Christmas waste has cost English councils £72 million, but they have no powers to cut the bill

Monday 9 January 2017

Waste packaging and food leftovers from this Christmas alone will have cost councils £72 million.[1] In England, local authorities spend around £300 million every year dealing with waste packaging and, after rising steadily since 2001, England’s recycling rates went down for the first time in 2015. But, despite councils having no control over how products are designed or packaged, or how residents use recycling services, they still get the blame when issues like unrecyclable glittery Christmas cards blow up.
Local authorities currently have an unfair share of the responsibility for reducing waste and increasing recycling, and have the finger pointed at them when these objectives are missed.
New research from think tank Green Alliance on behalf of the Circular Economy Task Force[2] [3] [4] shows that a fairer recycling system would cut costs to local authorities of dealing with waste and increase recycling rates. In Recycling reset: how England can stop subsidising waste, it recommends that:

• Councils should standardise recycling collections, to improve the quality of the material collected. This will help to stop the confusion over what can and can’t be recycled and cut costs.

• Councils that standardise their service should have some of their costs covered by the companies that create the packaging in the first place, via redirected producer responsibility payments.

• Responsible companies that use recycled materials, design their packaging for recyclability and inform their customers on recycling should pay lower producer responsibility fees, while those that don’t should pay more.

• To be fairer to people who recycle properly, councils should be able to charge households if they don’t recycle everything they can. These recommendations are based on proven policies from abroad.

For example, Belgium’s system of dealing with waste packaging costs 25 per cent less per person than in England. And, in California, a focus on improving plastic recycling since 2007 has led to a fivefold increase in the amount of plastic recycled in the state.
Commenting on the report, author Jonny Hazell said:
“Recycling in England has become dysfunctional. Businesses blame local authorities, local authorities blame businesses, and householders blame both. The only certain thing is that hard pressed councils are having to pick up an unfair share of the bill, despite their obvious financial constraints. But they have no power to bring down the costs. Falling recycling rates show that a new approach is needed.
A more consistent system would cost less and be fairer for all. It would also guarantee that British manufacturers get more of the high quality recycled materials they need and reduce their dependence on imports.”
Jonny Hazell, senior policy adviser, Green Alliance (available for interview) 020 7630 4529
[1] The £72 million cost comprises a £63 million cost for dealing with waste packaging and a £9 million cost for dealing with Christmas food waste that is not recycled. The figure for packaging is based on the share of the ca. £300 million annual cost to local authorities for waste packaging attributable to Christmas based on the Christmas period’s share of annual retail sales (21%).The figure for food waste is based on the difference in average gate fees for treating food waste using anaerobic digestion (£40/tonne) as opposed to the weighted average of landfill (£102/tonne) or energy from waste (£86/tonne) for the 170,000 tonnes of Christmas food waste that aren’t recycled (assuming 193,200 tonnes of Christmas food waste in England and a 12% recycling rate).

[2] Recycling reset: how England can stop subsidising waste is published today by Green Alliance.

[3] Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. Since 1979, it has been working with a growing network of influential leaders in business, NGOs and politics to stimulate new thinking and dialogue on environmental policy, and increase political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.

[4] The Circular Economy Task Force is a business group convened by Green Alliance. It is a source of new thinking and policy recommendations on resource efficiency in the UK.

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