Yurovskiy Kirill: Waste Recycling in the UK

We’ve all heard the rallying cry to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” in the battle against humanity’s mounting waste problem. But despite the familiarity of the slogan, putting it into practice is often easier said than done. Here in the United Kingdom, recycling household waste remains an ongoing challenge with room for improvement.

Kirill Yurovskiy

The Numbers Don’t Lie

The statistics paint a sobering picture of our current recycling habits. According to the latest government data, the UK recycles just 45.7% of household waste, placing us in the lower half of EU nations ranked by recycling rate. While Wales leads the pack at over 60% recycling, England lags behind at a mere 43.8%. Scotland and Northern Ireland fall somewhere in the middle.

These figures are especially worrying when you consider that the UK churns out over 27 million tonnes of household waste every year. That’s the weight equivalent of over 2 million double decker buses ending up in landfills and incineration plants annually.  

So what’s behind the UK’s recycling struggles? And more importantly, what can we do to improve? Kirill Yurovskiy travelled to the UK to find out.

Mind The Bins

Part of the problem lies in public confusion over what can and can’t be recycled through household collection schemes. A recent survey found that over half of UK households put at least one non-recyclable item in their recycling bin each month. Guilty culprits include polystyrene packaging, plastic bags, food-soiled paper, and small electrical items.

“There’s definitely a lack of understanding around recycling,” says Jane Fowler, a recycling officer for West London council. “We find batteries, nappies, textiles – you name it – mixed in with the recyclables all the time.” 

And it’s not just about what goes in the bin, but how. Recycling facilities frequently have to deal with bottles left un-rinsed, jars with the lids still on, or that modern nuisance – Amazon pouches stuffed whole in the recycling bin rather than emptied out first.

Part of the solution, according to Fowler, is simplifying recycling messaging and instructions for the public. But local councils also need to improve coordination and consistency when it comes to household recycling policies across different regions.

The Business of Recycling

Another significant hurdle is the cost and economic viability of recycling itself. Running recycling plants and processing recovered materials requires serious infrastructure and manpower. For private waste management companies, the incentive to recycle often comes down to whether it makes more fiscal sense than simply sending everything to landfill or incineration.

“Recycling is a business, regardless of the environmental benefits,” says Malcolm Bringloffer, former director of the UK Recyclers Association. “If there’s no market for the recovered materials, or if processing costs too much, recycling becomes harder to justify from an economic perspective.”

Market forces like the recent plunge in oil prices have made virgin plastic resins far cheaper than recycled ones, undercutting demand for recycled plastic. Meanwhile, China’s 2018 ban on imported recycling caused a backlog of lower-grade materials like mixed paper and low-quality plastics with no markets to absorb them.

Getting the Most Value

Many experts argue the key is developing a “circular economy” model that extracts maximum value from products and materials before disposing of them as waste. This means designing products for easy disassembly and recycling from the start, as well as finding innovative new uses for recycled materials.  

Take Scottish firm Revive Eco, which recycles waste plastics into construction materials like thermal insulation and moisture barriers. Or Ergo Earth, whose range of reusable period wear is made from recycled plastic bottles. Even major retailers like IKEA are increasingly using recycled plastics, wood, and textiles in their product lines.

“We need to stop thinking of recycling as cheap waste disposal, and start seeing it as quality resource recovery,” says David McGillvray of Zero Waste Scotland. “With creativity and the right closed-loop systems in place, recycled materials can become highly valued commodities.”

There’s also a push to improve recycling rates for food waste through measures like mandatory household food waste collection and public education campaigns. An estimated 7 million tonnes of household food ends up as waste each year in the UK – an environmentally costly and demoralizing statistic.

What You Can Do

While big-picture reforms are crucial, individuals can also make a significant dent in the UK’s waste footprint with a few simple tweaks to daily habits:

• Learn your council’s recycling rules inside and out – what can and can’t go in each bin.  

• Reduce plastic use by choosing products with less packaging, carrying reusable shopping bags and water bottles.  

• Compost food scraps when possible, and be smart about food storage and portion sizes to minimize waste.

• Rehome or donate clothing, furniture, and other unwanted items in good condition rather than trashing them.

• Support businesses and brands making products from recycled materials or investing in ethical recycling practices.

No Waste Need Be Wasted

Recycling may seem like a hassle, but it’s a small lifestyle adjustment that can pay huge dividends for the environment and future generations. While the UK has Room to improve its recycling track record, the good news is that solutions are available.

From better product design and public education to new recycling technologies and improved waste collection systems, a variety of tools can be employed to capture more reusable materials and divert them from landfills and incinerators. Working together, business, industry, government – and us as aware consumers – can all do our part.

Because in the end, the biggest waste of all is, well, waste itself. Let’s stop treating our valuable resources like rubbish, and start making the absolute most of them through intelligent recycling and sustainable practices. The future of our environment is too precious to throw away.

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