Waste management in England - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

3  Recycling rates in England

Current performance

23. The EU Waste Framework Directive states that the United Kingdom must recycle at least 50% of its household waste by 2020. England achieved a recycling rate of 43.2% in 2012/13 and has improved its recycling rate by more than three times since 2000.[31] However, in recent years, the rate of increase has started to slow and Defra statistics show that the rate of increase in the last year is insufficient to meet the 50% EU target by 2020.[32]

24. The Government is committed to meeting the EU target[33] but, based on the current trajectory of recycling rates, most witnesses were concerned that England will miss the target unless some significant additional Government interventions are made. As explained by Dr Liz Goodwin, CEO of WRAP:

    There is a significant risk that we will not [reach the target by 2020] and that we need a concerted effort if we are going to do anything about that […] certainly in the last three years or so, the growth has slowed down to the extent where it looks as though it has plateaued at the moment. Something needs to be done to address that, otherwise we will not meet the recycling rates.[34]

SITA UK told us that:

    the evidence suggests that the current suite of Defra policies has run its course. Higher recycling targets will only be achieved by introducing a refreshed set of policies and policy instruments.[35]

25. We are concerned that the 2020 EU target of 50% household recycling will not be met in England without clear Government leadership and renewed policy drivers and support from Defra.

26. To put England's recycling rate in context, Wales achieved a recycling rate of 52% in 2012/13;[36] Scotland achieved 41.2% in 2012;[37] and Northern Ireland achieved 38.7% in 2012/13.[38], [39] It is difficult to make direct comparisons between countries as the methods of recording recycling rates are not consistent across the board[40] and it is notable that the present rate of increase in Scotland and Northern Ireland is higher than in England. Nonetheless, as Wales implemented an ambitious set of targets through its Towards Zero Waste Strategy in 2010 and has already met the 50% target, we focused on the Welsh approach to determine whether there are any lessons to learn.

27. Dr Andy Rees, Head of Waste Strategy Branch at the Welsh Government, told us that the main area of focus for the Welsh Government has been on setting statutory recycling targets which have "very much focused the minds of local authorities".[41] In addition, the Welsh Government has developed a mix of interventions to meet the targets that it has set, including additional funding support to local authorities through the Sustainable Waste Management Grant (totalling £66 million this year), a twin-tracked communications campaign (national and local) and a series of programmes to support the changes that need to be made.

28. We urge Defra to work alongside WRAP and industry to develop a comprehensive plan to be implemented in the event that England's recycling rate continues to slow. We recommend that Defra learns from successful approaches in countries such as Wales and Ministers consider introducing refreshed policies and re-introducing requirements such as statutory recycling targets for local authorities alongside the requisite funding support.

Promoting best practice

29. Recycling rates in local authorities across England range between 12% and 67%.[42] The disparity stems from the numerous and differing challenges which they face and which are likely to vary depending on the particular local circumstances. As a generalisation, inner-city urban areas tend to have the lowest recycling rates[43] which is commonly attributed to transient populations, high-density housing with little space for recycling receptacles, and a lack of householder engagement and understanding.[44] Other common barriers faced by local authorities with low recycling rates include insufficient infrastructure and recycling facilities, challenges of costs and funding, and problems with accessing output markets.[45]

30. During our inquiry, we investigated a number of approaches aimed at improving household recycling rates in order to determine whether there are any overarching lessons to be learnt from strong performers. We discuss a sample of these below.


31. When we explored the reasons behind higher recycling rates, separate food and garden waste collections was often suggested as an answer. This is reflected in the proportion of green waste being recycled by the highest and lowest performing councils in 2012/13: being over 56% and 0% respectively.[46] Dr Rees told us that separate food waste collections have "probably added around five to six percentage points"[47] to the recycling rate in Wales. He explained:

    In terms of the funding that we have provided to local authorities, the key difference that it has made is for them to provide separate collection of food waste…and as a result, 96% of our households in Wales have had a separate collection service for food waste put in place by their local authorities.[48]

32. However, we also received evidence against separate collections of food waste due to the high cost of implementation and low participation rates by householders leading to low volumes being collected.[49] Currently, about 45% of households have access to a food waste collection (with around half of those being food waste only and half being mixed with garden waste) but only 10% of food waste is collected.[50] In practice, local authorities can struggle with the costs created by separate food collections, as demonstrated by Tamworth and Lichfield local councils which have recently stopped separate food waste collection services in order to save a total of £400,000 per year.[51] Councillor Gary Porter, Vice Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), argued that "it is for the local council, with their local population, to work out the best methods of collection in their area".[52]

