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This Recycling Week, can we finally fix the bin situation?

A friend of mine has just moved to the UK from Germany for her masters. Having not seen her for years, one of the first things she asked me - entirely unironically and as a matter of urgency - was how does our recycling system work.

Kitty Thompson, Nature Programme Manager of the Conservative Environment Network

I grimaced. Unlike most other London-dwelling, twenty-somethings, I spend a large chunk of my time thinking about recycling and, most importantly, our chaotic bin system.

So to answer her question, I initiated the verbal tango routine that I have come to hate:

… Which council area do you live in?

… I don’t know

… What type of material was the item you wanted to recycle?

… Plastic

… Do you know which type of plastic?

… No

… Did the item have an arrow symbol with “recycle” or “do not recycle” written underneath?

… No, just that little man next to the bin. What does that mean?

… Nevermind about him. What bins are there in your flat?

… One recycling, one general waste. I couldn’t find the others.

Asking about the recycling system at all, she claimed, was her Germanness shining through.Germany is a proud leader in waste and resource management. Having tried the best, in the UK she is now seeing the rest.

At the moment, only those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of our recycling system can be sure to dispose of theirs correctly. And that is why our national recycling rates will remain at 44 per cent.

The aim of Recycling Week 2023 is to educate consumers about “missed capture” - recyclable items that are commonly not recycled. But, when it comes to recycling, an individual’s actions are only as good as the rules of the system they operate in. And frankly, our overcomplicated rules are in serious need of a refresh.

Through its waste and resources reforms, the government has put forward solutions that are sensible and comprehensive. But, first proposed in 2018, these reforms still exist only in the hearts, minds, and documents of Defra civil servants, rather than in households across the country.

So much of the confusion individuals face with the current system is that rules differ from one council to the next. Consistent collections - or simpler recycling, as the Prime Minister has now renamed it - should help to ensure everyone is playing by the rules by setting out what materials every council should collect.

These rules rely on our waste being made of these materials. By making the producers of the packaging responsible for its collection and processing, the extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme should incentivise packaging producers to use recyclable materials.

The success of a recycling scheme will always rest on the decisions made by an individual as they stand next to the recycling bin. But the system needs to make those decisions as straightforward as possible. Recognising this, there is a commitment to roll out the “Recycle Now” label for all products to indicate clearly what can and cannot be recycled.

Finally, the deposit return scheme seeks to reduce the amount of litter caused by drinks containers. Adding a small deposit to the price of each drinks container should provide an incentive for consumers to return their waste, guaranteeing its route to the recycling plant.

Combined together, these reforms will go a long way to boost our plateauing recycling rates by simplifying the system and empowering individuals to recycle their waste correctly. But each pillar of these reforms is still years away from being realised. We need to get on with it.

When these reforms are eventually up and running, the act of recycling should become easy and intuitive. I do not expect us to embrace our inner-German and make recycling a source of national pride. But, at the very least, I hope we will all be able to give visitors to the UK a quick and simple answer to the question of how the recycling system works.


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