Contamination and confusion

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Unfortunately stating that 96.5% was successfully recycled just cannot be true, unless one fully ...

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The eyebrow-raising news story about a huge rise in rejected household recycling might have been presented out of context, but there is no hiding the fact that the public are confused just as MRFs are getting pickier. David Burrows reports

BBC News recently reported that the amount of household rubbish being rejected for recycling has increased 84% in the past four years. The Freedom of Information request found councils were unable to recycle 330,000 tonnes of waste in 2014/15, up from 184,000 tonnes in 2011/12. You could almost hear the collective sigh of disappointment from those involved in managing municipal waste as they opened their email inbox that morning.

This wasn’t news – the information was published by Defra back in December 2015 and reported by the Daily Mail in January 2016. Still, other media outlets gobbled up the statistics in the fast and furious fashion they have become addicted to in a world where clicks and hits are seemingly more important than facts.

The internet and social media made the BBC’s headline – ‘Rejected recyclable waste up 84% in England since 2011, data shows’ – perfect fodder for news sites: it’s relevant to everyone, bad news and includes government statistics. As Peter Jones, a senior consultant with Eunomia Research & Consulting, explains: “It provoked a predictable wave of ‘what’s the point of recycling?’ articles in other parts of the media.”

Those in the waste industry made valiant attempts to keep the big numbers thrown out by the BBC in context. “That 338,000 tonnes represents less than 3.5% of the amount of household waste collected for recycling,” argued the Environmental Services Association’s head of regulation, Sam Corp. But the damage was done.

Consumer confusion

The BBC’s perspective hardly seems justified when the figures indicate that 96.5% of material collected for recycling was successfully recycled in the past four years.

To its credit, though, the story raised a valid point: people are confused about what they can and can’t recycle.

The neat little video the team put together shows how confusion breeds contamination. Pizza boxes, the BBC explained, were not recyclable. They are, but not every local authority collects them. Middlesbrough Council attracted some bad press last year for rejecting recycling that contained pizza boxes (‘Council refuses to take recycling bin – because it’s got an empty pizza box in it’, was the local rag’s headline). “The box in question has a label saying it is completely recyclable and biodegradable. I might understand it if it was in there with half a pizza in the box, but it was empty with no food left inside,” was resident Alyson Wishart’s take.

There is plentiful research to show that Wishart is not alone in her confusion or frustration. In the run-up to this year’s Recycle Week (12 to 16 September) my inbox was bombarded with polls and surveys on attitudes towards recycling (see box on next page).

In WRAP’s latest tracker survey (2016), for example, 73% of respondents said they were uncertain about whether at least one or two materials could be recycled. Two-thirds (66%) also admitted that they contaminate their recycling because they’re not sure if the materials can/can’t be recycled and so include material ‘in the hope’ it will be recycled. There are the confused and also there are the optimists – both are equally as costly.

The Resource Association puts the cost of contamination to UK reprocessors at £51m. In August, in his regular blog for the RWW website, Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency and waste management at Ricardo Energy & Environment, highlighted how saving a few thousands quid on campaigns can bite local authorities on the backside if contamination rates then rise beyond acceptable levels.

An increase from 5% to 15% could, he explained, reduce income by £625,000 and increase expenditure by £1m for a local authority recycling 100,000 tonnes a year. Wouldn’t putting 10% of that aside to help with targeted communications and engagement programmes (in this case, £165,000) have made more sense than cutting the marketing budget to make short-term savings, he asked.

Is the message getting across?

Do the rising rates of contamination depicted in the BBC story suggest people are more confused than ever?

Probably not: it seems unlikely that people have become 84% worse at recycling as a result of fewer council leaflets. There is also an argument that the industry isn’t communicating in the right way – young people appear most confused, so perhaps social media needs more attention?

Still, this story is about more than just confusion and communication.

“The figures do not show that the nation’s recyclate is becoming more contaminated since 2011,” explains Robert Pocock, principal consultant at social research and behaviour change consultancy MEL Research. “What they do show is that more recyclate is being rejected by the recycling recovery and reprocessor industry as not being of acceptable quality.”

