The Circular Economy & Household Waste Recycling

Table of Contents:

Outlining targets to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035 and no more than 10% municipal waste going to landfill, the Circular Economy Package is the Government’s latest initiative designed to tackle waste accumulation in the UK.

Net Zero Logo
Circularity is key for the net zero transition

The package, which is scheduled to come into effect later this year, forms an integral part of the existing commitments to move towards a more circular economy, alongside reaching Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It builds upon the Government’s existing Resources and Waste Strategy, which sets out ambitious plans to transform the UK’s waste industry in order to help produce a more circular economy that reduces, reuses and recycles more of our resources.

Aiming to provide a thorough context of circularity, alongside the relevance of household waste recycling in the overall model, is essential for developing a wide-spread understanding of the crucial aspects involved and encouraging integration on a national scale.

A Brief Introduction

Circular Economy Logo
Circularity is a multi-faceted concept

The circular economy is a sustainable model of production and consumption, involving the reusing, refurbishing and recycling of existing materials and products for as long as possible in order to extend the lifespan and usability of the products we use. It presents a departure from the traditional, linear economic model which has proven to be fundamentally unsustainable, relying on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy which are ultimately consumed and then discarded.

Traditionally, the philosophy of a circular economy is structured around the 3 R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Materials are kept within the economy to be reused, reducing the amount of waste that is accumulated. Recycling the materials back into the economy then ensures they can continue to be utilised productively in order to create further value.

Ultimately, however, enabling large-scale change from a system utilised over many years requires dedication across many business sectors. Despite the enhanced sustainability of a circular economy and its significance as a necessary transitional model, the concept is yet to be adopted significantly outside of Europe, while even within these borders development has been gradual.

History of the Circular Economy

The concept of circularity has deep historical and philosophical origins, but first gained traction as an economical conception in the 20th century. In post-war Japan, citizens were aware of their limited resources and the need to fully utilise what they had, with circularity therefore providing an integral pathway that allowed the country to economically rebuild.

In the 1970s, Dr. Walter Stahel, known as the “father of the circular economy”, first sought to officially endorse the concept by arguing that extending the product life of market goods could facilitate a gradual transition towards a more sustainable economy. His 1982 Mitchell Prize winning paper entitled ‘The Product-Life Factor’ first coined the now modernly recognised term “closed loop economy.”

EU waste hierarchy
EU’s waste hierarchy, integrated in 1975

In response to the growing public awareness of sustainability and waste management issues, the European Union was motivated to establish the Waste Framework Directive in 1975, which outlined aims to generate a fully functioning circular economy across Europe by 2020. The aim of the directive was to form foundations that could enable the EU to develop into a ‘recycling society’ that would seek to avoid waste generation by instead utilising waste as a resource. The directive was extensively amended in both 1991 and 2006, with the present directive adopted in November 2008.

The concept of circularity lends itself to the “cradle to cradle model.” In their 2002 book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart presented the notion as a unification of design and science that provides lasting benefits in a circular economy and eliminates the concept of waste. Their book outlines a framework that is distinguished by principles derived from nature, ultimately forming the basis of the 3 core principles of a circular economy.

The 3 Core Principles

Old shoes for recycling
Materials are recycled and reused

Eliminate Waste and Pollution – By its own nature, our current linear economy consistently contributes towards waste and pollution in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, the manufacturing of hazardous substances and the accumulation of structural waste in our industries and urban infrastructure. The concept of a circular economy identifies the adverse economic activities that harm our health and the environment and provides a solution for eliminating them.

Regenerate Nature – As opposed to our over-reliance on fossil fuels, a circular economy provides a significantly more sustainable approach that promotes conservation and works to either preserve or improve the use of non-renewable energy. Taking influence from nature, replenishing our soils with valuable nutrients in order to foster rebirth would help to accomplish this.

Circulate Products and Materials – By demonstrating a focus on sustaining the value of energy, labour and materials, a circular economy creates products and materials that are durable, reusable, remanufactured and recycled, ensuring they remain integral parts of the economy.

Exploring the Potential Benefits

The potential benefits of shifting to a circular economy are both wide-spread and far reaching, with early prognosis suggesting that a circular economy could actively contribute towards significant environmental gains, positive employment effects and prosper market competition.

An undertaking of more constructive inputs, combined with emerging circular ventures, would help contribute towards both an increase in revenue and a lower cost of production, with changes to economic production, supply and demand, and subsequently pricing, helping to encourage a ripple effect and contribute towards overall economic growth. 

