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England’s recycling rate is flatlining

23rd October 2015 Posted by

The news that Birmingham City Council (BCC) has not only missed its 2014/15 household waste recycling target of 35 per cent by six percentage points, but has also downgraded its 2015/16 target from 35 per cent to 30 per cent highlights many of the concerns SUEZ and others in the waste management sector have expressed to the new government.

Firstly, if the UK is to meet its European Union national target of 50 per cent recycling by 2020, then it will have to rely on the performance of big metropolitan councils such as BCC and the borough councils in London. The sheer size of these councils dominates the recycling figures and outweighs the higher-performing, but much smaller, rural councils. Raising recycling rates in urban areas is one of the recommendations we have made to Defra.

Secondly, BCC’s recycling trajectory over the past few years is illustrative of the general trend observed more widely – England’s recycling rate is flatlining. From a low recycling rate of 14.9 per cent in 2004, BCC’s performance rose to 30.4 per cent in 2008/9, and thereafter has hovered between 29 and 31 per cent. In 2014/15 its recycling rate of 29 per cent actually fell slightly from the previous year’s performance of 30.4 per cent. We need a fresh set of policy levers to kick-start England’s recycling performance, as a recently released study conducted by consultants SLR on behalf of SUEZ environnement will show.

Thirdly. BCC’s figures highlight just how reliant many councils are on green waste arisings. The introduction of an annual charge of £35 has seen a 11,500 tonnes drop in green waste collected, forfeiting BCC some four percentage points in recycling performance. Studies have observed that weight-based targets often have the effect of drawing into the waste stream materials whose key attribute is that they are heavy, as opposed to being intrinsically valuable. The incoming SLR report shows that this applies to many councils, giving them an advantage over councils (such as in highly urbanised areas) which do not have ready access to such arisings.

BCC’s performance must serve as a wake-up call to Defra. We still have five years to hit our target, time that Defra must use to ensure that we have at the very least a steady 1-2 percentage point annual increase in recycling performance.

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