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Why we have to invest in rubbish

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The collection and disposal of household rubbish, which just a decade ago was a peripheral part of even an environment director’s job just 10 years ago. Now it is a major challenge for local authorities.

Fines of up to £366m a year lie in wait for councils that fail to reduce landfill to European Union targets set for 2013. To achieve these, councils will need to meet therecycling challenge head-on.

Encouraging local residents to recycle is never an easy task - and it is made harder when media reports uncover incidents where waste collected by some councils for recycling has been found in landfills in Asia.

We’ve been getting away with sending China most of our material at the moment. But what happens when that market dries up?

Joe Blizzard, chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee

But, for those councils that can mobilise households, the recycling market is now looking healthier. Demand for recyclables has rebounded from a slump last year and, while prices are still generally below their pre-recession peaks, they have returned to something like the long-term average. Such fluctuations, however, have highlighted the fragility of the current system and underlined local authorities’ overreliance on South-East Asia as a buyer.

The UK trade in recovered material with China has soared over the past decade. Councils exported only a few thousand tonnes of recyclable paper to China in 1999, but this had burgeoned to 2.7 megatonnes by 2008, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap). More paper is now sent abroad than is re-processed in the UK.

Chinese re-processors are relatively unconcerned by the quality of the materials. Their labour is cheap, so they can afford to sort our waste for us, according to Wrap director for local government services Philip Ward.

“There’s a focus on quantity of material, rather than the quality, so MRFs [materials recycling facilities] say ‘we can sell the stuff no matter what state it’s in’,” he says.

False economy

The need for a more robust recycling system that can resist these economic shocks has become obvious.

Chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee Joy Blizzard says: “We’ve been getting away with sending China most of our material at the moment. But what happens when that market dries up?”

In June, Wrap called on ANALYSIS: RECYCLING Policy briefing: waste councils to introduce kerbside sorted recycling, as opposed to unsorted collections. Theinitial investment might be higher but the demand for separated materials is greater and they can command a better price. Separated newspapers and magazineswere still selling for £40 per tonne during the price slump of last year, while unsorted mixed paper and board became worthless.

Alternatively, councils can invest in high-tech MRFs that are capable of sorting out the mixed materials, says Technical Advisers Group vice-president Tim Walker.


Investment in facilities may be hard to stomach as belts tighten, but Mr Ward warns against seeking cheap waste disposal contracts. “You could not only face a public relations disaster, you could be breaking international law. The regulations on waste shipment are becoming tighter and tighter,” he says.

Mr Walker supports this view. “You have to ensure that your waste disposal duty of care is being met,” he adds.

This strengthens the case for seeking markets in the UK or the EU, Mr Walker says, where it is easier for authorities to manage what is happening to their recyclables.

Councils can develop the market for this material in the UK by buying products containing recycled material themselves, a point that the Local Government Association has been underlining. But, while Wrap welcomes this call, it claims that local government has yet to have a “Damascene moment” on the quality of recyclables and the robustness of markets.

“The financial imperative has gone, for now,” says Mr Ward. “But local authorities are tending to ask MRF operators more questions about where their waste is going.”


Commercial confidentiality is often cited as a reason for withholding this information, says the LGA. However, Somerset’s authorities have been able to give residents
a detailed account of what happens to the material put out for recycling: strikingly, 92% is re-processed in the UK.

“We believe our ‘end-use register’ reassures residents that everything we collect is recycled and put to good use,” says Somerset Waste Partnership strategy team
leader David Mansell.

Profit-sharing agreements are also becoming popular between councils and MRFs, which encourage better separation than taking a flat rate gate fee. New markets for
higher grade material are also being actively sought out.

These efforts appear to be paying off. The amount of material being recycled and the number of people describing themselves as “committed recyclers” have held up, despite the recession.

But Ms Blizzard warns that the financial commitment to recycling must be maintained.

“The temptation will be to take money away from recycling campaigns. But how much will not spending that money cost you? If you only get half of residents recycling you’re wasting money,” she says.

“To date, councils have held their nerve, and have kept recycling through the bad times. There can be no letting up now.”


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