Wind Farm
Renewable energy is a symbol of circularity

The process of redesigning materials and products would additionally encourage innovation across all sectors of the economy, leading to an increased need for manpower from labour-heavy recycling practices and requirements for specific skill sets.

By avoiding the consumption of non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, a circular economy seeks to enhance renewable energy sources and support regeneration as opposed to actively degrading natural sources. In turn, reducing our dependence on raw materials like oil, plastic, and natural gas, reducing carbon emissions and demonstrating a hugely effective aid for global climate change targets.

By working to eliminate the consistent degradation of nature, a transition towards a circular economy represents the opportunity to build natural prosperity and regenerate the health of our ecosystems. Implementing directives that focus on regenerative food production will also enable more environmentally conscious agriculture, providing healthier eco systems and increasing biodiversity levels.

Leading Circular Economy Initiatives

Across the UK, there are already a number of initiatives committed towards developing the transition to a circular economy, with movements across several prominent industries aiming to deliver significant environmental benefits and boost the UK economy.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation



Recycle your Electricals

Household Waste Recycling and Government Targets

The waste management hierarchy of a circular economy focuses principally on the 3 R’s (reuse, remanufacture and repair). It works by prioritising the most effective solutions for waste management, regarding recycling as a necessary component but also an alternative to the 3 R’s. The circular economy can be considered an integral aspect of the DEFRA targets for increasing recycling recycling rates for household waste, which, despite recently improved recycling efforts, is still some way off from the new waste recycling target of 65% by 2035.

Recyclable plastics
A 65% waste recycling target has been set for 2035

While recycling rates in the UK are said to have steadily improved since the turn of the century, progress has recently stalled. Despite leading initiatives like the Circular Economy Package and Resource and Waste Strategy mentioned above, there remain calls for increased action in order to drive more progressive figures for recycling. Legislation has been passed by the UK Government which aims to ensure that the consistent and separate collection of core recyclable materials is made from all households by local authorities and waste operators.

In order to help reach these targets, several initiatives have additionally been proposed with the intention of increasing recycling rates, namely the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme and the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS).

DRS is an incentive-based scheme that supports recycling by charging consumers an additional deposit fee when they purchase a drink in single-use packaging. The deposit is then redeemed when the empty container is returned. The EPR scheme works as a directive centred around environmental protection. Its objective is to decrease the impact caused by the manufacturing of products by passing responsibility to producers over consumers. Recycling targets for the scheme focus specifically on 6 prominent packaging materials (plastic, card, steel, aluminium, glass and wood) and have been set for implementation by 2030 on a UK-wide basis.

What Are the Current Challenges?

Contamination of Recyclables

Contaminated recycling is common in households, particularly for those containing large families or young children. In fact, it is a concurrent issue across most economic and cultural circles, with plastic materials amongst card and paper a frequent contaminant, in addition to food residue.

The predominant issue is that a significant proportion of “rejected” waste is then sent to landfill due to relatively low levels of contamination, which then nullifies the very solution recycling seeks to provide. Separate and more frequent collections of recyclables is a key step in helping to reduce contamination, while supporting steps, such as restricted apertures on bin units, clear signage and convenient access to recycling points, can be implemented to help prevent contamination at the point of capture.

Unclear Regulations

An overriding issue with household waste recycling is that the regulations involved aren’t dependable. In recent years, the UK Government has placed delays and amendments on several proposed initiatives designed to enhance household waste management. In addition, evidence has found that most landfill sites across the country often breach the conditions of their licence with little reprimand.

To address this challenge, it is crucial for governmental entities on both a local and national level to implement simple, clear, and consistent regulations. Developing strict and regulated policies is essential to be assured of an effective, manageable system of waste management that can be successfully and sustainably utilised moving forward.

Lack of Effective Infrastructure

A lack of investment in effective infrastructure restricts the adoption of a safe and efficient system that consistently collects recyclable waste in order to transport it to a dedicated facility. As a result, compromises are often made for those with restricted access to a dedicated service, often resulting in littering, recycling contamination and illegal dumping.

The absence of cost-effective technologies and specific equipment in our infrastructure to manage waste sustainably can also lead to widespread inefficiencies. While there is an argument to be made that integrating these may impact employment opportunities, the benefits can reduce costs, improve recycling, safeguard communities, and promote more sustainable methods of practice across the long-term.

