5 February 2021

‘Is our recycling infrastructure still fit for purpose?’

OPINION: In this article, Paul Taylor, chief executive of FCC Environment, examines how the pandemic has impacted household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) and looks at the future challenges they face.


2020 was quite the year for the humble household waste recycling centre (HWRC). The coronavirus pandemic brought blanket closures, pushing HWRCs into the spotlight like never before.

With HWRCs closed, their value was recognised by not just the public, but government also called for their reopening, with local government secretary Robert Jenrick urging local authorities to reopen HWRCs as a priority.

Paul Taylor, chief executive of FCC

The 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy, which underpins the Environment Bill, makes little mention of HWRCs, a worry given that our learnings through the pandemic show that the public recognise their value and the role they play in our waste management system. With this in mind I would urge DEFRA, even at this late stage, to recognise the vital role HWRCs hold.

Changes

With the consideration of further policies, such as deposit return schemes (DRS), extended producer responsibility (EPR) and the harmonisation of municipal waste collections, it is likely that once again HWRCs will need to flex to accommodate these changes. If certain items are not on the core list of materials, will HWRCs be selected as a natural collection point for these materials?

HWRCs are also an important revenue stream for local authorities. Many local authority budgets for running HWRCs, either directly or indirectly via their outsourced contracts, are predicated on the revenues generated from the sale of materials for recycling. These revenues not only offset disposal costs, but also offset management costs.

With local authorities already cash-strapped, the pandemic has squeezed budgets further. If people are reusing and recycling in new ways via DRS and kerbside collections, will HWRCs be viable in the years to come?

‘New normal’

On a broader level, it has been widely accepted that some aspects of the ‘new normal’ are now here to stay, such as increased home working and with that the decline of large, city centre-based offices. This change will flip old norms of what constitutes household waste with more traditional business waste, such as print cartridges finding their way into residual waste streams. The Resources and Waste Strategy is clear that to drive up recycling rates across England, we will have to harness business waste and ensure that if necessary, through legislation, businesses present their food waste and recycling separately. The changes that Covid-19 has brought may mean that legislation that was supposed to be at the vanguard may already be out of date and no longer fit for purpose.

Is this shift from commercial and industrial waste to households going to be a permanent one? That’s a difficult question to answer and I am not sure any of us truly know, however, we must stay on the front foot of cultural changes to ensure recycling and waste infrastructure remains fit for purpose.

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