The UK’s culture wars are a bit like quicksand – once something falls in, it can be almost impossible to drag it away. These partisan battlegrounds rarely explore the complexities of the issues they latch on to, with environmental debates often centre-stage. But recycling seems to be different. For now, at least, recycling has no enemies. Why is this so and will this continue to be the case?
Recycling in the UK became common in the 1960s though incentivised glass bottle recycling before bottle banks appeared in the 70s. Twenty years ago, the Household Waste Recycling Act was also passed which sought to provide households with separate recycling collections. Since then, consumers have seen impressive household waste recycling centres and increasingly refined processing of recyclable household waste.
Alongside this is the vast scale of existing infrastructure. Crucially, there aren’t major new public opinion battles to be won in-line with drastic lifestyle change in the name of recycling. Improvements in uptake and infrastructure are incremental and likely to avoid controversy. For example, not many people will be outraged over supermarkets switching to plain milk top lids!
So, is recycling in the UK too integrated to be dragged into high-drama politicisation? That depends on a few factors.
Firstly, from other sustainability considerations. For example, what happens when new products break circular loops but offer their own environmental benefits? Is it better to continuously recycle plastic packaging or purchase limited-use items from renewable sources that can be composted?
Secondly, we need to assess long-term targets. With England’s recycling rate behind pre-Covid levels, are additional incentives needed and could these push recycling into louder public debate? It was recently shown that “as many as 8 in 10 households are still failing to recycle simple items”. But hypothetically, what if recycling systems became much stricter with fines for material sorting mistakes? Would recycling services then find themselves in heated debates?
The future of recycling might then need to choose one of two paths. One offering gradual refinement and avoiding widespread disruption, the other requiring recycling to roll its sleeves up and ruffle more feathers.
Plans for the UK’s deposit return scheme also highlights a mid-ground. This scheme would see consumers pay deposits on drinks in single-use containers. Consumers get this deposit back but only if they return the packaging to a processing point.
But is there another option to improve recycling rates without controversy? The study mentioned earlier largely attributed household recycling errors to poor consumer awareness. As such, could recycling uptake be improved simply through better awareness campaigns.
And what about packaging?…
We’ve already mentioned quick wins that that can be rolled out but can packaging go further? Could clearer, larger recycling instructions provide a push for consumers to improve recycling rates? Could packaging design make it easier for consumers to separate recyclable and non-recyclable packaging? Could material technologies better safeguard against excessive moisture and grease contamination?
Author: Chris Fiander