Single-use Plastics

Just 12% of plastics are recycled in the UK

Commonly known as disposable plastic, single-use plastic is a severely problematic material because of its non-recyclable properties and the amount of waste it generates. In the UK, results derived from ‘The Big Plastic Count’ found that households throw away a staggering 96 billion pieces of single-use plastic every year, with a single household averaging over 3,000 pieces every year. Just 12% of that is actually likely to be recycled at an appropriate facility, with a higher percentage (17%) of our plastic waste shipped overseas. By exporting nearly 2000 tonnes of plastic to other countries over the course of a single day, we are largely distancing ourselves from the responsibility of ensuring a safe and sustainable method of recycling plastic waste.

Researchers have long-since warned that plastic waste chemically pollutes the environment, breaking down into microplastics which have been found in a wide variety of consumer products and clothes. They are often then transferred to waste water which eventually ends up in our oceans. The significance of the plastic waste problem resonates on a global scale, risking the stability of ecosystems worldwide and is the main signifier of the throwaway culture that a circular economy strives to eliminate.

The Environmental Impact of Household Waste

The household waste we generate is heavily impactful to our environment and has been for some time. By contributing to the progressively worsening climate crisis, negatively impacting wildlife and the natural environment, and affecting our very own public health, waste impacts the environment in multiple ways.

In years past, the UK followed the EU pyramid structure for waste management, known as the waste management hierarchy. The pyramid dictates a priority list for waste disposal in the order – reduce and reuse, compost, recycle, waste to energy incineration, and finally landfill. While this system sets out an order of preference, in first-world countries such as the UK much of our household waste that is either non biodegradable or unable to be efficiently recycled ends up being sent to landfills or is dealt with through incineration. In recent years, this system of waste management has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism.

Incineration involves combusting the organic substances contained in waste materials. While it can reduce the volume of household waste by 90% and contribute towards energy recovery, the environmental impacts are damaging. The resulting ash, which is often contaminated with toxins, requires a specific landfill for disposal, while the emissions derived from incinerators enable a wide variety of pollutants to enter the atmosphere, accumulating greenhouse gases and contaminating the local environment. The release of Persistent Organic Pollutants, meanwhile, can leave an irreversible environmental impact, holding the potential to collect in food chains and adversely affect human health.

Sending household waste to landfill disposes of waste materials by burying them into hollows in the ground and covering them over with soil. Modern landfills incorporate linings of plastic or compacted clay in order to prevent harmful leachate (a mixture of materials and rainwater) from running into and contaminating the soil. Instead, it is collected in pipes and transferred to separate ponds and treated to minimise its environmental impact.

Landfill site
Adopting circularity restricts landfill growth

While landfills are designed and built to provide a safe containment to store household waste, they are environmentally damaging. Landfills take up a significant amount of space, are well known to attract vermin, and involve an operation that collects extensive volumes of methane, which, unless repurposed as fuel, escapes into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Many of the older active landfills in the UK additionally aren’t built to the same standard as their modern equivalents. Often, the plastic or compacted clay lining is non-existent and subsequently poses a significant environmental risk by allowing the harmful leachate to wash into aquifers, potentially contaminating our drinking water. Studies have also identified that materials in landfill sites that are exposed to solar radiation can release methane and ethylene into the atmosphere, while the impact of wind and rain can carry harmful materials into the surrounding areas of the site.

The Environmental Benefits of Recycling Household Waste

Recycling household waste is an imperative for conserving our planet’s natural resources, offering benefits specific to each material. Recycling paper and wood restricts the depletion of our trees and forests, while recycling glass reduces the consumption of raw materials, such as sand. Recycling metals reduces the need to extract metal ores, which involves risky and ultimately expensive mining practices.

Plastic waste littering a beach
Plastics heavily pollute our oceans

The recycling of household waste, while certainly not the sole solution for combatting the adverse effects of waste accumulation, is fundamental for protecting our planet’s ecosystems, natural resources and abundant wildlife. By helping to reduce the need to grow, harvest and extract raw materials from around the world, recycling helps to lessen the harmful depletion of the natural world and the risk of plastic entering our oceans.

Additionally, recycling our household waste prevents it from contributing to landfill sites, saving energy and cutting the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Much of our household waste is non-biodegradable and can take decades to properly decompose, meaning landfill sites can often overflow from a consistent influx of waste accumulation. In turn, perpetuating the notion that additional sites need to be constructed in order to manage the waste.

Leading Household Waste Initiatives

In addition to the circularity initiatives mentioned above, there are currently a number of organisations aiming to revolutionise the way we accumulate and dispose of waste, operating foremost as a means to educate and develop the way in which we understand waste management in order to change current circumstances.

A UK-based non-governmental organisation, WasteAid works with communities in low-income countries with the aim of implementing effective and sustainable waste management and recycling programmes. Their work improves the livelihoods of some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in the world, helping to promote and innovate circular economy concepts and contributing to a healthier future for all.

