‘We haven’t been given the money to get it right’: why so

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On the face of it, Brighton comes across as an environmentally friendly place. As well as having a Green-led council and being home to the constituency of Britain’s only Green MP, signs of waste consciousness are everywhere.

A coffee stand at the station promotes its “compostable” takeaway cups, and the steep streets nearby are dotted with big communal recycling bins. A pink and green-painted old milkfloat called Bianca, named after the former EastEnders character, jaggedly glides from house to house, processing carefully sorted recycling boxes on behalf of the cooperative Magpie Recycling.

A few streets along, under the bunting of Brighton Open Market, volunteers at the Green Centre hover over residents – and kindly but firmly correct them where appropriate – as they sort their trickier-to-recycle waste into buckets that wait to collect everything from Marigold gloves to Kinder and Babybel wrapping, coffee packaging and corks.

The level of material recycling in England is less than half of that in Germany, only 127 kg per capita

“As a country, we are addicted to recycling,” said Melanie Rees, who runs the Green Centre. “I started this 17 years ago and it hasn’t shifted. The fascination, the addiction to recycling.”

And yet, in 2020, the unitary authority of Brighton & Hove sent just 29% of its household waste for reuse, recycling or composting (though the council says this has risen since to 30.5%). This puts it in the bottom 40 of councils in England.

While Brighton might be one of the worst performers when it comes to recycling nationally, it is also a prime example of a wider problem affecting large parts of England as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland: we are rubbish at recycling – and are getting worse.

According to the latest Defra figures, released in May, the amount of household waste recycled in England actually fell by 1.5% in 2020 to an unimpressive (and below the EU minimum target of 50%) 44%.

Poor recycling performance seems to be something of a national trait across the UK. Northern Ireland’s domestic recycling dipped from 51% to 49% while Scotland fell from 45% to 41%. Wales is significantly bucking that trend. Its recycling rate rose to 56.5% (its municipal rate is 65%). In 2017, it was ranked third in the world (after Germany and Taiwan) by independent consultancy Eunomia.

So why is so much of the United Kingdom so bad at recycling? Andy Rees, head of waste strategy for the Welsh government, said devolution, funding and close communication with councils have been key to their success – as is transparency. They have a website where people can track where recycling goes.

In the UK, only Wales is bucking the trend of falling recycling volumes, and with a rate of 56.5% it’s one of the best in the world. Photograph: Andrew Fox/Getty Images

“We aspire to do good things but take advantage of being relatively small, and then we can all get around the table together with our local authorities and work out the way forward,” he said. “So to be fair to Defra, we have had advantages in Wales that devolution has brought us, and has allowed us to do quite well.”

The picture around England is far more disparate. Its worst performing local authority for household reuse, recycling and composting last year was Barrow-in-Furness borough council with 18%, Defra figures show. The best was St Albans city and district council, with 64%.

So if Andy Rees were suddenly given the brief to take on England too, what steps would he take? Food waste would be a big one, he said, and, crucially, so would something that has infuriated just about everyone in the country at some point or another: collecting the same materials across local authorities.

Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association, the trade association for UK recycling companies, said that one of the biggest issues is inconsistency between councils, which can make logistics and communicating with the public difficult.

“There’s 350 local authorities across the UK, and every single one of them has a slightly different collection system, some vastly different,” he said. “And then the material that they’re then collecting from the public, it’s often heavily contaminated, it’s not target material because it’s been designed so poorly. It hasn’t been labelled properly, they haven’t been instructed properly how to put it in the bin.” This leaves recyclers with little choice but to clean it up as best they can and try to sell it on. “It’s been a broken supply chain,” he said.

Red recycling bins overflowing with rubbish on the street.
Every UK local authority has its own recycling rules, making communication with the public difficult. Photograph: Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty Images

Although the pandemic probably played a role in England’s slipping recycling figures, Ellin admits progress has flatlined.

“Let’s not forget that local government have had a real hatchet job done on them by central government in terms of budgets and finance, and I feel really sorry for them,” he said. “All these demands and criticisms that recycling performance hasn’t been good, and yet they haven’t been given any money to get it right.”

But change may be on its way in the form of new government legislation under the environment bill, which Ellin describes as “visionary and groundbreaking”, due to come into effect in the coming years.

Key to this is a plan by Defra to introduce consistent recycling collections in England so that every council will collect plastic, paper and card, metal and food waste from homes and businesses. It also plans to launch a deposit return scheme for PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (which will also include steel and aluminium cans and glass bottles).

Big business will be under pressure too: brand owners, importers and distributers will be charged according to the amount and type of packaging they put on the market and, from 2024, big coffee shops and fast food chains will have to provide bins to collect and recycle their packaging.

