England’s Recycling Progress Is Mixed at Best, Says New UK Government Report

(Credit: GOV.UK)

by | Jan 10, 2022

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(Credit: GOV.UK)

Last Wednesday, Defra, the British government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published a progress report on England’s recycling efforts for the year 2020.

Its main finding is that England did not meet its 2020 target to recycle 50% of household waste by weight as set out in the Waste Framework Directive 2008. In fact, England’s recycling rate of household waste decreased 1.5%, from 45.5% recycled in 2019 to 44% 2020. In raw numbers, that’s 10.1 million tonnes of household waste recycled in 2019 compared to 9.9 million tonnes in 2020. The target is set to increase by 5% every five years until 2035, where 65% of household waste by weight is expected to be recycled.

This decline in household recycling occurred while the total amount of waste generated by English households rose by half a million tonnes, from 22.1 million tonnes in 2019 to 22.6 million tonnes in 2020. Waste from households, the official reporting metric, excludes waste not collected directly from households, for instance waste from street bins and sweepings. 

Defra attributed these trends to the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Some local authorities were unable to maintain collections of dry recyclates, there were suspensions of garden waste collections and widespread closure of Household Waste and Recycling Centers (HWRCs). This was due to staff shortages and the introduction of changes to working practices.”

Relatedly, the overall amount of waste generated was said to have risen due to the increased amount of time individuals spent at home due to lockdowns.

This is not the only disappointing sustainability news coming out of the UK: last month, UK-based supply-chain consulting firm SCALA published findings that nearly a third of UK businesses are taking no steps to address supply chain sustainability, lacking any system to measure the impact of their operations.

Defra outlined planned government efforts to improve recycling rates, including:

  • Increasing consistency in household and business recycling collections.
  • Introducing a deposit return scheme for beverage containers.
  • Strengthening “producer responsibility” for recyclable packaging.
  • Beginning separate weekly food waste collections.

The report’s findings weren’t all bad: recovery rates of construction and demolition waste surpassed targets. In 2018 (the most recent data year available), England generated 61.4 million tonnes of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste, of which 57.5 million tonnes was recovered. This represents a recovery rate of 93.8% — significantly higher than the 70% target.

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