MRFs are now subject to new legislation, of course: they have to sample their inputs and outputs, as well as publish the results.

Middlesbrough Council made note of this in its response to last year’s pizza box furore: “New legislation means the facilities receiving our recycling are undertaking increasingly thorough inspections and mistakes could mean that loads are being rejected and have to be disposed of as refuse.”

Much more significant are low commodity prices, which has resulted in MRF operators becoming pickier.

Joe Papineschi, director at Eunomia, explains: “When prices are poor, MRFs have to improve the quality of their product, which means they have to get better at removing contamination from the recycling they sell on. They can’t afford to absorb the cost of dealing with high levels of non-recyclable contamination, and they put pressure on councils to reduce the non-target material in their bins.”

A positive slant

With all this in mind, is it possible that the BBC actually had a positive news story on its hands rather than a negative one? That is: could the reported increase in contamination be a sign the UK’s waste management sector is getting better at recycling, not worse? Perhaps, but we can’t escape the fact that, nationally, rates continue to stagnate.

The 50% by 2020 target for recycling household waste seems a long way off at current rates (England is at 44.3%, for example). Brexit may mean that target becomes irrelevant, but the UK can ill afford for recycling rates to fall away. “As an industry we have achieved so much in the past 15 years,” said WRAP CEO Marcus Gover last month. “A thriving recycling industry has been created and recycling is now a way of life.”

Gover was speaking at the launch of the Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England.

Extensive research, alongside advisory group engagement, has resulted in three proposed collection systems: multi-stream with food; two-stream with food separate; and, co-mingled mixed recyclables with food separate. In each system, core materials, including plastic pots, tubs, trays and aerosols – known to cause confusion for householders – are collected.

Achieving consistency

The need to roll out more food waste collections is perhaps obvious. The framework’s focus on materials collected rather than collections may have come as more of a surprise.

Right from the start it became clear that this was the best way to achieve any sort of consistency, notes LARAC chair Andrew Bird. “By focusing on the materials it has meant the work was truly cross-industry,” he continues. “If we really push enhanced producer responsibility [see RWW September, page 10] then we’d see change. We need to go to government with a ‘ready-to-go’ solution.”

No help from the top

It’s well understood that government is unlikely to lead the charge. Defra and DCLG were both involved in the new industry framework, and yet neither offered a supporting quote for the accompanying press release. Industry and WRAP are also responsible for almost all the accompanying action plan – and there is no extra funding in place (WRAP will, however, be offering some free advice services).

The new framework is just the start. The end point of a successful initiative, according to WRAP’s forecasts, is up to 11 million tonnes of extra recyclable material diverted from disposal (including eight million tonnes of food waste) and a seven-point increase to England’s recycling rate between 2017 and 2025. That would take us past the EU target, albeit five years too late.

“If we could accelerate the change then the impact would be sooner,” says Linda Crichton, head of resource management at WRAP.

It’s unlikely that her comment is a nod towards the need for new legislation or mandatory recycling – “the framework is a voluntary agreement; industry and government wanted that,” she notes – but that approach would certainly change perceptions, attitudes and behaviours overnight.

On the flip side, it would do little to stem the tide of negative news stories.

Fact file: Rejection of recycling

RWW asked three experts for their views on contamination levels and public engagement.

The academic

Professor Stewart Barr, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

“Confusion and contestation over accepted materials and their cleanliness […] can occur at an individual level, but is often found at the household level. We have found that waste is part of a ‘politics of the household’ where waste management is negotiated just like other household practices.

“Debates and conflicts can occur between household members who hold certain beliefs over whether something can and should be recycled. In the case of food waste, this often comes down to issues of cleanliness, hygiene, aesthesis and how recycling receptacles fit into the aesthetic of the home.”

The consultant

Adam Read, practice director, Ricardo Energy & Environment

“There’s a lot of ‘noise’ out there about recycling and each local authority has to get its message through to its residents. That requires effort to cut through the confusion that can be out there. But people can and do cope with this sort of thing. Take car parking: we know it’s different wherever we go and that we have to work out the local rules to park correctly wherever we are, whether that’s on a street or in a car park.

