Sorting out the waste recycling problem

The management of commercial and household waste in the UK is undoubtedly in a period of considerable upheaval. One of the major reasons for this is China’s 2018 restriction on importing recyclable material, which has caused waste companies, local authorities and the government in the UK to reconsider how waste is collected and processed. Other countries have picked up some of the slack arising from China’s restriction, but waste remains a significant problem in the UK today.

Over the last 20 years there has been a seismic shift away from disposing of waste at landfill towards recycling and energy recovery instead. According to local authority data, household waste recycling rates in England have risen from around 11% in 2000–2001 to about 45% in 2018. However, since 2013 recycling rates appear to have plateaued.

Approaches to waste collection and processing vary from place to place depending on local circumstances, but a common method is “single-stream” recycling, which means putting all recyclables into one bin rather than sorting into separate containers for plastics, tins, paper, etc. In the past, single-stream recycling has been cost-effective for waste companies because it is easier and cheaper to collect recycling material. However, while it usually results in higher levels of participation, it also inevitably leads to much higher levels of contamination. The contaminated material cannot be effectively separated and therefore has to be disposed of as refuse instead of being recycled. This results in higher costs, as well as a drop in overall recycling rates – precisely the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.

The risk of contaminated recycling offsetting gains in recycling participation has become a real issue in recent years as markets have changed. Studies have also shown that single-stream systems cost more to operate, because of the increased expenses associated with sorting and the lowered value of contaminated recyclables. Further problems are caused by the ever-growing array of plastics used in manufacturing and also cardboard contaminated by various tapes, glues and inks, all of which can affect recycling machines.

One development that is frequently suggested is a bottle deposit scheme– for example, for plastics – where consumers pay an upfront deposit when they buy a drink which is redeemed when the container is returned (other variants involve cash rewards without deposits, and vouchers or loyalty points). This sort of scheme could work particularly well in a semi-closed environment, such as a store, shopping centre or stadium, where it might be easier to manage and separate waste streams.

There is also the prospect of smart technology playing more of a role in waste management in the future. Even as far back as 2002 councils trialled putting microchips in bins to monitor waste but the idea eventually faded out. More recently, the use of a robot refuse truck guided by an autonomous drone that automatically collects and empties bins kitted out with sensors is currently being developed in Sweden. There are also plans for a smartphone app to scan packaging to help identify which recycling bin to use, among many other applications of smart technology under development.

As a consequence, it is probably no surprise that the government’s December 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy appears to suggest that single-stream recycling may now be on borrowed time as there are plans to “improve recycling rates by ensuring a consistent set of dry recyclable materials is collected from all households and businesses”. The strategy also aims to drive better quantity and quality in recycling, and more investment in domestic recycled materials markets. It states a willingness to support comprehensive and frequent waste collections and is determined to help local authorities and waste management companies act in the most sustainable and resource-efficient way possible.

So how can we help? To improve the quality of recycled material we can provide new compact bin enclosure products to accommodate the multiple containers required for effective multi-stream at-source recycling. For a waste management industry that is traditionally conservative in its thinking, often dealing with low-value material on tight margins, this can be a cheap and easy quick-win. Plus, landlords – including councils and housing associations – have a responsibility to ensure that waste is disposed of correctly and safely during their tenant’s occupancy.There is also the view that managing waste more efficiently and responsibly can actually yield cost-savings; however, this sometimes requires a more long-term view.

With China no longer taking our waste and government strategy appearing to lean away from single-stream recycling, it is clear that we’re going to have to make our recycling processes cleaner and smarter. Cost-effective compact bin enclosures that accommodate multiple containers are a simple measure representing part of the solution to a complex waste problem. Look out for the launch of our new recycleSTOR range soon – making it easy for householders everywhere to recycle more!