I go over to the rubbish bins clutching a yoghurt pot. My hand hovers over the recycling bin for a few seconds. Do I? Don’t I? I’ve tried my best to rinse the pot but it is only now that I notice the piece of strawberry stuck to the inside of the pot - oops. Three arrows with the number 5 and the letters “PP” in the middle of it. Is that good or bad? I can’t remember. It's plastic so I guess I should put it in the recycling bin…
This situation is far too common in our current recycling system. While we all want to do the right thing, without the necessary information, this can be a challenge. The current system is too complicated.
In fact, three in five people don't recycle because they don’t understand the recycling rules and fewer than one in five people know what most recycling symbols on product packaging actually means.
525,000 tonnes of waste were incorrectly entered into the recycling bin by consumers and subsequently rejected at the point of sorting during 2019 and 2020. This material went to an energy from waste facility instead, costing local councils approximately £93 per tonne.
These problems cost money. “Wishcycling” (the act of putting something in the recycling bin and hoping it is able to be recycled) is costing over £48 million per year in additional costs.
Fortunately, our Environment Act gives ministers the power to change this. The Act aims to make recycling simpler by standardising collection rules, including the introduction of a separate food waste stream, across all councils.
With so much currently happening in Westminster, it is important that the many commitments that have been made in the Environment Act do not accidentally end up in the recycling bin too.
Headline changes, such as the introduction of a deposit return scheme that offers a small financial incentive to consumers for recycling, have dominated conversations about improving recycling levels so far.
However, there are some small, but potentially mighty, commitments that are still yet to be fully fleshed out that could prove to be very effective at boosting our national recycling rates.
The adoption of a mandatory recycling labelling system is one such policy. Clear and consistent instructions for consumers on how to recycle has the power to transform recycling rates across England. But the introduction of this mandatory labelling provision has been pushed back from 2024 to 2026.
Encouraging informed and responsible decisions by consumers is ultimately what drives real change and does so in a conservative way. The current free-for-all approach to labelling is confusing and creates problems for waste processing. The quicker we adopt one system, the better.
Fortunately, the government has chosen the ‘swoosh’ symbol and recycle/do not recycle wording of Recycle Now’s nationally recognised and used labelling system. It must spend the coming years working with businesses and manufacturers to ensure everyone knows their responsibilities and expectations within the new recycling system.
Manufacturers would be wise to embrace this labelling. A more straightforward system will be simpler to comply with and can also improve brand image. No manufacturer wants to leave their customer stressfully hovering over their bin.
A natural second step for manufacturers would be to invest in making their packaging more easily recyclable in the first place. Staying up to date with Extended Producer Responsibility requirements will enable businesses to do this. This will further reduce confusion and will increase the amount of waste that can be recycled.
Along with the government’s other commitment to consistent household recycling collections, a clear and simple labelling system would ensure that, wherever you happened to be in England, you would always know what to do with your waste.
This will also enable councils to come together in cross-boundary waste management contracts. Doing so will unlock greater economies of scale for waste collection and sorting, which will save local authorities precious time, money and resources.
Recycling is one of the primary actions we can take as individuals to protect the environment, but for too long the recycling system has been needlessly complicated. We must leverage public enthusiasm for reducing waste by making the system easy to use and fit for purpose. The Environment Act gives ministers the policies that are required, the next step is to make them a reality.
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of the Conservative Environment Network. If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.