The government has pledged to work with councils in England to make recycling “less confusing”, after it was revealed today that reject rates have increased 84% over the past four years.
A BBC Freedom of Information request found 338,000 tonnes of household waste had been rejected from materials recycling facilities (MRFs) in 2014/15 – up from an estimated 184,000 tonnes in 2011/12.
However, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) has pointed out that the 338,000 tonnes still only counts for “3.5%” of the total household waste collected for recycling in England.
The FOI request also revealed that 97% of rejected household waste was either landfilled or sent to energy recovery in 2013/14 – the most up to date year for which the figures are available.
And, the reject rate is not reflected in the amount of household waste being captured in the recycling stream – which actually increased from around 10.7 million tonnes to 11 million tonnes over the same period.
The data has however prompted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to defend England’s recycling progress and pledging to tackle ‘confusion’ around recycling, most likely a nod to ongoing work around ‘harmonisation’ in local authority recycling collections.
A Defra spokesman said: “It is vital for our environment and our economy that we make the most of our resources. We have made tremendous progress in boosting our recycling rate, from around 11% in 2000 to nearly 45% in 2014, but it is important that the government and local authorities work with families to make it easier to recycle and make the process less confusing.”
Sam Corp, head of regulation at ESA, has meanwhile called for the figures on recycling contamination not to be taken out of context.
He said: “Overall, the amount of household waste recycled rose from 9.1 million tonnes in 2010 to 10.0 million tonnes in 2014, while over the same period the amount landfilled or incinerated fell from 13 million tonnes to 12.3 million tonnes. The reports in the national press are about the much smaller quantities of material which, although collected for recycling, cannot in practice be recycled because it is contaminated.”
He added: “However, this increase in contamination does still highlight the need for a long-term framework from the government to help drive recycling and reuse, and reduce the levels of contamination that have been shown in these figures.”
Appearing on BBC Breakfast this morning to discuss the issue in greater detail, Linda Crichton, head of WRAP’s Recycle Now campaign, highlighted a number of areas where householders can be vigilant. Speaking to presenter Sally Nugent about the common causes of contamination the public should look out for, she suggested checking recycling labels on packaging, leaving metal caps and lids on glass jars and bottles and emptying and rinsing containers.
The message comes ahead of Recycle Week 2016, the annual communications drive to promote recycling amongst the public, which this year runs from 12-18 September.
Responding to the figures, the Local Government Association (LGA) has attributed the rise in contamination on householder confusion surrounding what items can be recycled in which area.
But, LGA was cautious to lend its support to harmonisation – arguing decisions over recycling should “continue to be made at a local level with councils working with residents to find the best solution”. The Association added that “more than four in every five people” are satisfied with their waste collections.
LGA said: “There is no one-size-fits-all solution to waste collection. What works in an inner city suburb won’t necessarily work in the countryside. The types which would suit a large detached house in the country would be completely unsuitable for a high-rise block of flats in inner-city London and vice versa.”
FCC Environment, which operates a number of landfill and recovery sites, has however suggested that options to create energy from waste should be considered in light of the figures.
FCC said: “Today’s figures reinforce a reality that the industry is already familiar with – the quality of recyclate continues to decline – while our industry faces increasingly unrealistic recycling targets that are divorced from the reality of the market.
“What is needed is a sustainable waste strategy that balances and aligns environmental imperatives with hard, economic realities. As part of this, the options for creating energy from waste that cannot be recycled should be considered in greater detail.”