33. We agree with the overall explanation given by ESA:

    In general terms, higher recycling rates require the expansion of existing services and the introduction of new ones (e.g. separate food waste collections). Different services may be more or less appropriate for differing local circumstances. ESA believes that responsibility for household waste and recycling collections rightly reside with the local authorities. There may however be some scope for increased service standardization between local authority areas.[53]

34. On balance, we conclude that local authorities should remain responsible for addressing the specific challenges and barriers to increasing recycling rates that they face at a local level. However, there is scope for guidance and best practice to be shared at a national level in order to move towards a more standardised approach and to assist local authorities to improve their individual performance.

35. Defra should facilitate and encourage learning from best practice actions to help local authorities gravitate towards the best possible service in their area. Working with the Local Government Association, we urge Defra to share information on successful approaches with local authorities to enable them to develop the most effective services for their particular local circumstances.


36. We were told that that only about 24% of householders are recycling correctly.[54] The householder plays a key role in helping to improve recycling rates but, in general, has no direct financial incentive to do so. On average, each household pays £3 per week for its waste and recycling services and most will be unaware of this relatively low cost breakdown as it is rolled up as part of council tax payments.[55] Keep Britain Tidy have found that:

    Households have a critical and often forgotten role in municipal waste recycling. Our recent Recycling Inquiry in partnership with SITA UK found that although infrastructure and services have a large role to play, without clear, consistent and continual communication and information that motivates households to recycle more and better, there is a disconnection with the real underlying need and recycling commitment and capability is reduced.[56]

37. WRAP carried out the Recycle Now communication campaign at a national level to encourage recycling. This has been developed and managed by WRAP since 2004 and comprises direct consumer messaging and indirect communications through organisations, such as major retailers, local authorities and community groups, adopting and using the brand. Despite the success of this high-profile campaign, Defra has cut funding for WRAP from £53.5 million in 2010/11 to £17.9 million in 2014/15. An even greater proportional funding reduction has occurred for Keep Britain Tidy, from £4.8 million in 2010/11 to £0.5 million in 2014/15.[57]

38. Dr Goodwin reassured us that despite WRAP's budget cuts, work relating to food waste reductions and recycling continues. Nevertheless, as explained by Green Alliance:

    WRAP has had a very big role in successful campaigns, but what we also understand is you have to keep repeating it. The messages and communications have to keep coming forward. As soon as they stop people are liable to slip back into previous habits.[58]

39. Successful communication campaigns must be sustained to keep householders engaged. We commend the work of WRAP and Keep Britain Tidy and strongly believe that the research, advice, support and information provided by these organisations is invaluable.

40. We are concerned that, despite the significant achievements of both organisations, Defra's funding for WRAP and Keep Britain Tidy has reduced over recent years. We urge Defra to increase the funding if evidence suggests it necessary in the lead up to 2020.

41. As well as high-profile national communication campaigns, specific local issues need to be addressed at a local level. We identified three common issues faced at an individual or householder level, each of which could be addressed with targeted communications:

a)  confusion about what can and cannot be recycled;

b)  a lack of confidence in the end destination of recyclables; and

c)  contamination of recyclables.

42. First, confusion is common because there is not a standardised approach to recycling across England. There are up to 400 different collection and recycling schemes in England which means that each time an individual moves areas, either permanently or temporarily (for example moving house or travelling from home to work or school each day) they need to learn and adapt to a new system.[59] Phil Barton, Chief Executive of Keep Britain Tidy, told us that "despite quite a lot of goodwill and basic values supporting the idea of recycling, there is a disconnect and people are confused".[60]

43. Councillor Porter emphasised that simplicity of the collection regime and clear communication are important,[61] but need to be done on a local basis: "councils do know their people better than any national organisation; it is just the nature of the beast".[62] Whilst acknowledging that there is no silver bullet to standardise schemes across the country, Dr Liz Goodwin did suggest that the 400 different schemes ought to be able to consolidate down to "five or six models of recycling schemes".[63] This further substantiates our findings on separate food waste collections and our earlier recommendation to move towards more standardised best practice approaches, while acknowledging that services must be tailored to local circumstances.

