Is Britain’s waste problem moving in the right direction?

The UK is battling lacklustre recycling rates and increasing amounts of waste sent to landfills or incineration. It’s a setback that mustn’t go unaddressed


Scandinavia is a waste management utopia with some of the highest recycling rates in the world. Its success can be traced back to 1902 when Norway set up a bottle deposit return scheme that rewarded its citizens for returning refillable glass containers. By the 1970s, automatic reverse vending machines were installed across the country, and they remain in place to this day. 

Norway’s deposit return schemes have expanded to include single-use plastic bottles as well as cans. Citizens pay a nominal deposit for containers, which is incorporated into the item’s price and reimbursed upon return. In 2021, an impressive 92.3% of containers were returned. Along with practical schemes, citizens have been offered incentives to make more sustainable choices, even being given the opportunity to enter a lottery for cash prizes ranging from 50 to one million kroner (£82,500).

Deposit return schemes have been implemented in 40 countries worldwide, but not in the UK, where a similar system won’t be rolled out until at least October 2025. With this lack of urgency, recycling rates across the nation have begun to lag. 

A new report from CRJ Services, one of the largest waste management and recycling equipment suppliers in the UK and Ireland, analysed seven years of waste collection data across dry recycling, organic, food and residual waste. It found that of the 10 largest local councils by population in the UK, six have recorded a reduction in dry recycling since 2020, and seven have recorded increases in waste to landfill or incineration despite efforts to improve household recycling. 

People often don’t know what they can recycle, and the rules are different in different areas

The report delivers disquieting news, underscoring the National Infrastructure Commission’s recent calls for the government to implement legislation in pursuit of a 65% recycling rate by 2035. So, what’s going wrong? “There isn’t a standardised approach from the central government across all councils to improve recycling and inform spending and saving,” says CRJ’s senior account manager, Michael Griffin. “Education is another issue. People often don’t know what they can recycle, and the rules are different in different areas. Of course, there are also no real incentives for people to recycle, compared to the programmes we see in Scandinavia.” 

Cost is another major barrier. Collecting, sorting, baling, marketing, and shipping recyclables requires a great deal more effort and investment than the relatively straightforward task of collecting and disposing of waste in a landfill or incinerator. Following budget cuts and funding restrictions, many local authorities have resorted to implementing fees for recycling collection services - a departure from the cash incentives on offer in Norway. 

Not unexpectedly, CRJ’s analysis suggests that implementing charges for households tends to decrease the overall amount collected. Griffin notes that households most actively recycling garden waste are generally exempt from charges for collections. 

Among the 10 councils CRJ analysed, Manchester and Leeds led in the collection of garden waste, where there are free services for residents. Sheffield, by contrast, records the lowest garden waste collection rate, with only 8% of eligible households opting for the service. The difference? Sheffield imposes a yearly charge of £61.10 per household. Amid the ongoing cost-of-living squeeze, charging for what some may perceive as a non-essential service could effectively discourage recycling efforts and compound landfill waste in certain regions.

This all leaves councils in a challenging position as they independently grapple to meet recycling targets. “It doesn’t make sense that one council can process and charge whatever they want, and the neighbouring council will do something completely different,” says CRJ director Andrew Clarkson. “We need the central government to deliver a unified step-by-step plan for every authority, with strategic targets to hit by specific dates. If you just say we’re going to comply by 2035, everyone will do their own thing, and we won’t get there collectively.” 

We need the central government to deliver a unified step-by-step plan for every authority

Lancashire Renewables, a recycling firm that helps councils across the North West, has embarked on a partnership with CRJ, spanning several years. The aim is to lower the expenses associated with sending non-recyclable materials to off-takers while simultaneously boosting recycling rates. CRJ’s involvement encompasses strategic support, guidance, and practical solutions. The firm recently supplied three innovative types of machinery, each designed to extract recyclable waste from the 200 tonnes of rejected material processed by Lancashire Renewables weekly, reducing waste and costs. 

But solving a problem in one place can make way for another elsewhere. The push for increased recycling means more machinery and, potentially, higher emissions — something that both councils and businesses are tasked with minimising. CRJ is helping them to achieve both goals. “We work in partnership with companies to find solutions to their problems, and we’ve moved quickly to develop new equipment beyond traditional diesel-powered emission-generating equipment,” says Clarkson. The firm’s new hybrid slow-speed shredder combines a small diesel engine with an electric motor, curtailing exhaust emissions to bring companies a step closer to sustainable operations. 

Compliance is another challenge facing local authorities. On 1st January, new legislation from the Environment Agency took effect, changing the rules for the storage and disposal of waste sofas and household furniture containing Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Largely invisible and highly toxic, POPs can have serious impacts on human health and the health of the planet, and incineration is deemed the only way to avoid contamination with other recyclables. CRJ’s response has been to develop a dousing system to reduce the release of POPs emissions into the atmosphere as materials are processed.

Clarkson points out that compliance doesn’t stem from legislation. Britain’s recycling rates will continue to suffer without public support and adherence to recycling rules. But it’s not as though the desire isn’t there, he notes. A study of 12,000 consumers across the UK, US, Germany, China, Brazil and Australia by manufacturing firm Amcor found that 76% of the population want to recycle more. Education on the issue is not a ‘nice to have’. It’s a must-have. 

“We need recycling firms and councils to go into primary schools and teach them about recycling,” says Clarkson. End-to-end collaboration is also key. “Manufacturers must think about how their products and packaging will be recycled and reused at the very beginning of the manufacturing process,” he adds. “It’s not just education of people, it’s education of businesses. If we combine that with a strategic approach from central government, we’ll be in a much better place.”

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