Strength in numbers


What’s better – lots of us recycling badly, or a few doing it well? First in an occasional series on questions I often face down the pub…



We’ve all seen that meme assuring us that it’s better for 20 people to recycle ‘badly’ than for one person to recycle perfectly. It appears regularly in my social media feeds, and each time I have to sit on my fingers to stop me piling in with a supercilious tirade. Because I’m an expert, right?

Consistency, or, ‘why can’t councils all collect the same things?’
The short answer to this is, ‘we’re on it’. In last year’s strategy, Our Waste, Our Resources, the government introduced a consultation on consistency across council collections. With all the comments in, it’s now a case of waiting for the final decision. It’s fair to say though, that there’s a strong industry lobby in favour, with hopes for a central fund that could promote recycling and reuse nationally instead of councils having to foot the bill for individual campaigns in their area.

The main benefit would be more joined up thinking. Retailers and packaging producers could design products using materials that they knew were recyclable everywhere – no more multi-layered crisp tubes or black plastic food trays.

The flip side to that argument places the onus on packaging producers to make the change; if all packaging was designed using a smaller range of polymers and raw materials that were easily recyclable, then councils could plan accordingly and, chances are, they’d end up with consistent collections as a side effect.

The discussions on consistency are complicated by the fact that, as well as having the first real crack at a coherent strategy in over a decade, the government has also committed to a complete overhaul of the UK’s mechanism for extended producer responsibility (EPR).

There’s a strong industry lobby in favour of consistency across council collections, with hopes for a central fund that could promote recycling and reuse nationally.

Extended producer responsibility is the requirement on packaging producers to help fund the collection and recycling of their products when they become waste. Most people aren’t aware that retailers and packaging producers already pay a fee towards recycling, but the UK system hasn’t changed since it was introduced in 1997 and, although it has succeeded in driving recycling rates up, it is due for an update.

The introduction of consistent collections and changes to EPR would, arguably, represent the greatest changes to waste management systems in memory. Whatever the detail, it is clear that consistency is popular with householders, so with a bit of luck, we’ll have a clearer vision of the future by the end of the year.

Bas Emmen @Unsplash

Quantity vs quality
So, back to how 20 of us recycling in a slightly haphazard way compares with one doing it well… what’s the verdict?

Engaging more people is, of course, a plus. And many household collections are designed to make it easy for people to participate, with waste management firms taking responsibility for sorting materials downstream.

However, sorting mixed waste through large material recovery facilities (MRFs) results in a lower grade of material, which has less value and fewer applications. When China stopped accepting imported waste, for example, it set a contamination rate for plastic of 0.5%. This meant that any bales showing evidence of contamination were rejected. In the case of cardboard, whole bales might be turned away thanks to one pizza box with cheese clinging to the lid.

This issue has split the waste industry for decades. Making it easy definitely has a value, but when one person’s slapdash recycling results in 20 other people’s meticulous efforts going to waste, is it worth it?



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