However, campaigners, industry leaders and politicians are concerned that, in the context of the cost of living crisis and amid the current Tory turmoil, environmental issues are not a top priority.

“I’m really worried that as the leadership debate within the Conservative party drifts even further to the right, the environment is going to be a big loser, with common sense values like recycling and aiming for net zero being sidelined,” said the Green party’s Baroness Jenny Jones. She fears that without a moratorium on new incinerators, there will be “more greenhouse gases and less recycling”. She warned: “England could go backwards on the very things that will help people out most.”

With single-use plastic causing many problems, some are seeking out solutions that avoid it all together. Refill shops invite people to bring their own containers but too many remain unaffordable or niche. So far, Loop, which offers customers durable packaging that they bring back to be cleaned, refilled and reused, appears to have gained the most mass traction, with household brands like Persil, Tetley and BrewDog signed up.

Tesco recently completed a pilot with Loop across online shopping and in 10 stores, where customers paid refundable deposits on reusable pre-filled packaging. This was “positively received” by customers, who bought more than 80,000 products over two years. The most popular products, it said, were brands like Coca-Cola and own-label essentials such as granola and olive oil. The pilot is currently paused, but Tesco said it is looking into how to scale it up in the future.

Asda in Middleton, Leeds
Asda’s sustainability store in Middleton, Leeds, has been such a success that it has since opened refill stores in Glasgow, Milton Keynes and York. Photograph: Matt Timbers

At Asda’s flagship sustainability trial store in Middleton, Leeds, which opened in 2020, the supermarket tests out new methods on shoppers. This has been such a success that it has since opened refill stores in Glasgow, Milton Keynes and York.

From the outside, it looks like a normal Asda but, inside, customers can buy refillable PG Tips, Vimto, Kellogg’s, Radox and Persil, browse in a “pre-loved” clothes section and buy lots of unwrapped produce.

But for many shoppers convenience is still king. On an overcast Wednesday last week, shopper Roché Beel, 26, who avoids using carrier bags and is pescatarian, said she was yet to try the refill scheme: “It’s a lot of hassle when you can buy a box full of the goods you need.”

Becky Shenton, 27, who works in NHS procurement and lives nearby, said she does recycle, but it is easy to feel cynical about it.

“People are now using bags for life like they used to use the old carrier bags. People do need to take personal responsibility.”

Ten and Costina Nyakudarika, 24 and 21, came to the shop specifically to check out the recycling facilities. Ten, a medical student, felt that Covid turned a lot of people away from their good recycling habits.

“People weren’t going out as much, and, after lockdown ended, they weren’t willing to go back to previous behaviours. They didn’t care as much.”

Ten and Costina Nyakudarika at Asda recycling in Middleton.
Ten and Costina Nyakudarika at Asda recycling in Middleton. Photograph: Miranda Bryant/The Observer

Although he agreed that England isn’t especially good at recycling, Julien Tremblin, general manager of TerraCycle Europe, which created Loop, was certain, at least. that it’s not going backwards.

“I really strongly believe that it’s not in any way on a downward trend. I think if, anything, it’s going to go up,” he said.

“You need to move to a place where reuse is as simple as disposability so that it becomes as easy for the consumer to do as to buy a product and throw it away. Once we’ve achieved that, we will have solved a lot of the waste crisis.”

James Piper, self-proclaimed “rubbish geek” and author of The Rubbish Book: A Complete Guide to Recycling, said a system that relied on constant reuse would be a good solution. But he added: “There isn’t anything in our current culture and system and consumerism – the fact that we want to go to a supermarket and buy things all year round, there’s nothing that makes that perfect, unfortunately.”

The Local Government Association said that councils are having to deliver more recycling services along with other vital services with “ever squeezed budgets”.

It called for businesses and manufacturers to build waste reduction and reuse into their operations, but added that that local authorities “need certainty on the timetable for implementation of the full set of Defra’s reforms”.

A Defra spokesperson said: “By 2035, we want to be recycling at least 65% of our municipal waste, with a maximum of 10% going to landfill. And through new powers, we will introduce major packaging and collection reforms to achieve this.

Young woman recycling plastic bottles
Put lids back on plastic bottles. Photograph: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

“Despite the excellent efforts of councils and their staff, some collections were inevitably affected during the first national lockdown. This was due to staff shortages and the introduction of changes to working practices in line with public health guidance to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

Back in Brighton, Melanie Rees thinks there is a better, simpler solution than recycling. “The amount of energy that goes into recycling plastic for it to have possibly one more life before it’s burned is enormous. I want to say to people: you’ve really got to look at stopping buying some of this stuff.”

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