New household waste recycling guidelines

Can this bottle be recycled? Do I leave the lid on? Must it be squashed? And what about the label?

All common questions environmentally conscious householders face regularly and sadly, it seems, when the answer is ‘I don’t know’, the bottle is often just discarded with the remainder of the household refuse or alternatively put in the recycling anyway, leading to contamination.

In an attempt to reduce this confusion, increase consistency across the country and improve the quality of recycled material, new household recycling guidelines have been introduced by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) for the UK, providing a national level agreement between reprocessors, local authorities and waste management companies on what can be accepted for recycling.

It has long been a common complaint from the public that one of the barriers to recycling household waste is the confusion regarding what can and cannot be recycled and the lack of consistency across different local authorities.

Most councils are working towards the same overarching target with both the EU Waste Framework Directive and the London Plan requiring 50% of municipal waste to be recycled by 2020. Some local authorities have set tougher targets, such as the London Borough of Barnet requiring 70% of municipal waste to be recycled by 2020.

New housing developments are therefore increasingly requiring better internal waste segregation provisions to meet these requirements, although the exact segregation method differs across the country.

As a response to this and with the aim of increasing household recycling rates that are currently only at 44.9% (UK data for 2014), after extensive industry consultation, WRAP produced a list of items that can and cannot be recycled, along with how they should be presented by householders. The list includes: paper, card, plastic, glass, metals, cartons and food waste, and also provides clarity on the specifics of each material: it’s ‘no’ to greasy pizza boxes, Post-it notes and glittery greeting cards but ‘yes’ to window envelopes, leaving labels on and squashing bottles.

Setting these guidelines is clearly a key step forward, but to make a fundamental change in waste management behaviour, the effective communication of these guidelines to householders is essential.

The report recognises that the guidelines are extensive and therefore recommends that local authorities provide targeted communications focusing on materials of low capture and those that are often incorrectly disposed of. The method of communication is also key because most the public are only likely to be engaged and act when it is of minimal ‘hassle’ to them.

As well as local authorities, the whole supply chain can use the guidelines to ensure a consistent approach is taken throughout:

  • WRAP will produce regular marketing communications through the Recycle Now website;
  • The guidelines will help inform the On Pack Recycling Label guidelines;
  • Brands, retailers and manufacturers play a vital role and should be encouraged to review the guidelines when designing packaging so that waste is minimised in the first place, and also can be recycled in line with the guidelines; and
  • Waste management companies can assist local authorities on collection methods and improving the capture of recyclable materials.

These guidelines come at a time when waste is topical with the high profile ‘War on Waste’ campaigners appearing before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week as part of the first ever evidence hearing into food waste.

They are campaigning for an overhaul of the ‘best-before’ labelling on food packaging and it could therefore be presented as an ideal opportunity to address the recycling labelling as well, thus ensuring that both food and its packaging move higher up the waste hierarchy.

It remains to be seen how effective the WRAP guidelines will be and the onus is on local authorities to devise successful strategies to communicate the guidelines. There is also the associated problem of the differing collection schemes between local authorities in terms of collection container, frequency and materials.

Whilst there can never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to this problem due to housing differences across the country, if the materials that can be put in these containers are standardised, it would go a long way to easing the confusion and consequently increase recycling rates.

So, whilst this year’s Christmas cards will still be covered in glittery snowmen, it is hoped that things are progressing in the right direction and we may see action from across the supply chain in the near future.

The guidelines may only seem a small step, but they can contribute towards the higher level goals of reducing resource use and following the EU’s circular economy package, which has the aim of ‘closing the loop’ of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, thus benefitting the environment and economy.

Greengage are involved in several projects that use the principles of the circular economy, such as developing site waste management plans, consulting on the re-use of spoil heaps to restore land and providing advice on material procurement to reduce waste and ultimately enhance sustainability.

We are also seeing construction projects increasingly target and achieve 95-100% diversion from landfill, highlighting that efforts are being made at both a local and national level to move towards the circular economy.