We all aware of the global emphasis placed on recycling, but what impact has this had in the UK?
A Global Push for Reusing our Waste
There has been a concerted global effort to encourage individuals, businesses, organisations, and governments to recycle. Ultimately, this ties back to the concept of the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle:
· Reduce the amount of waste you create
· Reuse items that could have a future purpose
· Recycle what you can[i]
Several Key Benefits:
As RecycleNow identify[ii], there are several major benefits to be seen from recycling:
1. Conserves resources
The process of recycling means using older materials thus reducing the need to consume natural resources. Crucially this can help conserve finite resources, whilst alternatives are sought, eg reusing plastics reduces the need to consume fossil fuels.
2. Saves energy
According to RecycleNow “Using recycled materials in the manufacturing process uses considerably less energy than that required for producing new products from raw materials – even when comparing all associated costs, like transport.”[iii] Further, additional energy savings may occur as additional energy is required in the processes to extract, refine, transport and process raw materials specifically for industry.
3. Helps protect the environment
“Recycling reduces the need for extracting (mining, quarrying and logging), refining and processing raw materials all of which create substantial air and water pollution.”[iv] The reduction in energy use also aids in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “If every Briton purchased one item made from recycled wool a year it would save 371 million gallons of water, 480 tonnes of chemical dyes and 4571 million days of an average family's electricity needs”[v]
The Impact In the UK
One significant benefit from recycling is on the volume of waste reaching landfill, in the UK alone landfill accounted for 35% of the UK’s methane gas emissions (a key greenhouse gas) in 2010. Whilst great strides have been made, to reduce the volume of waste going to landfill, the UKs overall volume of waste has been increasing. The UK generated 222.2 million tonnes of total waste in 2018, an increase of 1.8% from the 218.3 million tonnes generated in 2016[vi]. Still, according to the ONS, just under a quarter (23.6%), ended up in landfill in 2018, compared with 27.4% in 2016.
A report form DEFRA in March this year found that recycling rates do continue to improve with the ‘waste from households’ recycling rate reaching 45.5% in 2019, up by almost 1 percentage point, from 44.7% in 2018[vii]. However, there is still considerable scope for improvement, DEFRA noted in August 2020 that: “The large amount of avoidable residual waste and avoidable residual plastic waste generated by household sources each year suggests there remains substantial opportunity for increased recycling”.
Further, there are concerns that opportunity to recycle in the UK is being hampered by a preference and emphasis on the incineration of waste to produce energy. In January this year, Elliot Colburn MP argued the following at a parliamentary debate on the matter: “As landfill sites have begun to close and be phased out, incineration has picked up much of that demand, with incineration rates rising nearly four times, from 12% to 44%, over the past decade.”[viii] The Guardian reported that the amount of waste incinerated in the UK reached from 4.9m tonnes in 2014[ix], data from Statista shows that in 2020, in England alone, 11.45m tonnes of waste was collected for incinerator plants.
WKWIN (The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network) go as far as to argue that there is a direct correlation between high incineration rates and a subsequent lower rate of recycling.
“For councils with above-average rates of incineration there is a clear correlation between higher rates of incineration and lower recycling rates” Source: UKWIN referencing DEFRA data[x]
Meeting Recycling Targets in the UK
In 2018, the UK Government set targets for England to achieve 65% recycling for municipal solid waste by 2035, with no more than 10% of waste reaching landfill[xi]. At current rates it looks likely that this will not be achieved, thus highlighting the effort required to bolster the proportion of UK waste which is recycled. This also shows the need for individuals and businesses to continue to make a concerted effort in recycling when, and where, we can. Lastly, there is also indication that a reliance on incineration is hampering recycling; this is an area the UK government will need to address, and soon, if it wishes to achieve its 2035 targets.
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