What Simpler Recycling Reforms mean for Local Authorities, Contractors and Producers

In general, there have been positive reactions to government’s Simpler Recycling Reforms that were announced last month. While there are still many questions, the positivity is based on the feeling that at least there is some clarity now on the direction reforms are taking.

Regarding policies to reduce residual waste collections. There’s strong evidence to suggest that it’s a key tool that has been implemented in the past to drive up recycling rates and save money. This may well help achieve the 65% recycling target.

The problem is that it’s not that simple. There are three major factors that will impact progress. Until there’s greater clarity, local councils, contractors and producers can’t be expected to make big changes or major investments.

      1.       Timing

As part of the simpler recycling reforms, several target dates were set. These range from implementing consistent collections from businesses by March 2025 through to flexible packaging collections in 2027. Then there’s DRS coming into effect in October 2025, and a multitude of other milestones in between. While it’s good to know these targets dates, one needs to take into consideration the impacts for local authorities and contractors.

With consistent collections from businesses this will likely increase collection volumes. Do local authorities scale up resources to meet this demand only to have bottles pulled out of collections six months later due to implementation of DRS? How do local authorities formulate agreements with contractors to deal with these changes?

Also, keep in mind that it’s taken government more than two years of discussions to come up with these simpler recycling reforms. That’s two years of progress lost while policies were formulated. How much more time will be lost while policies are fine tuned until a clear direction can be achieved. The industry can’t really afford to wait, yet they’re reluctant to make investments when changes in policy could eradicate income streams.

Perhaps this is why so many local councils and industry stakeholders remain sceptical. Answering one question that gives rise to three more uncertainties isn’t the progress needed. Also, nobody is going to make a move until funding comes available. That’s another timing issue that needs to be clarified.

      2.       Funding and capacity

In the reforms, some collections, such as garden waste can be charged for and this may help fund the capacity requirements. But the same isn’t true for all types of collections. Food waste is estimated to make up 35% of residual waste. Moving that into a separate collection will require a seven-fold increase in capacity. How will collections and processing be funded? 

There are increasing calls to reduce waste exports and focus on local processing. The challenge is that the UK doesn’t have the capacity to process all its existing waste – which is why some of it is exported. Now with targets to increase recycling volumes, it’s going to add even more pressure on processing capacity.

Also, with EPR targets on flexible packaging set for 2027, there is funding set to be released. But when will those funds become available? Local authorities can’t be expected to increase capacity if there is no clarity on if or when funding will be there to expand capacity.

      3.       Defining Efficient and Effective

One of the cornerstones of EPR is having a clear definition of what efficient and effective recycling looks like. This is hard to do without supporting data. In some industries, producers are being proactive, recording their inputs, carbon footprint and other related metrics, because they know EPR is coming.

This is a good start to understanding what’s possible and how the targets should be set but it’s not enough to make clear definitions. Privately some contractors are also being diligent about measuring recycling efficiency. All of this data can help define effective and efficient recycling but more is needed. It’s going to require a collaborative industry effort to get there.

It’s not just about collections. In order to be compliant there are many other operational sub tasks that need to be taken into consideration. Sampling, permitting, site assessments are just a few. If definitions are going to change it’ll have a major impact on operations and contractor abilities to be compliant.

When policy makers are deliberating on the definitions, they need to engage with all stakeholders so that they have a good understanding on what goes into creating a circular economy and what makes it efficient and effective.

What’s next for the industry?

While simpler recycling reforms are generally welcomed, it’s also recognised that different regions have different recycling needs. Guidelines are beneficial, but flexibility is also needed. It’s good that local councils for now retain a level of choice on how to go about collections and processing. Will this change as the details of the reforms are fleshed out?

The industry has a vital role in shaping these reforms and it’s important that stakeholders continue to engage with policy makers. It may well be a frustrating process getting them to understand all the complexities of recycling, but it’s necessary if reforms are to make an impact. From your experience, what do you see as the best way forward?