WasteAid also runs The Circular Economy Network. The approach has been tested in a number of countries over the last 2 years, aiming to build links with governments, businesses, research institutions and community-based organisations in order to help enable fast-tracked, local solutions to the circular economy.

Recycle Now
The national recycling campaign for England and Northern Ireland, Recycle Now aims to motivate people to recycle the right things, more often. They work alongside brands, retailers, waste management companies and government entities to drive sustainable change.

Recycle Now utilises consumer insights to examine recycling behaviours. They run key campaigns that focus on citizen interaction, developing key partnerships to provide tools and develop behavioural change. Through education, their work aims to inspire people to recycle more effectively.

Bag2Bag Scheme
Back in 2015, leading waste management company Veolia ran their Bag2Bag scheme, which aimed to reduce the substantial amount of waste generated by plastic bags by simply recycling them into new bags.

The scheme was initially trailed in The London Borough of Southwark, where it operates as the council’s waste management provider. Shopping bags were collected at Southwark’s RRC, where they were reprocessed to form recycled refuse sacks and redistributed to Southwark residents. The success of the trial allowed the scheme to transition into a full operation in Southwark.

George and PreLoved Vintage
Every year in the UK, households discard an estimated 336,000 tonnes of used or unwanted clothing. Clothing attributes around 5% of our carbon footprint, equating to more than 1m tonnes of wasted materials each year. Studies have also found that around 30% of clothing in our wardrobes has not been worn for at least a year.

PreLoved Vintage is a clothing company established in 2016 as a means to sell pre-worn vintage clothing at reduced prices to individuals, with all clothing priced per kilo. However, the events-based business was unable to operate during the COVID-19 lockdown. Recognising their shared values, PreLoved Vintage began a collaboration with Asda’s clothing brand George, adapting their existing model to work within the retailer’s category-based system. The brand developed a shared business model that provides good quality vintage and second-hand clothes for customers of George, enabling a sustainable ecosystem for countering landfill-bound clothing.

A Circular Ikea
Ikea is fast becoming an industry leader in developing a circularity approach to production. They are utilising solutions like furniture leasing, take-back and buy-back schemes to help their customers repair, reuse and recycle their old household furniture, prolonging the life of their products and helping to eliminate waste and the continual use of resources.

The Sweden-based company has committed to becoming a circular business by 2030, which includes producing 100% circular products and using only renewable and recyclable materials. In the 2019 financial year, Ikea was able to recirculate 47m products.

Future Outlook and Final Thoughts

The recycling of waste has long since been understood and recognised as an important practice, but it’s largely only in the 21st century that significant progress has been made towards implementing it on a level that is nationally sustainable. For the UK, the separate collection of recyclables is an essential step towards ensuring that waste paper, plastic, metal and glass is circulated back into the system, rather than ending up in landfills or sent to incineration. In turn, helping to ensure that nations overseas and low-income countries aren’t forced to deal with the waste we generate.

The significant responsibility for this revolves around the elimination of ‘avoidable’ plastic packaging waste. For this to be both achievable on a widespread scale, substantial change is necessary on a number of key levels. Production and manufacturing must be transformed to move away from plastic packaging to a process that utilises sustainable materials at every possible point of production.

80% of a product’s carbon footprint is said to be generated in the design and production phase. Implementing EPR promptly is integral in this phase for establishing accountability, but it must be done in a manner that transmits complete clarity. An active hindrance to both sustainability and waste recycling targets is a lack of coherent communication for the parties involved. Ensuring this aspect as a primary goal will help to develop the relationship between consumer and producer into one that is more mutually beneficial, direct and circular in nature, and helping to encourage more sustainable consumer behaviour.

Action will aid the UN’s net zero 2050 target

The transition towards a circular economy, meanwhile, has begun to gain real traction in the UK over the last few years, rising from a relatively unknown concept to one that is now recognised and advocated. A driving force behind that is a greater awareness and education of the benefits involved, but also a significantly widespread understanding of why our current linear economy simply isn’t sustainable.

On a global scale, resource consumption accounts for almost 90% of biodiversity losses, with material production and consumption producing close to half of our greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Alongside implementing renewable and efficient energy resources, the transition to a circular economy is an integral movement for reaching the UN mission of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

For the UK, leaving the EU provides opportunities to develop a new, sustainable and more effective waste management system that utilises circularity. Developing designs for the future and rethinking current business models will help to drive the concept and eventually lead to the elimination of waste. For it to be successful and encourage large-scale economic viability, however, Government support is integral.