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Standardisation is not the answer to improved recycling

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We hear more and more questions about how England will meet its 2020 target of 50% recycling. 

It’s unsurprisingly when you think that it is 2015, meaning that we only have five years to go, and when you look back at the slow recycling increases over the past few years and consider this against ever-diminishing local government funds. 

It was only 10 years ago that we witnessed a rapid increase in the numbers of local authorities changing the way they delivered waste collection services to the public. Many moved to alternate weekly collections, started organics collections and extended the rage of the types of materials they collected.

Some were even still making the change from bin bag collections to wheeled bins. It was all in the quest to divert waste away from landfill and meet statutory recycling targets.

These rapid and more complex changes brought with them their own set of challenges, not least that services were very much designed around local circumstance. For example, what was right for inner city London was unlikely to be right for rural coastal villages in Devon.

Furthermore, those who had already invested in green wheeled bins for residual waste years previously had to choose what to do with other waste types such as green waste; either use the wheeled bins for other types or be faced with re-educating the public to use their old residual bin for their green waste. No one had a crystal ball and it seemed sensible to just go with a new colour for any new bins.

So, what we have today is a mix of services, mix of containers and mix of materials collected. 

Ten years on, there is now much debate on the idea of standardisation. In an ideal world having the same colour, number and type of bin or box as well as collection service would, on the face of it, make it far more straightforward for the people we ask to participate in these services.

However, is it feasible? It would take millions of pounds of investment across the country, potentially decades to achieve and masses of communications, and how much more recycling would it generate? Besides, one size doesn’t fit all and the differing services we have to date are clear evidence of this.

Perhaps standardisation is a step too far and what is needed is consideration of harmonising services more generally, for example all areas collecting the same types of material. This could aid clarity for our residents and facilitate even better communications. 

Perhaps the debate should be widened even further; after all, there are several different ways of packaging the same item and different manufacturers package things differently. Maybe we should be talking to them about how they can achieve standardisation of packaging.

Sally Talbot, vice chair, Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee




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