Inconsistent recycling loses £1.7bn each year

News release 15 July 2014
Dustin Benton Dustin BentonPolicy director020 7630
British recycling is stalling: recycling rates rose just 0.2 per cent between 2012 and 2013. The disjointed way recycling is organised across the UK means we are losing an estimated £1.7 billion in material and reuse value each year.

Outdated policy means that a plastic bottle discarded at home is treated differently across the UK’s 376 waste collection authorities. If the same plastic bottle is discarded at work, it goes through another, separate system. In contrast, in Denmark, the same bottle is treated the same way no matter where it is discarded. This makes for a simpler, better recycling system.

A new report[1] from the Circular Economy Task Force  shows how the UK's recycling market isn’t working. Businesses want to use recycled materials, and reprocessors want to build the infrastructure to provide recycled material. But the UK’s current system makes this difficult: we collect just 30 per cent of plastic packaging for recycling, two thirds of which is exported for reprocessing overseas. For waste electronics, just two per cent is reused, even though 23 per cent is suitable for reuse. 

A better system, organised more like the Danish system, could bring forward £2 billion in private investment in new infrastructure. 

Author of the report, Dustin Benton, said: 

“Local authorities spend more on waste management than housing or planning. Valuable raw materials are lost while businesses are frustrated by a lack of usable recycled materials. The system both stymies demand for recycled materials and prevents businesses investing. 

The problem is structural. The government could easily turn this around by reforming the system to help businesses get the UK moving toward a circular economy.”

The report proposes that recycling is organised at the right scales to reprocess individual materials. For many, like plastics and waste electronics, this means at the regional rather than the current local authority level. 

Reorganisation of the system could:
-    Capture £500 million more from waste electronics by increasing reuse and quality recycling
-    Support up to 40 new UK plastics recyclers
-    Unlock £1.2bn in private sector investment in anaerobic digestion

Reactions from Task Force members:

“Viridor already operates a ‘closed loop’ polymers recycling plant and is building another one to capture the most value from recyclable materials. Scaling up collection systems would create the potential for us to do much more, and help deliver a more efficient, lower cost system.”
Dan Cooke, director of external affairs, Viridor

“Greater consistency of collection & recycling systems would help ensure the reliability of material supply thereby facilitating the design and specification of more products incorporating recycled materials.”
Andrew Jenkins, ‎sustainable development manager – products, Boots UK

“Once capturing the value in materials starts to drive our recovery systems, you change the business model as market demand can then build to the critical mass that drives entrepreneurialism and innovation. BASF will continue to invest in the UK to deliver the products and services that a circular economy needs.” 
Dr Geoff Mackey, ‎sustainable development & communications director, BASF Europe North

"One of the principal pillars of Veolia's strategy is to manufacture products or extract green calories from what would otherwise be waste materials. This enables sustainability and avoids unnecessary use of raw materials and contributes to the circular economy. To achieve this successfully it is important that the collection of waste properly reflects the needs of this new resource economy and that the products produced can compete effectively in the market place."
Robert Hunt, executive director, Veolia



Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. Founded in 1979 “to inject an environmental perspective into the political life of Britain” we have been inspiring and influencing change for over 30 years.  

[1] The task force was set up via the UK’s Resource Security Action Plan sponsored by Defra and BIS, and is composed of leading businesses, including BASF, Boots, Interface, Kyocera Document Solutions, Unilever, Veolia, Viridor, and WRAP. It is convened by Green Alliance.