Quality not quantity is key to sustainable

June 14, 2007 at 9:37 pm

Recycling is on the increase in the UK. The Government target – to recycle or compost at least 33% of household waste by 2015 – seems achievable, and more of us are participating in domestic recycling than ever before. Yet, although the volume of household rubbish which we separate from mainstream waste for recycling is up, there is growing concern that quality is down.

What does this mean? Well, many local authorities have encouraged residents to recycle by making it easy – supplying one box or bag, into which a mixture of recyclables can be placed. This method, known as co-mingled or single-stream collection, can lead to contamination of the supply chain. Concern is such that the campaign group PaperChain has withdrawn support from the imminent 2007 Recycle Now Week. PaperChain fears that Recycle Now has lost sight of the evolving issues facing UK recycling, and claims that “the message on maintaining quality throughout the collection process has never been actively or effectively promoted to the public.”

Single stream collections are easier for householders, but segregating recyclables reduces the risk of contamination, especially for paper and cardboard. PaperChain says that “although material recovery facilities (MRFs) are able to segregate the material streams to a reasonable quality when they are running well, such facilities invariably end up generating recovered materials that are not up to the standards required for reprocessing without further sorting and cleaning.”

Up to 25% of material collected by householders for recycling ends up in landfill sites because of high levels of contamination. This is the claim made by Cylch, the Wales Community recycling Network. There is no blueprint for recycling in the UK, it is up to individual local authorities to determine collection methods, and a lack of investment in modern recycling facilities hampers progress. Mal Williams, CEO of Cylch, believes hundreds of millions of pounds of resources are being lost each year.

PaperChain additionally argues that campaign groups should now be encouraging the public sector to focus on quality and sustainability, not simply on generating greater volumes of recyclables. The organisation is greatly concerned about the long term sustainability of recycling in the UK if nothing is done to address these quality control issues. Recycle Now, meanwhile, has responded by saying: “It is not practical for Recycle Now Week to deliver detailed material quality messages to householders, as collection systems vary between local authorities.” So, who is at fault?

According to Williams, sending recyclables to landfill because of contamination is not a new problem. He blames a lack of investment in better facilities, and Whitehall, for the situation. “The Government can be blamed for not taking a strong leadership role,” he said. DEFRA’s Waste Strategy for England 2007 emphasises that “every local authority will have a role to play in increasing diversion of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) from landfill in order to meet the requirements of the EC Landfill Directive.” It seems local authorities are under pressure to recycle and to divert waste from landfill. Clearly, as PaperChain are keen to stress, workable and sustainable recycling schemes need to be at the heart of their policy if these two targets are to be met.

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