13 March 2018 by Steve Eminton

The challenge of improving recycling in London

Gev Eduljee, non-executive director at Resource Futures, assesses the potential for London to increase its recycling rate in the light of numerous challenges for the capital.

OPINION: England’s annual household/municipal waste recycling rate inches along with an increase of 0.3% over 2015 according to the latest figures released by Defra on 22 February, putting the UK further out of reach of EU 2020 target of 50% recycling by 2020. 


Gev Eduljee is a non-executive director at Resource Futures

Another successful year from Wales (56.7% excluding IBA) makes little difference to the UK’s weighted overall performance, which now stands at 44.6% (excluding IBA).

Neither, for that matter, will the far higher recycling rates delivered by many, predominantly rural or lightly urbanised, local authorities.  Considering ONS rural/urban classifications, which range from Class 1 (major urban districts) to Class 6 (80% of the population in rural settlements), recycling rates above 60% are dominated by rural authorities (7% of total Class 6 versus 3% of total Class 1).


Fifty percent of Class 6 local authorities achieved recycling rates of between 40-50%, against 50% in Class 1 which managed 30-40% recycling.  Urban authorities dominate the lowest recycling performance band (19% of total Class 1 against 2% of total Class 6 achieve less than 30% recycling).  For England to deliver a step change in recycling, policymakers must focus on the big metropolitan councils, including the borough councils in London.  The sheer size of these councils outweighs the higher-performing but much smaller rural councils.


Dr Therese Coffey (second from right) developing flats recycling in a city where the population now stands at 8.7 million, much larger than the often praised ‘recycling’ city of Milan

It is in this context that London’s draft Environment Strategy and waste management policies S17 and S18 in Chapter 9 of the draft London Plan, assume national importance – London contains 16% of England’s population.  Dramatically improve recycling in London, and England’s overall recycling performance will receive an equally dramatic fillip.  But the challenge is daunting, with the draft Plan stipulating a municipal waste recycling target of 65% by 2030 (higher than the EU’s proposed 2030 target of 60%) against London’s current performance of 33%, albeit with some three-quarters of boroughs showing improvements in recycling performance over the previous year.


Is the London Plan’s 2030 target realistic?  The International Recycling Rate Comparison Project commissioned by LWARB and the GLA in 2016 suggests that of the 35 cities studied, one (Melbourne) achieves a household waste recycling rate of over 50%, and a bare handful hit municipal waste recycling rates of over 50%.  The London Assembly Environment Committee’s report Household Recycling (December 2017) presents Milan as an exemplar for London, but this comparison is hardly fair – London’s population of 8.7 million dwarfs that of Milan which has a population of 1.4 million (roughly the size of Birmingham). And, London’s citizenry is much more diverse and lives in a denser housing stock than Milan.

The Environment Committee is, however, right to point to some of Milan’s success factors, which are shared with other high-performing cities and regions.  Some of these are in the Plan and are endorsed by the Committee – greater focus on collection from flats, more food waste collections, systematic collection of the main recycling streams, and the Mayor’s power of direction.  Beyond this, the Committee recommends “increased consistency of recycling systems”, restricting the capacity of the residual waste bin, the use of fines and greater community engagement as a carrot and stick approach to encourage more recycling.

Taking the figures at face value, the LWARB/GLA report lists Seoul as the highest performing city, with a household waste recycling rate of 48.8% and a municipal waste recycling rate of 66%.  Seoul has a population of 10.4 million, perhaps a better comparator than Milan.  Over and above the Committee’s recommendations, can London learn from Seoul’s experience?

Six issues

Six issues in particular stand out. First, Seoul deploys a pay-as-you-throw system (also contemplated in Milan) which research has consistently shown to produce higher recycling rates and lower residual waste generation than the UK’s flat rate council-tax based system.  Second, Seoul (along with Milan) adopts “standardised” as opposed to “consistent” collection systems across the city, down to the colour of its sacks and bins.  This is hinted at by the Committee, but not followed through.  Third, waste management infrastructure is planned on a city-wide basis as an integrated waste management system.  This is not the same as micro-scale “borough-level apportionments” (Table 9.2 of the draft London Plan) for allocation of land and treatment capacity, with merely the “encouragement” to pool and collaborate.

City Hall

Virtually all successful recycling cities have one person at the tiller, unlike London

This leads into the fourth issue – namely that virtually all, if not all, cities successful at recycling have a single hand at the tiller – their Mayor – and a single Plan.  The contrast with London’s disaggregated system can hardly be starker, the London Mayor’s power of direction notwithstanding.  Fifth, Seoul has a thriving reuse sector, with a large network of municipal retail outlets (charmingly called “public junk shops”).  This aspect is almost wholly neglected by the Plan and by the Environment Committee.

City-wide coordination

Finally, Seoul’s energy from (residual) waste strategy is also coordinated city-wide.  The Environment Committee’s report (February 2018) is a shadow of its far more detailed and better-argued report Where There’s Muck There’s Brass – Waste to Energy Schemes in London (2009).  In stating that “[r]ecyclable materials are unnecessarily going to incineration” the Committee tacitly assumed that London can readily achieve far higher recycling rates, and that future growth in waste arisings can be curbed.  The constraint on recycling is at the front end of the management chain rather than at the disposal end.  The Committee appreciates the benefits of bringing residual waste treated in out-of-London and out of-country EFW facilities back to London (self-sufficiency bring one of the objectives in the London Plan) but is half-hearted in its support for the technology and its role within the circular economy.  With viable landfill void in the region fast running out, London may be forced to confront in a more constructive manner the problem of dealing with its residual waste – sooner than it thinks.

In conclusion

England’s recycling performance can only be raised appreciably by focusing on urban environments, especially London.  But a closer look at successful cities of comparable size such as Seoul suggests that London will have to implement more radical measures and structural changes if its ambitious London Plan is to be realised.


Recycling may not be cost and environmentally effective solution in London. Why not just collect all waste, send it to a waste to energy plant with a first stage MRF which can select separation based on market prices for the recycled materials. Simplify collection and get best carbon footprint and also minimum costs.

Posted by Bonkim2003 on March 23, 2018

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