England - Waste Management and Recycling

overall rating:



Elmira Kubenova
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Originally, I was going to write this review about one local authority, but I have not been able to find as many statistics for individual councils. There is a significant disparity between different areas, but I have used data England or UK as a whole in this review. England's strategy for waste management is very impressive and thorough, but so far it has not achieved all the targets it set, specifically to recycle 50% of waste from households in 2020. The goals that plan has set are very ambitious and it has developed strategies on reducing, reusing and recycling the waste, as well as addressing all of the current issues. In particular, food waste, collection of waste batteries and tracking the waste, especially set abroad. Sending waste abroad for recycling is unsustainable, since it might not be actually recycled and left in landfills or incinerated in open air. This creates pollution and hazardous working conditions, so some of those countries have banned imports of contaminated waste and started sending it back. There has been a lot of publicity around this, so I hope that England's strategy proves successful. I would advice consumers to dispose of their waste (especially batteries and electronics) responsibly and use the separate food waste collection if available to you.

What it's made of:


Local authorities in England are responsible for collection and management of waste from households, some businesses and public spaces. This involves regular kerbside collections of recycling and residual waste and also management of local recycling centres that collect garden waste, electronics, batteries, lightbulbs, rubble, etc. Some local authorities collect food waste from their residents either separately or mixed with garden waste, although many do not. It is estimated that 10.3 million households in England are provided a food waste collection service by their councils and 13.4 million are not. The government is planning to make food waste collections available to every household by 2023, however this relies on availability of recycling facilities, the funding provided to local authorities and the willingness of residents to recycle food waste. Food waste can be recycled through anaerobic digestion to produce biogas (burned in combined heat and power units to produce heat that is used on-site and electricity fed into the grid) and fertiliser. Leaving that waste in a landfill will allow it to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which can cause climate change. In 2019-2020, 25.6 million tonnes of waste were collected by local authorities, of which 44.8% was incinerated with energy recovery, 42.8% was sent for recycling and 8.5% was sent to landfill. Incineration of waste with energy recovery is the next best option to recycling, since it displaces some amount of fossil fuels used to produce electricity and it allows the recovery and recycling of metals from the incinerator bottom ash. However, recycling is usually a better option and should be used in preference to incineration according to the waste hierarchy. I feel it is especially important to recycle waste batteries, since they are classed as hazardous waste and can leach toxic chemicals in landfill. In 2019, UK government has set a target to collect 45% of the average annual amount of portable batteries placed on the UK market in the previous 3 years. This target was narrowly missed, as only 44.34% of batteries were collected. The most collected type of battery was lead acid – 10,746 tonnes of those were collected in 2019, but only 1,212 tonnes were placed on the market. This discrepancy could have been caused by uncertainty in classification of those batteries as portable or import of batteries, in either case this skews the statistics, since lead batteries make up 62% of the total collected portable batteries, but only 3% of batteries placed on the market. This suggests that other types of batteries are recycled much less and are likely sent to landfill or incinerated. There is a large disparity between local authorities, but overall, the recycling rate is lower than ideal, especially for batteries. I am pleased that the government is planning to make food waste kerbside collections available to all households, but I hope that the residents will be fully aware and on-board with that idea. 

How it's made:


Glass and metals can be recycled infinitely without losing their qualities, recycling also reduces the demand for raw materials, diverts waste from landfill and often saves energy (recycling process often requires less energy than producing something from raw materials) and hence emissions. It has been estimated that in 2020, recycling/recovery rate for each of the following materials was: 76.0% for metal, 75.8% for glass, 65.6% for paper and 47.4% for plastic. Those statistics may seem fairly impressive, but those figures represent proportions of materials reported as recycled, i.e., sorted by the councils and sent for recycling, as a proportion of that material places on the market. BBC has reported that two thirds of UK's plastic waste is shipped abroad for recycling (also a significant amount of metal and paper), to countries including Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Poland. Some of those countries have implemented tighter regulations or bans on import of waste and have started returning waste that was mislabelled or was too contaminated to recycle. It is much more difficult to track what happens to the waste abroad, but several investigations have found that some of what's been sent for recycling ends up being incinerated in open air or left in landfills, creating pollution and unsafe working conditions. Biffa, a waste management company that serves 31 local authorities in the UK, has been repeatedly fined for sending contaminated waste to China, India and Indonesia. The Environment Agency is working to prevent illegal exports, inspecting containers for contaminants before they are shipped or helping return them to the UK. I feel there is a lack of transparency around specific companies that councils sell their waste to and where that waste ends up. Some say that, unfortunately, UK does not have enough facilities to treat all of it's own waste, possibly because it is much cheaper to send it to developing countries. However, some changes will have to happen since those countries are refusing our rubbish.

Who makes it:


In 2019, the Government has published a Waste and Resources Strategy with an ambitious goal to eliminate avoidable waste of all kinds and double resource efficiency by 2050. In order to achieve this, the government is going to introduce a tax on plastic with less than 30% recycled content to stimulate the demand for recycled plastics and will also introduce extended producer responsibility for packaging. Their strategy concentrates on reducing and reusing the waste, as well as recycling and recovery, which will help to reduce the amount of waste exported. I appreciate that this plan set some ambitious goals and has recognised all the issues around waste management, including food waste and battery recycling. However, the timeline is not currently met, since in 2020, England has missed the 50% recycling rate target, only achieving 42.8%. This could be partially due to increase in single-use masks and gloves during the pandemic, but I feel like this number is lower in reality due to waste being shipped abroad. The government has created a fund to award to tech firms that develop innovative solutions to track waste internationally. This will help to improve transparency long-term, but I feel the councils should be required to report who they sell their waste to, similar to what they do in Wales. Welsh system provides much more transparency, although it is not ideal.