44. Secondly, we are concerned that there seems to be a lack of public confidence in the end destination of the rubbish put in recycling bins: a remaining cynicism that separated recycling still goes to landfill.[64] A YouGov survey found that 73% of UK adults sampled said they did not know where materials go (in terms of plants or geography) and 32% said they would be much more likely or more likely to recycle if more information was available.[65] RPS Planning and Development assured us that there was more information that could usefully be provided to people so that they understood what the consequences of their actions were and what the benefits were.[66] Defra acknowledges this problem and, as such, is supportive of the Resource Association's End Destination of Recycling Charter.[67] The Charter is a voluntary scheme whereby local authorities and private companies involved in the recycling chain publish an annual Register of End Destination of Recyclates, with the aim of improving transparency in the recycling supply chain and enhancing public confidence in recycling.

45. Thirdly, the raw material sent to be recycled (known as recyclate) can be rejected from recycling plants if it is contaminated, which causes a lower actual recycling rate. Data for England show that 226,770 tonnes of contaminated recyclate was rejected out of a total 10,457,329 tonnes of recyclate collected in 2012/13. This is 59,973 tonnes more contaminated recyclate rejected than in 2008/09.[68] Contamination is caused by waste that cannot be recycled being put in recycling bins (e.g. food waste and certain types of plastic) or waste that could be recycled being too dirty or damaged to be processed. Defra is looking for local authorities to promote recycling through effective communications and making it easier for householders to do the right thing e.g. by making it easier to know which plastics can go in the recycling bin.[69]

46. Householders have a key role to play in increasing recycling rates, but household engagement must be improved in order to tackle the common challenges of householder confusion, lack of confidence in the process, and contamination of recyclates. Recycling rates could be significantly improved by the provision of consistent, simple and concise information.

47. Communication needs to be tailored to local circumstances but Defra should engage with local authorities and provide support at a national level, particularly in relation to common issues and problem areas. We recommend that Defra considers compulsory publication of an annual Register of End Destination of Recyclates by all local authorities and waste management companies involved in the recycling chain, in order to improve access to information and public confidence.


48. Other ways to improve householder engagement are either to provide rewards and recognition for good recycling, or to make it compulsory for householders to recycle. The majority of our witnesses were not in favour of compulsory recycling, although it was noted that there is insufficient data available in England to determine the precise impact that this approach could have on England's overall recycling rates.[70] Significantly, many more witnesses noted the benefits that reward and recognition could bring. A Keep Britain Tidy survey found that about 90% of the public said that they would like to see some sort of reward coming back to the community to acknowledge good recycling.[71] This could be in the form of improvements to the local environment (playgrounds, parks or trees) or a rebate on an individual's council tax. The LGA emphasised individual cash incentive schemes and gave the example of Wokingham Borough Council seeing an initial increase of 28% in the tonnage of recycling collected after introducing a recycling rewards scheme in April 2012.[72]

49. In line with the overall endorsements for rewarding positive behaviour, Defra has launched the Reward and Recognition Fund in partnership with SERCO, as a pilot to test innovative ideas to encourage positive behaviour. Funding has been provided to 28 projects (including recycling) and a final analysis report will be published by Defra in 2015.

50. We support Defra's Reward and Recognition Scheme and expect Defra to use the results to identify and support best practice schemes to be used as prototypes for other local authorities to follow.

Ambition for the future

51. A recent European Commission Communication Towards a circular economy: zero waste programme for Europe[73] identifies EU waste policy and targets as key drivers for shifting to a circular economy. The Commission is proposing new targets on waste recycling, including 70% for municipal waste by 2030. Both Wales and Scotland already have national recycling targets of 70% by 2025, but England does not. The Minister stressed the importance of seeing the evidence base for any future European targets to ensure that they are achievable[74] and commented on the recent Communication as follows:

    To move on to 70% in a further 10 years would certainly be challenging. That is not to say it is impossible, but it would certainly take a lot of different ways of doing things—different ways of incentivising and pushing that.[75]

52. Evidence we received acknowledged that increased recycling targets would be challenging and require some serious Government intervention in order to meet them. Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM, summarised his views as follows:

    I am absolutely convinced that there is nothing special about the United Kingdom or England that means that we could not hit exactly the same sorts of recycling targets as other European member states.[76]

