The Geographical Journal

What next for England’s recycling?

By Nicky Gregson, Durham University

For over 100 years waste management, and latterly recycling, have been primary concerns for UK local government. But a new policy landscape is emerging in England which is bringing about once-in-a-generation change. It seeks to move England from a linear (take-make-dispose) economy towards circular economy ideals. In so doing, fundamental challenges and questions are arising, most notably around recycling. Who does it? Who is responsible for it? And, what kind of recycling results? 

Recycling is pivotal to circular economy ideals, which draw on ecological thinking to propose a reworking of economic activity. In a circular economy the goal is to keep materials and products circulating, so reuse, recycling and re-manufacturing are seen as important. So too is resource efficiency, which aims to maximise the value extracted from materials. High levels of recycling, as indicated by the proxy of high recycling rates, are strongly associated with resource efficiency.  Although resource efficiency appeals to sustainability, the main political impetus for it has come from predictions of scarcity in the light of increasing global demand for resources. In the advanced economies attention has turned to extending resource utility, seeing consumer discard not as waste but as further resources that can be recovered for recycling, therefore capturing that resource for use within these economies.

This is to attempt to re-shore, or bring back ‘home’, the trade in wastes that under globalisation saw wastes exported from the Global North to China and the Global South, where they were (and still are) sorted, processed, and treated to then be sold back into global commodity markets. But it is also to endeavour to re-scale that material transformation. It is to seek to override a global division of labour (in which the Global North acts as a resource base for the Global South) with a consumer-based mercantilism, in which goods consumed in the Global North become captured there by being consumed there. High levels of consumption, and consumer-heavy economies, are seen as the means to greater access to these secondary resources. But all this depends on the type of recycling infrastructure in place.

England’s recycling infrastructure   

The recycling infrastructure put in place by England’s local authorities, in partnership with the major firms in the waste management sector, collects a relatively small set of materials as efficiently as possible, through ‘co-mingled’ collections. It then sorts those materials into streams, chiefly paper, card, aluminium, HDPE, PET and glass. This is a high-volume business, where past policy drivers ensure that what matters is the weight of material that counts towards diversion-from-landfill targets. Importantly therefore, reported recycling rates are not the same as actual recycling rates; rather, they reflect the tonnage of material that is collected for processing through recycling infrastructure, relative to the total of all municipal waste handled by a local authority. For this material to actually be recycled requires that it is sold into the commodity markets, where the grade of the material is what matters. This is affected by the degree of contamination. Since England’s recycling infrastructure is set up to generate large amounts of broadly categorised material, typically it needs much finer sorting to become feedstock for manufacturing processes. That, combined with high levels of contamination, is why it has been heavily dependent upon the global export market.

In 2017 however, there was a contraction of the export market, caused largely by the China Ban. This has already posed major difficulties for the output from England’s recycling infrastructure. It has resulted in lost revenues for local authorities and their private sector partners and reputational risk for local authorities in the form of allegations that the more stringent contamination thresholds now being imposed by processors are leading to material collected for recycling being rejected and diverted to energy-from-waste facilities. Yet, with the move to re-shore resource efficiency, that infrastructure faces two further challenges.

Firstly, there is an emerging round of capital investment by waste management firms rebranding as circular economy service providers. The direct return schemes proposed in the new policy landscape offer an alternative means for these firms to access post-consumer discard. Effectively, in relying on (and financially incentivising) consumers to return bottles, cans and containers to designated collection hubs, they by-pass household collections. They also cream off value from municipal collections, in that – in targeting particular materials separately – they are a means to the collection of cleaner, less contaminated material whilst simultaneously extracting the most valuable materials (aluminium) from local authorities’ collections.

Secondly, there is the enhanced collection required of local authorities. In mandating a standard collection system across all local authorities, central government is seeking to elevate England’s languishing recycling rate which has stuck at the 45% mark – well below the 65% (and higher) threshold seen to be indicative of a circular economy. Higher-performing councils, with rates of 50% and above, have been heralded as models of best practice for others to follow.

Putting to one side that recycling rates bear little relation to actual recycling, these measures fly in the face of, and seek to gloss over, geographical differences. What is being overlooked here is the connection of geography and recycling rates. What has been proven to work (in terms of systems that produce higher rates), only work well for less densely populated, suburban and semi-rural areas with gardens. It is not likely to translate well to densely populated, city-based populations living in high/medium-rise blocks and without gardens.

Where does this leave local authorities? Almost certainly with lost revenue – that will run across all councils that have collection responsibilities. In the quest for politically acceptable recycling rates, many will be forced to continue to ‘chase tonnage’ – but questions need to be asked about how likely it is that these rates will be realised in particular types of areas, what those rates actually show, and the political consequences of failure. Then there is the procurement challenge. The private sector is becoming increasingly selective on the contracts it bids for, focusing on those where ‘yield’ (the industry term for the volume/quality ratio of the material collected) is either known to be high or anticipated to be capable of improvement to high levels. The likely effect of these commercial decisions is that councils characterised by areas of high density living and that score highly on multiple measures of deprivation will have little option but to bring services back in-house, whilst facing extreme budgetary pressures that will insist on least-cost solutions. As the last 20 years have shown, least-cost solutions are the kind of recycling infrastructure that generates material the market doesn’t want.   

The need for geographically-sensitive policy

What is emerging in England, accelerated by the new policy landscape, therefore, is twin-track recycling. On the one hand, the advent of direct return schemes has the potential to turn England’s consumers into a nation of petty-commodity traders. On the other, there is a legacy system – rooted in local authorities’ responsibilities for municipal wastes – which is resolving into a two-tier municipal recycling service with geography and politics at its heart. Enhanced resource efficiency demands quality recycling, whilst making no assumptions about how that material is generated. That may or may not be reasonable, but it needs to be recognised that there are contingencies that make it next to impossible for certain types of councils to produce that kind of quality from the areas they serve. A geographically-sensitive and geographically-inflected approach is required. Without this there is little doubt that more material collected for recycling will end up being turned to electricity in energy-from-waste plants.


About the author: Nicky Gregson isProfessor Emerita of Human Geography, Durham University

Suggested additional reading:

This article is based on the recent publication: Gregson N, & Forman P (2021) England’s municipal waste regime: challenges and prospects, The Geographical Journal https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12386

Minter A (2015) Junkyard Planet: travels in the billion dollar trash trade (London: Bloomsbury)

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