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Residents’ complaints about confusing recycling are a myth driven by ‘bin envy’

Lee Marshall
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You may well have seen the flurry of stories recently about how the amount of contamination in recycling has increased in the past few years.

The headlines showed that between 2010-11 and 2014-15 the amount of material collected for recycling but rejected at sorting plants because it was not up to standard had risen by approximately 154,000 tonnes. This sounds a lot but over the same period the amount collected for recycling rose by over 300,000 tonnes.

The headlines caused much gnashing of teeth in the industry and a lot of calls from some of the less enlightened commentators to end the ‘confusion’ that councils cause with their collections. Others in the industry continue to peddle the confusion myth but ultimately it is doing no-one any good. All parts of the material supply chain need the right material going to the right place. We have an industry-wide problem, not a local authority only one.

The majority of councils are very clear on the materials they do and do not want in their recycling collections and do a good job of communicating that to their residents. But people nowadays are more mobile and have a wider geographic spread of friends than previously. Therefore, they know a lot more about other people’s collections than before and end up with ‘bin envy’ or a ‘bin query’ but know less about what they need to do in their own house.

We only collect the materials that have been put on the market by producers and retailers and which reprocessors can economically recycle. There are calls to standardise collection systems, which would not make a jot of difference as you still have differences in how viable materials would be to collect depending on what type of sorting plant a council uses, where they are in the country, what their current contracts are and so on.

There are not many industries that would talk about themselves in negative terms and yet that is exactly what the waste industry is doing when it talks about the confusion over collection systems. If we tell people it is all confusing for long enough, it will be, and it will severely undermine all the hard communications work councils undertake to support services.

The increase in contaminated materials shows that more material is going to sorting plants and putting them under strain while the end markets are demanding even better materials than before. But most of all it shows that councils can only do so much to encourage their residents to do the right thing. We need the industry to come together and stop talking about confusion that does not exist.

Lee Marshall, chief executive officer, Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee

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