53. Also included in the proposals is a ban on the landfilling of recyclable waste (plastics, metals, glass, paper and cardboard and biodegradable waste) with the objective to move towards virtual elimination of landfilling municipal waste by 2030.[77] Whilst the UK is on track to meet its current EU landfill diversion targets by 2020, about 8.5 million tonnes (or 34%) of local authority managed waste still went to landfill in 2012/13.[78]

54. In accordance with the waste hierarchy, we encourage a move towards banning the landfilling of all recyclable waste by 2025 as landfill should only be used for wastes for which there is no better recovery option. However, any such proposals must be signalled well in advance, with appropriate support and alternative infrastructure put in place to guard against disproportionate cost burdens.

55. Meeting a 70% recycling target in England for all household waste by 2030 would be challenging but Defra should aspire to achieve recycling rates at the maximum feasible level, with or without European targets.

31   Defra, Statistics on waste managed by local authorities in England in 2012/13, 7 November 2013. Back

32   Defra, Statistics on waste managed by local authorities in England in 2012/13, 7 November 2013, page 2 Figure 1 Back

33   Defra [WME 0072] para 3.2 Back

34   Q327 Back

35   SITA UK [WME 005] para 5 Back

36   StatsWales, Local Authority Municipal Waste Management 2012-13 Back

37   Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Household waste summary reports (2012) Back

38   Northern Ireland Local Authority Collected Municipal Waste Management Statistics, Annual Report 2012/13 Back

39   In 2010, the average EU municipal recycling rate was 39%. Examples: Romania recycled 1% of municipal waste, Portugal recycled 19% of municipal waste, Denmark recycled 42% of municipal waste and Germany recycled 62% of municipal waste. See European Environment Agency, Managing municipal solid waste, EEA Report No 2/2013 Back

40   For example, Scotland calculated its recycling rates as local authority collected municipal waste until 2010/11. However, since 2012 only household waste is included in the recycling rate calculation. Back

41   Q132 Back

42   Defra, Statistics on waste managed by local authorities in England in 2012/13, 7 November 2013. In 2012/13, Ashford Borough Council had the lowest rate of recycling at 12% and Rochford District Council had the highest recycling rate at 67%. Back

43   Q10 and Q194 Back

44   Local Government Association [WME 0078], para 4 Back

45   Q9 [Jacob Hayler] Back

46   Defra, Statistics on waste managed by local authorities in England in 2012/13, 7 November 2013 Back

47   Q135 Back

48   Q134 Back

49   See Babcock and Wilcox Volund [WME 004] Back

50   Q352 Back

51   Let's Recycle, Cost cutting sees councils drop food waste services, 17 July 2014 Back

52   Q203 Back

53   Environmental Services Association [WME 0045] para 10 Back

54   Q333  Back

55   Environmental Services Association [WME 0045] para 16, based on data in the Department for Communities and Local Government, Local Authority Revenue Expenditure and Financing: 2012-13 Final Outturn, England 18 February 2014 Back

56   Keep Britain Tidy [WME 0057] para 4.2 Back

57   Defra [WME 0074]  Back

58   Q101 [Julie Hill] Back

59   Q334 Back

60   Q6 Back

61   Q189 Back

62   Q190 Back

63   Q334 Back

64   Q7 [Phil Barton] and Q247 [Dr Church] Back

65   Resource Association, Where Does the Recycling Go?, June 2012  Back

66   Q63 Back

67   Q247 [Dr Colin Church] Back

68   Defra, Response to Freedom of Information Request, 17 April 2014. 166,797 tonnes of contaminated recyclate was rejected out of 10,199,392 tonnes of recyclate collected in 2008/09. Back

69   Defra [WME 0072] para 3.5 Back

70   Chartered Institution of Wastes Management [WME 0073] para 35 and Local Government Association [WME 0078], para 1 Back

71   Q7 [Phil Barton] Back

72   Local Government Association [WME 0078], para 1 Back

73   European Commission, Moving towards a circular economy Back

74   Q223 Back

75   Q249 Back

76   Q10 Back

77   European Commission, Questions and answers on the Commission Communication "Towards a Circular Economy" and the Waste Targets Review, 2 July 2014 Back

78   Defra, Statistics on waste managed by local authorities in England in 2012/13, 7 November 2013 Back

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Prepared 22 October 2014