped. What 7 bin policy? Was the industry response. It may have been an announcement with good intentions – to simplify recycling. But it also hints at part of the problem. Policy making too often has a political agenda. Rather than prioritising what the industry needs, policies are made to get votes. Different coloured bins to align with party colours rather than consulting with industry stakeholders on what’s most important, and what will have a real impact on recycling rates.

Will the new reforms be any different?

In the past few years there has been little improvement in recycling rates. Most have levelled off and with volumes of packaging being produced increasing, it’s cause for concern. The recently announced recycling reforms are aimed at turning this around by creating more consistency in recycling.

While the announcement has been largely welcomed by the resource industry and local authorities, there are still some grey areas. We chatted to industry colleagues to get their take on the announcement. It’s made for an interesting debate. Some are sceptical, they’ve been part of the debate before and it was one step forward, two steps back. Is it too optimistic to hope that the new reforms will have any impact?

A major point of contention is how national policies such as EPR and DRS will impact local authorities. While in theory the idea of DRS seemed good, one of the major objections to it is that pulling glass out of local authority kerbside collections will make it very hard for them to meet recycling targets or maintain margins.

Another major question mark is food waste and household garden waste and how these are to be collected, both residentially and commercially. This highlights another issue that often evades debate. For years there has been a disconnect in the approach of recycling for residential and commercial. Some in the industry believe that commercial recycling is far from what it could and should be.

Who is footing the bill?

For most local authorities, they’re operating on shoestring budgets. They are well aware of many of the recycling challenges and possible solutions, but all of these require investments. It’s not prudent to make these investments if changing regulations come back to bite you. A case in point is one local authority undertaking green waste collections from residents. Initially these services were offered for free, but this was not sustainable and so fees were introduced. This received a great deal of backlash from communities. Now the advice is that they can no longer charge for these collections. How is the local authority supposed to fund these operations?  

And talking about funding, making changes comes at a cost, who is going to foot that bill? Changing the type and frequency of collections in residential areas impacts the type of vehicles and other resources used. Will collection vehicles need to be retrofitted? Where will the compulsory green waste collections be processed? Are there adequate facilities or will these need to be developed?

There is more than enough expertise within the industry to help guide policy changes, but the major challenge that remains is getting stakeholders to agree to common priorities. Yes, change is needed, simplification and clarity on policies and regulations are needed. But what this actually looks like still feels like it’s a log way off.

(In part 2 of Recycling Reforms we take a look as some of experiences of the past, what we can learn from them, and what industry stakeholders think should be prioritised so that reforms make a real impact on recycling outcomes.)