A hand holds a recycling sign in front of a blurred green background of trees
Recyclable waste all in the same bin

The Case for Standardising Recycling Schemes Nationally

The UK’s waste is mounting and, even though recycling capture has increased in the last 15 years, there’s a huge way to go before we reach a truly sustainable future. A key disconnect here is between how much people willingly recycle and what local authorities can actually recycle. A significant reason why recyclable waste goes to landfill is simply that local authorities don’t have the facilities to actually recycle material that should be recyclable

Let’s look more about how the domestic recycling system works in the UK and what we can do about it.

Local authorities handle regional recycling

Like many services, there isn’t a national governmental organisation in charge of recycling & waste but there instead exist regional & local authorities whose responsibility it is to monitor, capture, and deal with waste – both domestic & commercial. Many of these local authorities opt to contract out these responsibilities to private companies who manage the day-to-day activities of waste collection.

In some cases, the local authorities handle the actual doorstep collection parts of the process – and then send the recyclable material to facilities in the area.

This system has pros and cons. On the one hand, it bypasses the potential bureaucracy and red tape of a single organisation managing the day-to-day activities for the entire country’s waste collection. On the other hand, it leaves mismanagement and inadequate facilities investment unaccountable to taxpayers.There is accountability insofar as a council waste contract can be prematurely cancelled or not renewed but, in order to be an actual threat, this also relies on adequate alternatives. That is, if a regional recycling facility’s capability is 15 years behind the area’s volume of waste then the local authority could choose to move the contract – but who are they going to move it to?

The threat of “going elsewhere” here relies on there being another waste management organisation with better processes and more updated equipment in the same area – yet these can’t really exist without government contracts in the first place.

The core issue, then, is that there’s a mismatch between the volume of technically recyclable waste and how easily local authorities can handle it.

DEFRA guides authorities

The Department for Business, Energy, & Industrial Strategy (DEFRA) sets out guideline targets for local authorities to aim for. The authorities are given incentives for meeting these targets and are also issued fines for sending too much waste to landfill.

While it’s great to have an oversight body, this can only ever be reactive to local conditions. If a local authority is issued a fine, they’re likely to pass it on to the contractor not meeting those guidelines and, as we’ve recently seen with water companies, those fines don’t necessarily spur action if they’re less than the cost of infrastructure investment.

We need to move away from individual responsibility

A great deal of the drive to recycle is presented as an individual responsibility pushed through public awareness campaigns: change your shopping habits to create a greener future.

But, as we’ve always felt, this messaging misses the mark – it passes on responsibility. While there’s certainly great power in purchasing decisions, it relies on alternatives being available as well as price-competitive. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to create sustainable products at competitive price points: so that it’s a no-brainer.

The issue with personal responsibility when it comes to recycling is that it becomes your responsibility not only to buy something that comes in recyclable packaging, but also to check whether that packaging is actually recycled by your local authority. To recycle that thing otherwise requires you to accumulate enough of it to personally take to an adequate facility – sometimes hours away – or simply throw it in the landfill bin.

The knock-on effect of this, then, is that a significant amount of material passes for “recyclable” while actually clogging up landfill.

Standardise recycling facilities

The solution is to stop passing the buck and instead lobby for a standardisation of recycling facilities across the country – there’s bureaucracy that happens with centralising, but that downside is offset by the much larger benefit in the form of efficient pooling of resources, consumer certainty, and the ability to force change on manufacturers & waste management facilities.

There are deposit return schemes in the works for bottles, and this is a great step in the right direction (though the UK is significantly behind the rest of Europe with facilities for this) – but non-standardised recycling causes too much material to be sold under essentially false pretences.

On an individual level, imagine how much easier recycling would be if materials were marked clearly. For example, a standardised colour-code system could help people determine which colour bin to put which items into.

Our packaging is 100% recyclable

Our Envirolite range, from bespoke packaging to void filler, is 100% recyclable and is entirely biodegradable if it’s not recaptured by municipal waste collectors. It’s important for consumers to change shopping habits, but it’s crucial for industry to spearhead that change.

Let’s talk about helping make the world a better place.

5 June 2023