Britain recycles – because it matters

27 September 2018

It’s bin day. But there are no kerbside recycling collections today – or on any other day. And not just in our street or town. Across the country, there are no blue, green or brown bins. In the home or on-the go. Recycling, it seems, is dead.

Bear with me on this, as it is obviously fiction: after all, this is written in Recycle Week, our annual celebration of the benefits of recycling. But what if it was true? What if someone, some day, decided that the UK wouldn’t bother with recycling? After all, we only send the stuff halfway round the world or burn it, don’t we...?

To continue with my imaginary non-recycling world, what would this mean? Well, in practical terms, we would still be generating ‘stuff’ we don't want so there would have to be a collection system of some sort. No need for local authority collections, perhaps, so private operators could just come down the street and sweep up your one black bin. (As an aside, be prepared to pay £10 a time, compared to the average element of council tax for the current system, which is around £3 a week.) This stuff has to go somewhere. We don't have anything like enough spare landfill sites. We certainly don’t have sufficient capacity in our energy recovery plants to burn it all, and new ones take years to build.

So where would this stuff go? I dread to think. But just as important, what are the consequences? Tens of thousands of jobs in the UK recycling sector lost. Manufacturers denied their supply of recycled materials turn to ‘virgin’ at higher cost.  More trees are cut down to make fibre for the packaging that is so prevalent in the goods we buy. No more sustainable packaging on supermarket shelves. The UK glassmaking industry collapses, crippled by the higher energy costs of making glass from virgin materials. The countryside is awash with litter now that no-one empties the bins regularly, and our rivers are clogged with plastic bottles and bags.

On the upside, at least there’s only one big black bin in my front garden, and I don't have to bother thinking about what to do with my unwanted plastic bottles, tubs or other packaging.

But let’s flip this Doomsday scenario on its head, turning instead to a time when manufacturers, retailers and citizens are fully embracing recycling, and the UK is genuinely on a path to a greener future.

Black bin collections for residual waste happen only every three or four weeks, because we are putting the right materials in the right place. It’s easy – all plastic pots, tubs and trays are recyclable wherever you live, and everyone recycles their drinks bottles on-the-go, perhaps even get their deposit back. Labels are clear, the apps work and there are recycling bins wherever you go. Litter is a thing of the past, on the land and in the sea.

That’s because manufacturers are smarter now, only making products that can be easily recycled and which lend themselves to being looped back into the manufacturing process. Thousands of people have new jobs, returning quality materials to manufacturers, who worry less about volatility in global commodity markets because they are sourcing more of their materials from the recycling industry here at home. And local authorities can provide better recycling services to their residents, partly funded by fees paid by the packaging industry.

We now do such a good job of thinking about what we do with our stuff that the reuse industry has mushroomed – with tens of thousands more jobs created. And these developments happen because recycling and reuse make economic and social sense – not just because we are striving to protect the environment.

This is the first Recycle Week since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 programmes late last year brought home the menace of marine pollution. It’s had an amazing impact, and people have been motivated to care about the environment in a way I’ve not seen before. On the day we launched Recycle Week, just under half a million people visited the Recycle Now website, a twenty-five-fold increase on the day before. That’s amazing! Blue Planet has spawned a once-in-a-generation opportunity where the public and politicians are insisting on a more sustainable future for materials. Recycling has been a huge success story in the UK, with the household rate more than quadrupling in recent years, from around 10% in 2000 to over 45% today. Nearly all local authorities in the UK collect paper, glass, metals and plastic bottles from their householders, keen to do the right thing. We recycle because it matters.

But the public response to Blue Planet 2 demands more.  It means strong policy measures and the right market signals from government, innovative and responsible businesses working across their supply chains, and more help for citizens to get their own recycling right. That’s why Recycle Week is so important and why I am delighted that so many local government and business partners are supporting WRAP again. This week, next week and the week after.  Recycling. We do. Because it matters.