The hard facts about UK recycling

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Why have UK recycling statistics stalled?

The United Kingdom produces around 200 million metric tonnes of waste every year.

Of this, more than three-quarters comes from non-domestic sources such as industry and construction. UK households are responsible for around 28 million tonnes of waste, somewhere in the region of half a tonne per household, or 437 kilos of waste per UK citizen (2012 figures).

The hard fact is that recycling rates remain at around 44% across the country, and it looks increasingly like the 50% target by the year 2020 is going to be missed. Scaled up, that means over 100 million tonnes of waste is still being sent through non-sustainable processing routes every year. In domestic waste terms – the rule of thumb used to measure local authority rates – 15.7 million tonnes is either disposed of in landfill or other unsustainable methods.

However, it needs to be remembered that there are certain waste types that have no current recycling routes, and that accounts for many millions of tonnes and a large percentage of official statistics. In many cases, such as some types of plastics, it’s not that there’s no desire to recycle this kind of wastes, it’s simply that there are currently no cost-effective means of recycling, or that there are very few existing facilities that can handle these waste types.

This results in a proportion of UK waste being used in energy recovery processes, and this counts in the recycling “debit” column.

While there is commercial will for recycling-oriented waste handling plants, energy recovery plants and biomass generators, there appears to be little public appetite for them. While the benefits of all three are clear, public resistance to large green- or brown-field projects looms large, and central government seems slow to give approval despite existing green targets.

However, cooperation between local authorities mean that facilities can be shared across larger areas, meaning the greater likelihood that waste facilities can be found a home that suits as many parties as possible.

While some countries in the EU near a total recycling society, the UK is struggling with regulation, planning and a disapproving public that leaves Britain – and England in particular – dragging its feet.

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