Waste Data – The Key to Improving the UK’s Recycling Rates

Waste Data – the key to Improving the UK’s Recycling Rates

DEFRA recycling rates

In today’s blog Jim Baird, Green Oak’s Technical Director and Professor of Waste and Resources at Glasgow Caledonian University discusses improvements made in the UK’s recycling rates and required measures to sustain the gains.

Yesterday’s report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) applauded the UK for largest growth in recycling rates since the turn of the milenium than any other EU country. Recycling rates were just 12% in 2001 rising to 39% by 2010. Unquestionably a great improvement. However, before we get too carried away the EEA’s David Watson confirmed what we all collectively already knew and that is that recycling rates have slowed and maintaining improvements remains a challenge. So there’s still a lot of work to do.

The latest DEFRA recycling figures for English local authorities makes for interesting reading, bringing both good and bad news for the councils.  Quarterly reports affected by seasonal waste generation, mainly from garden waste and composting, hide the long term annual trends on waste growth and recycling.

Looking at calendar year data for household waste generated, 9.4% less waste was generated in 2011 compared with 2007.  Almost all of this reduction was achieved during the recession hit years of 2008-2010.  However, 2011 figures suggest that waste growth is now on the turn.

Over the same period household waste tonnages recycled increased by 11.4%.  The combined effect of these figures resulted in household waste recycling rates increasing by 6 percentage points.

But this really just masks the underlying issue. If waste arisings, as early indications seem to suggest, stop reducing and possibly increase, then the only improvements in recycling rates will need to come from the delivery of more effective recycling services and a greater engagement with the householder.

The rapid expansion in the early 2000’s of recycling services fuelled by central Government support, combined with the introduction of basic recycling services – arguably the easy wins, now sees local authorities having to look harder at their existing recycling services to see where service improvements can be made. Even recent grants of £250m are likely to make little impact on overall recycling performance.

Often northern European countries are held up as evidence that recycling rates can reach 70%, and indeed some English local authorities are performing well against these benchmarks.  But with increased pressures on local authority spending and no significant funding from Government looking likely, meeting Waste Framework Directive targets will require serious soul-searching by Councils.

The answer undoubtedly lies in squeezing existing recycling services to ensure every recycling route, every household waste recycling centre, and every treatment facility is subject to continuous improvement, and that the public is given every opportunity to participate in a programme which becomes the social norm.

Most local authorities lack access to the joined up waste data and analytics required to drive through these improvements in services.  Sure, each council handles thousands of weighbridge tickets, and these are verified, invoices paid, added up and fed into WasteDataFlow.  However the system is designed to fulfil contractor payment and to support the regulator. Data is provided to the Government via WasteDataFlow and they determine overall recycling performance with the results fed back several months later. Hardly a robust foundation for continuous improvement.

Jim Baird is Green Oak’s Technical Director and is also a professor of waste and resource management at Glasgow Caledonian University. He has over 25 years of consultancy and research experience at a senior level in a variety of multi-disciplinary environmental projects. Previously as head of the Caledonian Environment Centre his team were responsible for delivering the Remade Scotland programme and helping local authorities realise improvements in waste and recycling services.

One approach to turn the flow of information around is WasteNote, our new cloud-based service that has been specifically developed to help local authorities and their contractors to capture and process waste data so that route performance, scheme performance and contract performance information is immediately available.  Each contractor is given their own secure web portal access through which to provide the required collection waste data, and to report monthly on materials recycled and their destination. With WasteNote councils can spotlight poorly performing routes and schemes and can start implementing behaviour change initiatives that engage householders. We are also working on automating statutory WasteDataFlow reporting process.

If you’re a council or a waste contractor then we are interested in capturing your requirements so that we can improve the design point of WasteNote. Click on the icon below and leave your details and we’ll get in touch.

Tags: Local authority waste, Local Authority Recycling