It is no great surprise to hear that England has not met its target to recycle 50% of ‘waste from households’ (the official recycling measure used as the basis for UK reporting) by 2020, achieving just 44.0%, down from 45.5% in 2019. This decrease certainly reflects the impact the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a dramatic effect on all facets of society and the economy.
Total waste from households increased to 22.6 million tonnes in 2020 from 22.1 million tonnes in 2019 (equivalent to 399kg per person, up from 392kg per person in 2019), in large part due to people spending more time at home during lockdown. Alongside this, the total amount of recycled waste from households decreased by 1.2% due to a range of systemic factors, such as service disruptions and the closure of Household Waste and Recycling Centres (HWRCs), and problems with quality, including an increase in contamination entering the recycling stream.
The tonnage of dry recycling, which includes paper and card, glass, plastic, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), and scrap metals remained at around 5.9 million tonnes in 2020, although as a proportion of waste it was still down on 2019.
The composition of waste also changed, with large increases in the tonnage of materials recycled as lockdown increased the consumption of food and drink at home. Plastics increased by 26,000 tonnes or (5.2%), metals by 21,000 tonnes (8.4%), and glass by 209,000 tonnes (17%). The extensive closure of HWRCs and charity shops in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic had a notable negative impact on recycling of WEEE and textiles.
The UK government is committed to implementing reforms to the recycling system in England to make progress on our recycling rates. The 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy sets out the government’s ambitions for higher recycling rates, increased resource efficiency and a more circular economy in England.
To improve England’s recycling rates, Defra says the government will improve consistency in household and business recycling collections in England, introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and reform the UK packaging producer responsibility system through extended producer responsibility for packaging. Defra also says that rolling out separate weekly food waste collections for households will “significantly impact” overall recycling rates in England.
Improving recycling performance is key to establishing a circular economy and moving the UK towards net zero. While Covid can certainly account for the poor recycling performance in 2020, the UK was not on track to achieve its 50% target prior to the pandemic. More must urgently be done to get England’s recycling back on track as we emerge from Covid’s shadow. We look forward to seeing detail on how initiatives like a deposit return scheme will work in practice, and what support will be given to the recycling sector to ensure it is able to ‘gear up’ effectively for any changes.