Inconsistencies, mislabelling and confusion: The issue with recycling in the UK

On Friday 5 June it is World Environment Day and Susanna Jackson, an environmental data analyst at Comply Direct, has put some focus on the inconsistencies, mislabeling and confusion with recycling in the UK.

A recent study from Brunel University London and University of Leeds, working in collaboration with DEFRA, the waste management sector, and other stakeholders, has found that significant changes to the way we recycle plastic packaging waste in the UK is needed in order to meet the Resources and Waste Strategy ambition to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2043.

The current system disadvantages local authorities and discourages efforts to invest in green infrastructure to exploit technological change. This leads to over-dependence on exporting waste to markets with questionable recycling policies and also impairs consumer decision-making about how to dispose of plastic packaging waste. Ongoing consultations on the Plastic Tax and Plastics Pact should incentivise markets towards improvements in future approaches.

Local councils and waste management firms rely on consumers to sort their recycling correctly at home, and whether or not they are recycled correctly depends almost entirely on packaging labels. Consumers face a multitude of baffling recycling symbols when they come to dispose of products leading to widespread confusion over what can and cannot be put into kerbside collections. Some households may be able to recycle specific items, while others cannot. This is exacerbated in cities where populations are highly transient, multicultural, and live in apartments with traditionally poor recycling facilities. Current ongoing consultations are looking into having more consistent collections in future which will greatly help with labeling issues.

Many households take an over-zealous approach by putting any items they are not sure about into the recycling in the hopes that the recycling plant will just remove them if they aren’t actually recyclable. However, plastic contamination is a real issue which can lead to low-grade recycled plastic products at the end of the cycle, or even resulting in entire loads of recycling being incinerated or going to landfill instead. Contamination can also be caused by dirty items such as containers with any food or liquids still inside. Maintaining materials value is the goal, with issues of mixed recycling with glass meaning the paper can be worthless as low value glass can contaminate materials of higher value. Source segregation of food waste and glass from dry clean recyclables is also needed.

Above are some of the many labels currently used on packaging in the UK. For source click here

Furthermore, manufacturers are currently under no obligation to label their packaging at all, let alone in a consistent manner. Current regional inconsistencies in kerbside collections mean that often the decisions is left to the consumer by stamping the “Check Locally” symbol onto their products, which is often misinterpreted as a sign it can be put straight into mixed recycling.

Without a national strategy for recycling, inconsistencies in the types of materials collected by local authorities and differences in the way they process them will continue. The net effect of which has meant that the UK has not significantly increased recycling rates in a decade, with over 4% of the estimated 45% of materials sent for recycling actually rejected, meaning we are nearly 10% off the 50% target by 2020. There is a need to make recycling information on packaging mandatory and to simplify the current labeling system, for example OPRL have put significant effort into streamlining recycling through a binary labeling system, although this too may have unintended negative consequences.

Major reforms under the Resource and Waste Strategy are designed to confront the issue and retain value, including consistency in waste collection, extended producer responsibility, and deposit return schemes (more information can be found here) . A reduction on the cost burden on local authorities through more equitable distribution of the value system could also incentivise long-term investment.

The report from Brunel and Leeds University, titled “Plastic Packaging – How do we get where we want to be?”, proposes new metrics for the government to use when assessing success against their 2050 target through CVORR analysis which corresponds to 4 domains of value; environmental, social, economic, and technical. These would enable a systematic assessment of the plastic packaging system which is much needed to bring about and monitor change.


DEFRA Science and Research Projects

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