Why have recycling rates stalled?

The annual rate of recycling in England looks to have stalled from 44.2% in 2013 against 44.1% in 2012.

This is according to figures by Defra released in August. The figures were widely reported, but what should we read into this slowdown?

Economic factors

Quite a lot, potentially. While recycling rates are flatlining, overall household waste is continuing to drop – down by 30 per cent from 2010, with the  2013 drop in local authority-managed waste to landfill and incineration being 5.2 per cent against 2012.

But it's increasingly clear that this steady, four-year improvement in the overall waste picture is largely being driven by factors beyond recycling: the economic downturn, for one, has probably led to reduced consumption, while packaging initiatives like lightweighting and other smart moves to cut packaging waste have also had an impact.

Infrastructure lag?

What’s stopped recycling in its tracks? The short answer could be a lack of infrastructure. There’s a gap now between the waste and recycling industry and the government about the UK’s needs waste management infrastructure. Earlier in the year a report from Imperial College London called into question Defra’s own assessment of the UK's capacity for processing and managing waste, and to our eyes latest data adds weight to the academics’ assessment.

One question that needs to be revisited quickly is whether Defra’s national assessment of waste treatment capacity is nuanced enough. The Imperial College researchers looked at capacity region by region and found shortfalls around the country. There is no point flagging up spare capacity in the North West, say, if it’s the South West that needs more waste processing facilities.

This is a question that now needs a fresh assessment. The 2013 data really doesn’t make for pretty reading for a waste industry that needs to keep improving recycling rates for many years to come. Remember,  the European Commission has only recently signalled it wants recycling across EU members states to reach 70 per cent by 2030. For the UK, that’s a number that is a long way away right now.

Steve Clark

Non-Executive Director

Steve established Ecosurety in 2003 in response to the lack of flexibility, innovation and customer-focus in the compliance scheme market. He took inspiration from the mobile phone market, which continues to provide a diverse range of pick-and-mix options for the customer, and built the original business on a commitment to provide flexible, friendly and tailored support for all clients.

He is passionate about bringing the latest business concepts from other markets and industries and applying them to the environmental sector for the benefit of clients.

Written by Steve Clark Published 14/10/2014 Topics Sustainability

Useful links

Record-breaking volume of aluminium recycled in 2023

In 2023, 162,357 tonnes of aluminium packaging were recycled in the UK (68%), including more than four in five beverage cans (81%).


European Parliament introduce regulations to improve packaging sustainability

On 24 April, the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) was approved, introducing new measures to make packaging more sustainable and reduce packaging waste within the EU. 


Provisional agreement reached on the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation

A provisional agreement has been reached on the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR).  


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