Recycling rates soar in England, but still trail Europeans

  • @mjpmccarthy

Britain's belated conversion to recycling, long after most of the rest of Europe, is finally paying off, government figures indicated yesterday. Recycling of household waste in England has doubled in the past four years.

Households are now recycling more than a fifth of their waste - almost 23 per cent - the figures published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show.

Although this is far behind the remarkable rates prevailing in some European countries such as Norway (68 per cent), The Netherlands (64 per cent) and Germany (57 per cent), it is a huge improvement on Britain's past performance.

Nine years ago we were recycling just 7.5 per cent of our rubbish and languishing at the bottom of the European recycling league table, on a par with countries such as Ireland and Greece.

Since then, the Government has introduced a comprehensive waste strategy, largely driven by the impetus of a forthcoming European law, the landfill directive, which will enforce a massive reduction in the amount of waste which can be disposed of in rubbish dumps.

A key part of the strategy has been a campaign to boost recycling, which has given local councils mandatory recycling targets and funding to help with doorstep collections of different types of waste, and featured a £10m national TV advertising advertising campaign to help householders get the recycling habit.

It has resulted in a doubling of the recycling rate from 11.2 per cent in 2000-01 to 22.7 per cent in the year ending April 2005.

Performance around the country varies with residents in the north-east England recycling the least (16 per cent) and people in the east recycling the most (29 per cent). The greatest leap has been in the east Midlands, up 7 per cent on last year to 27 per cent.

"These figures prove how much more people understand the importance of recycling compared with just four years ago," said Ben Bradshaw, minister for Local Environmental Quality. "There's no doubt we can be proud of our progress to date, but now it's time to build on that and start catching up with some of Europe's top recyclers.

"Every person in England is currently recycling enough to fill eight green wheelie bins [a year], but we could be recycling as much as 20 bins' worth - up to 60 per cent of our waste - and local authorities will have to look at improving their recycling rates too.

"We want to be well on the way to our 2010 target of 30 per cent of waste being recycled - sooner rather than later. Some of our European counterparts are doing it, some parts of this country are too, so it is not an unrealistic goal."

Friends of the Earth said the Government should introduce an economic incentive for people to recycle more, by charging householders according to the amount of waste they produce.

Householders would pay this 'variable rate' in place of the existing charge in their council tax, so conscientious recyclers would save money and homes which generate excessive waste would pay more than they do at present.

"Such schemes are common in Europe and have dramatically reduced waste and improved recycling rates," said Georgina Bloomfield, the group's recycling campaigner. "If we are serious about tackling waste then we need to give councils the power to charge householders a variable rate according to the amount they produce."

On average, every person in Britain produces about seven times their own weight in waste a year, with households in England producing a total of 25 million tons of waste annually. More than half of this consists of garden waste, waste paper, cardboard and kitchen waste. If all the aluminium drinks cans sold in the UK were recycled there would be 14 million fewer dustbins of waste each year.

Jennie Price, chief executive of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) said:"We all care about the environment in one way or another, and the great thing about recycling is that it's a really easy way in which we can each make an individual contribution."

Defra will publish a consultation shortly with proposals for new statutory performance standards for 2007-08.

Paula Barrett, 21: 'I always re-use as much as possible'

After several years of setting aside her green waste, Paula Barrett's first batch of nutrient-rich compost is almost ready.

But although she manages to recycle about 80 per cent of her household waste, she still has a huge challenge on her hands. Paula, an office worker, shares her suburban semi in Clifton, Bristol, with four others, none of whom have shown much interest in recycling.

Every week she sifts her paper, metal and glass and places them in the local council's "black box" kerbside recycling scheme - leaving half a bag of waste for landfill or incineration. But her housemates' waste piles up.

She said: "Recycling is always something I've been interested in. I always take clothes to charity shops, turn down carrier bags at the supermarket and re-use as much as possible.

"I consciously avoid products with too much packaging. Our council does not collect plastics and they have to be taken to banks elsewhere, which is difficult for people without cars."

Elaine Barker