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Can the UK overhaul its recycling sector to reach circular economy heights?

England’s household recycling rate has plateaued most notably with change of just 2% between 2010 and 2017. New policies to strengthen the markets for secondary materials are ‘essential’ if the UK is to meet the Circular Economy recycling targets, according to the Environmental Services Association.  

It is no secret that the UK is currently struggling to meet the EU’s existing targets for 50% household recycling by 2020. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) considers in its latest report how 65% could be achieved by 2030, as required by Circular Economy guidelines. Approximately 80 – 85% of material in household waste is technically recyclable. To achieve a 60% recycling rate residents would need to capture at least 70% of their recyclables, consistently every week.

Three scenarios

‘An economic assessment and feasibility study of how the UK could meet the Circular Economy Package recycling targets’ looks at three different strategic directions for recycling targets: ‘business as usual’, ‘cost neutral’ and a fully sustainable approach:

  • Business as usual – effectively a status quo on collection frequency is set to maintain the current household rate of 43% which, when paired with the commercial rate of 60%, means an overall UK recycling rate of 52%
  • Cost neutral – whereby some local authorities save money through measures such as fewer collections while some have to invest to improve recycling – would achieve 53% for household. Combined with the 60% commercial figure gives an overall rate of 56%
  • Circular Economy package – the required 65% would cost local authorities between £105 million and £315 million, and it could cost business around £160 million.

Up by one third

The ESA argues that all three approaches would require additional policy intervention from the Government such as extended producer responsibility, stronger end markets and greater use of recycled materials in new products.

‘If we want higher recycling rates then we will need fresh interventions and additional funding,’ the ESA’s executive director Jacob Hayler says. ‘Moving from our current municipal recycling rate of around 50% to the target figure of 65% would of course necessitate performance to jump by one third. Both household and commercial recycling would need to be radically improved.’

‘There must be a smarter way’

A later report from the ESA will look at alternatives to using weight as a metric for recycling targets. Hayler remarks: ‘The current weight-based approach doesn’t accurately reflect environmental outcomes and distorts behaviour in the sector by incentivising the collection of heavy, low value materials. Higher weight-based targets would distort behaviour even more.’

And he adds: ‘There must be a smarter way, which targets value and is more closely aligned with environmental objectives, including the UK’s carbon budgets. ESA would support a bold and radical approach.’

Curious? Read the full report here.

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