Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Aim high, shoot low? UK recycling rates missing the target

In 2008, the EU set a target for member countries to achieve a 50 % household recycling rate by 2020; last week, an amendment raised this figure to 70 % . The graph below shows the latest available data for the UK.
UK recycling statistics

Proportion of household waste recycled in the UK. At the current rate of increase, the UK will not meet the 70 % by 2020 target set by the EU. Data source: DEFRA/National Statistics

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or an Earth scientist for that matter) to work out that at the current rate of progress, we aren’t going to hit the 70 % required by 2020. This fact was noted by the UK government at the release of the latest annual statistics in 2013, but becomes even more pertinent given the updated EU directive.

Of course, tackling household waste is a many-layered complex problem, and by only focussing on recycling we are in danger of neglecting other important aspects of resource management. For example, recycling statistics don’t take into account material that people reuse, the decreasing use of certain types of packaging, or domestic waste disposal (such as composting). Furthermore, many believe that we should be moving towards whole system change, where recycling is a last resort.

However, the fact still remains that over half of the municipal waste collected by local authorities in the UK is going to landfill. This figure has declined steadily since 2000, but every year, as a nation we still send 14,000,000 tonnes of material to a big whole in the ground; that’s the equivalent of 241 kg per person.
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In 2012/13, local authority collections in the UK sent 14 million tonnes of waste to landfill. Source: DEFRA/National Statistics

There are many reasons why we put waste in the big black bin, rather than recycling it, with prohibitive factors ranging from socio-economic to logistical and geographic. Undoubtedly, there is a large variation in the recycling rates achieved by local authorities in the UK: 73 out of 352 authorities are averaging over a 50 % recycling rate; whereas the average proportion of household waste recycled in London boroughs falls to a disappointing 32 %.

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Variation in household recycling rates, by UK local authority. Source: DEFRA/National Statistics

Further examination of available data reveals kerbside food recycling is only offered by around a third of local authorities, covering a total of 6.5 million people or a mere tenth of the population in the UK. Some of the neglected may take it upon themselves to compost; the rest simply don’t have the resources or motivation.
These are just some of the issues we will need to tackle in the coming years. However the UK government, and the EU as a whole, move forward to try and meet the target it’s clear we cannot rest on our laurels. The current rate of 43 % is a start, but it’s nowhere near enough.
Charly completed a PhD in experimental petrology. She used to make pretend volcanoes; now she works in renewable energy. Charly tweets at @C_Stamper.