Nearly one fifth of waste cannot be recycled in England and Wales

A quarter of all recycling risks being contaminated by 2030
17 November 2022 , Steve Smethurst

Producers to be made legally accountable for cost of managing packaging, while Greenpeace says reuse and refill is the real answer to plastic pollution

Research by waste-management company Biffa shows that nearly one-fifth (17%) of England and Wales’ waste from businesses and households cannot be recycled due to contamination.

Biffa tracked a steady rise in contamination rates from 2016 to 2020 after analysing the latest waste collection data available from waste-charity WRAP, based on the materials that entered UK recycling facilities. The results suggest that, left unchecked, a quarter of all recycling could be contaminated by 2030.

A WRAP spokesperson said that a key cause of contamination is confusion about what can be included in recycling containers. Our research shows that four in five (82%) of UK households add one or more items to their recycling collection that is not accepted locally.

He said: As local authority spending has reduced, communications to householders about what is and is not collected locally for recycling have become less frequent. Anecdotal evidence from a local authority that conducted ‘whole bin’ checks suggests that some contamination behaviours are carried out knowingly.

Serious contaminants include Pyrex and drinking glasses; pots, pans and cutlery, electrical items; textiles; mirrors; pet litter and waste; sanitary products; animal bedding; nappies and food waste.

David Heaton, Business Director of Materials Recovery Facilities and Plastics Recovery Facilities, Biffa, is an advocate of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which aims to make producers responsible for the full net cost of managing packaging once it becomes waste. The EPR regulations build on the existing Packaging Waste Regulations and will see the full cost of collecting household packaging waste shift from the taxpayer to producers. They are expected to become law in the second half of 2023.

It’s vital as a nation that we get better at effective ‘pre-cycling’ – sorting waste correctly before collection – to reduce contamination rates.”

He said Without these changes in legislation, recycling and contamination rates are unlikely to improve. It’s vital as a nation that we get better at effective ‘pre-cycling’ sorting waste correctly before collection to reduce contamination rates.

However, not all councils face such high rates. Esther O'Bearagh, Waste and Recycling Community Engagement Team Leader, Cornwall Council said: “We ask people to sort their recycling into a box for glass and textiles, a reusable bag for plastic bottles, pots, tubs and trays and tins and cans, a reusable bag for paper and a reusable bag for cardboard.  

“While the crews do not sort through the material when they collect it, they can spot obvious contamination and tag the bags respectively. Our contamination rate is around 1%, measured through our Material Recycling Facilities.”

In the US, Greenpeace is calling for drastic action. Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA’s Senior Plastics Campaigner said: Single-use plastics are like trillions of pieces of confetti spewed from retail and fast-food stores.

It’s simply not possible to collect the vast quantity of these small pieces of plastic. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.

“Big corporations have worked to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.

And while the EU has made progress in banning single-use plastics, England lags behind.

Image credit: Shutterstock 

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