“And we know there are penalties if we get it wrong. We deal with this every time we go out in a car, so working out what to put in your recycling bin should not be a challenge.”

The lawyer

Laura Tainsh, environmental law specialist, Davidson Chalmers, Edinburgh

“The argument for a more draconian approach to getting it wrong with recycling is certainly being discussed more vocally in Scotland. Given the need

to improve the quality of recycling (as well as the quantity), it might be time

to start penalising those who are not complying (something which is already the case for businesses).

“However, that will only work if there are full facilities available to all and clear guidance about what is expected, and that is not yet the case across the country.”

Fact file: Research on recycling

Many are confused …

49% put one or more recyclables
in residual bin

49% ‘very confident’ they are
doing things correctly

The cause of confusion…

38% say packaging or council information
is confusing

66% frustrated by lack of educational materials available on recycling

Frustration is high and
trust is low …

78% frustrated that different councils
recycle different things

73% want more transparency on what happens to their waste

24% trust councils to recycle properly

Items causing most confusion …

  • light bulbs (42%)
  • crisp packets (51%)
  • coffee cups (51%)
  • mobile phones (52%)
  • plastic wrapping (56%)

Recycling improves with age …

18- to 34-year-olds are the least
likely to recycle all they can (57%)

88% of over-75s say they recycle
all they can

The bottom line…

12% do all they can when it comes to recycling

64% the recycling level that consumers say can be achieved by 2020

Sources: Viridor, Resource Association, WRAP, OPRL, Serco

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Unfortunately stating that 96.5% was successfully recycled just cannot be true, unless one fully subscribes to the selective use of data. For material entering commingled MRFs in 2008 it may have been possible to recover 95%. Perhaps this was at a time when those producing commingled material for collection were quite strict in policing themselves. From 2008 to 2012 there was a fantastic push to collect more and more commingled from every type of local authority. By 2012 plenty of MRFs were receiving nearer 20% contamination than 5%. In 2016 I believe the situation is generally similar, particularly from inner suburban collections. Recently the “paper” fraternity have screamed with some frequency about contaminated material collected from MRFs. If bad material IS being produced the “paper” trade is buying it! I have asked the complainants time and time to identify where the “bad” material is coming from, but such locations are not identified. If it was so bad the producers would, presumably, not be able to sell it. The truth appears to be that vested interests put stories about to catch the eye of the press. One local authority based future decisions on the ongoing reports from the MRF they used. They felt it was time to change MRF operators to improve their economic outcome. They had all the statistics and it was a no brainer. Within a short time they found the “hard” rejection rate was around 18% and they were referred to me for advice. My advice: Their new MRF was fine - They had just discovered reality. Since this time many more local authorities have found reality all over the UK. I read about a Scottish local authority that was sacking their MRF contractor for reporting too high a level of rejects. That council, Falkirk, said they were going to build their own facility. I can’t imagine the necessary investment in capital and revenue could ever have paid off. I wrote to the officer and councillor to “help” them but received no response. Heaven knows what has happened since. Off course the definition of recyclable needs to be tightened up but local authorities don’t want to do this because recycling rates would be likely to go down. I do believe there should be every encouragement to increase “quality” recycling levels. Let's look at 100% of what comes in and the practical outputs. It could be that 80% would be directly recyclable into discrete grades. It could be that a further 10% (mainly small size material of paper and plastic) could be recovered with an additional £2 million of expenditure in equipment and premises and the remaining 10% is then best suited to producing steam in energy from waste plants and paper mills. However if local authorities allow high levels of contamination this has to be acknowledged and paid for outside the parameters above. Of course we hear that single stream collections have no such problems - but if residents have previously been hiding residual material in the commingled it will still have to be now collected as residual. If paper mills scream when they get contraries in their mixed paper or cardboard bales don’t they realise that MRFs scream when contaminated material is delivered as recyclable. Whatever happens Bywaters can tackle it all and produce high quality commodities that everyone wants, UK, Europe & Worldwide. The Academic, the Consultant and the Lawyer have declined to involve themselves in the percentages and for good reason!

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