The United Kingdom has been making significant changes to their recycling system over the past few years. However, despite their efforts, the UK is still one of the worst countries at recycling, lagging far behind countries like South Korea, Germany, and Austria which recycle up to 70% of their household waste.
The UK government has set the target to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035. However, whether they reach that goal is still up for debate.
In this article, we will explore the state of recycling in the UK, the issues the country is facing in its waste management efforts, and the initiatives in place to improve recycling efforts countrywide.
Recycling in the UK: How Does it Work?
The vast majority of the UK’s recycling is done at home. Households sort their recycling into bins that separate the paper from the plastic and glass. These bins are then collected weekly by the local authority and transported to a recycling center.
Each area of the UK operates slightly differently when it comes to recycling. In other words, each area has their own recycling ‘rules’ to follow. These are set out by the council or local authority.
For example, in some areas paper, glass and plastic are all put into separate bins. While in other areas, all recycling is put in one bin and sorted when it reaches the recycling center. It is the responsibility of the individual to stay up-to-date with the recycling guidelines in their area.
While most household recycling can be collected from the roadside, (including items of clothing and books or CDs), larger recyclable items must be transported by the individual to their nearest Household Waste and Recycling Center for processing.
UK Recycling Causing Confusion
Despite the UK’s efforts to reduce waste and recycle more widely, the rules and myths around recycling can be confusing. In fact, according to a WRAP survey, 2 out of 5 people are confused about how to correctly recycle one or more items with most (85%) adding items to their recycling collection that are not accepted in their area.
This confusion is due to the fact there are different guidelines depending on where you live. In fact, according to The University of Manchester, “That’s a big part of the problem. Because what is and isn’t recyclable varies a lot from area to area. In the UK, there are 39 different bin collection regimes across 391 local authorities. Rules aren’t aligned in terms of what is and isn’t collected for recycling or how items should be prepared: washed or rinsed, crushed or not, lids on or off. It’s different everywhere.”
All these complexities have caused a huge amount of confusion around what to recycle, where to recycle, and how to recycle it. And sadly, for many UK residents, this confusion has resulted in an unwillingness to recycle altogether.
Recycling a Struggle for UK Businesses
Sustainability is a huge focus for many UK businesses and a key draw for customers. However, despite their interest in sustainability, many businesses admit there is very little recycling support. And when there’s limited time and for many SMEs, limited finance, it can be difficult to prioritize recycling efforts.
In fact, research shows that just 47% of businesses use a recycling service as part of their waste management efforts. This means that many businesses are still using general waste bins for disposing of their waste. Whether there’s no time, no room for extra bins, no money to cover the cost or just a lack of effort, waste isn’t being recycled as it should be.
Let’s take a look at some of the initiatives that are changing the future of recycling for citizens and businesses alike.
Recycling Initiatives Changing the Future
Despite the confusion, the UK is doing what it can to improve recycling efforts around the country. The Government is introducing recycling initiatives that encourage individuals and businesses alike to recycle better. Let’s take a look.
Introducing One Bin to Rule Them All
To help crack down on the confusion, The University of Manchester has launched an initiative called ‘One Bin to Rule Them All’ with the aim of improving the UK’s recycling infrastructure.
The goal is to incentivise recycling and make the process of recycling simpler for consumers. In the words of The University of Manchester, “The ‘One bin to rule them all’ project aims to improve compliance with recycling by developing ‘One bin’ to hold all plastic-like items and improving recycling infrastructure to create more usable recycled plastics that can be fed back into a circular economy.”
The UK Plastics Pact
Led by WRAP, the UK Plastics Pact aims to work alongside UK businesses to reduce plastic waste. By circulating plastic in the economy, the UK aims to keep plastic out of the natural environment as much as possible.
Businesses that are signed up to the Plastics Pact are committed to eliminating problematic plastics from their processes and packaging to help reduce the amount being manufactured and released.
According to WRAP, “Through the UK Plastics Pact we are redesigning the plastics system, working across the entire plastics value chain to reduce its climate impact, by stopping plastic waste, and the harmful emissions of new plastic production, keeping the material in the economy and out of the environment.”
As a result of their efforts, WRAP has seen an 84% reduction in problematic, single-use plastics since 2018!
Recycle Now is England’s national recycling campaign. Its goal is to reduce waste and environmental damage by encouraging more people to recycle – and recycle the right things – more often.
In the words of Recycle Now, “We work with and alongside brands, retailers, waste management companies, local authorities and Government to bring about real sustainable change.” What’s more, since Recycle Now began its campaign in 2004, more than six out of ten people now describe themselves as committed recyclers.
Recycle Now is working closely with the above-mentioned organizations and authorities to boost citizen awareness and involvement, deliver key campaigns, host recycling awareness events, and work to educate people on the importance of recycling.
The Deposit Return Scheme
It can be difficult to get people excited about recycling. Sometimes, initiatives are needed that encourage people to go the extra mile and this is where the deposit return scheme comes into play.
The deposit return scheme aims to reimburse people for their recycling efforts. To work, the deposit return scheme requires special machines (kind of like reverse vending machines) that allow people to return their plastic bottles and receive cash rewards.
According to gov.uk, “every year UK consumers go through an estimated 14 billion plastic drink bottles and nine billion drink cans, many of which are littered or condemned to landfill.”
The new scheme, set to be widely introduced in 2025, aims to reduce discarded drink containers by as much as 85%.
However, the UK is lagging far behind in this initiative as many other countries have been using the deposit return scheme for many years, including Norway, Germany, and Denmark.
In fact, according to Euro News, “Denmark has one of the most successful deposit return schemes in the world with 1.9 billion bottles and cans brought back in 2021. Its return rate for plastic bottles is the highest in Europe at 96 per cent.”
At the very least, these statistics are encouraging that the scheme works and they provide hope for the future of the UK’s recycling industry.
Extended Producer Responsibility
Approximately 2.5 million metric tons of plastic packaging was generated in the UK in 2021 and all of it ended up as waste. Many of the UK’s manufacturers are to blame for this excessive production of plastic packaging and, as such, are now required to pay the full costs of recycling their packaging waste.
The extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging instructs manufacturers to manage and recycle their packaging waste correctly. If packaging is more difficult (or impossible) to recycle, this will result in higher fees.
This new scheme is forcing organizations and manufacturers to take responsibility for the materials they use and the waste they produce in the hopes this will inspire change from the very top.
The UK has been lagging behind many other countries with their recycling efforts. However, as you can see there are many waste management initiatives coming into play that are encouraging wider participation in recycling.
We hope this article has helped highlight some of the facts and figures around recycling in the UK, as well as the issues hindering its progress, and what’s being done to improve things.
Here’s hoping the new initiatives and recycling schemes will support more thoughtful waste management now and into the future.
About the Author
Kate Sheppard is a sustainability, travel and parenting journalist from Eastbourne. You can follow Kate on Twitter @KateSheppard90