As of 2020, when leaving the European Union, the UK must no longer oblige the EU recycling rates but has set its own ambitious targets. The UK’s recycling rate has risen to around 44% in 2021 from 11% in 2000, so we were curious to see some of the recycling data, best practices, and plans. Let’s dive in.

Waste recycling in the UK: how much waste is produced in the UK?

In the past 20 years, the UK has made great progress in municipal solid waste recycling and today has an overall recycling rate of around 44,1%. Is it low, or is it high? Looking at the top countries in Europe like Germany (71% recycling rate for municipal waste) or Austria (62.3 %) and countries that recycle less (Romania 11.3%), the UK’s recycling rate is above the average. We have to mention though that the UK in 2020 was the third waste generator country in the EU with 282.4 tonnes after Germany and France, so one can understand that recycling it is not an easy task.

Waste streams: all about the waste management process in the UK

As to waste streams, the UK recycles a lot of its packaging waste – 63.2% in 2021, and around 47% of waste from households (WfH), a rate that has been increasing in the past years. In Wales for example, 56,7% of the WfH is recycled, followed by Northern Ireland with 48.4%, England with 44.1 %, and last, but not least Scotland with 41.7 %.

Now, if we were to take a look at the main waste stream that the UK generates, things are rather interesting. According to 2018 DEFRA statistics (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs), the most generated waste was CD&E (construction, demolition, and excavation) with 62%, followed by C&I (commercial and industrial waste ) at 19% and household waste with only 12%. This data gives us a sense of a super industrialized nation.

When it comes to CD&E waste recovery, for example, the rates are the highest. Recovery in the UK includes recycling, reusing and backfilling – which apparently is a process where suitable waste is used for reclamation purposes in excavated areas or for engineering purposes in landscaping. In 2021, the recovery rate for CD&E waste was 92.6% for 59.1 million tonnes. That means that the system works.

Looking at other types of waste (anything other than C&D and C&I) which account for 7% of the total generated one, we’ve noticed some interesting data regarding food and plastic.

What happens to food waste in the UK?

Food waste, like in any other country around the globe, is an issue in the UK as well, that throws away around 9.5 million tonnes of food every year. One of the causes could be that not all businesses in the UK are obliged to segregate food waste, as households do. But that is about to change as the Government is set to make food waste segregation mandatory for almost all businesses (except for those who produce up to 5 kg of food per week) starting this year. Food generated by businesses will have to be 100% recycled, thus landfill or incineration will no longer be allowed and fees for waste recycling will be the responsibility of the business itself. The requirements allegedly will be stricter for the retail, hospitality and education sectors and Wales will be the first to implement the new law.

Will that be an easy task? Probably not, as it takes organization, infrastructure, investments and time. But the measure, when and if fully implemented and monitored, should have a positive impact on both the environment and the production of biofuels, which by the way is going strong in the UK. In fact, according to the European Biogas Association, the UK has 77 waste-fed biogas plants across the country and 75 landfill-based biogas plants, from a total of 378 with installed capacities of 1.402 MWel. Moreover, the UK is among the largest producers of biomethane. So, one can understand how the new law for business could impact the energy industry.

The measure should also have an impact on the rate of biodegradable waste (a mix made of organic, wood, paper) that ends in landfill. According to the latest available data, in 2010, the UK was sending to landfill 25,019 tonnes of municipal waste of which 12,982 were biodegradables. Ten years later, thanks to the implementation of various policies and programs, the municipal waste that ends up in landfill is down to 14,003 tonnes, of which 6,761 biodegradables. Thus, the numbers have and will continue to change. How quickly it remains to be seen.

How much plastic is wasted in the UK and how is it managed?

With plastics, things are kind of blurry, and that is no wonder. Plastic is perhaps the hardest material to count when it comes to recycling for so many reasons:

  • little clarity on what makes a good plastic for recycling,
  • different segregation rules from one region to another,
  • plastics management regulations that are too complicated for people to understand.

But some stats and data for the plastic waste in the UK are available. In 2022, for example, UK households were called to participate in the Big Plastic Count that was aiming to find out how much plastics citizens used at home and how much of that was sent for recycling. The results were staggering – only 12% of household plastic is recycled in the UK.

So, what happens to the rest? China is no longer able to receive European trash, though developing countries, despite plastic import ban, still receive some of the plastic waste. Incineration and landfill are most probably other preferred means to “solve” the plastic problem.

On the other hand, when it comes to packaging producers, the recycling rate is higher, because the UK has a producer responsibility obligation scheme in place that asks businesses to recycle a good part of the packaging they place on the market.  In this case, according to the latest report of the UK government, in 2021 44.2% of the generated plastic was recycled.

Another good policy that has been generating good results is the charge on plastic bags in supermarkets introduced in 2015, resulting in fewer plastic bags being used by UK citizens. The charge has led to 35% fewer plastic bags, according to DEFRA. Other taxes have been introduced since then, but there’s still a long way to go to reach better results.

Recycling goals and drivers instead of a conclusion

Numbers don’t lie. The UK has made progress when it comes to recycling, but there’s an ambitious target to be reached by 2035 – no less than 65%. Is that feasible? With the right information and incentives to the public, more regulatory schemes for businesses, higher costs for landfilling waste, and more recycling plants featuring performant technology to help recycling businesses thrive as well, the target is achievable.

Moreover, it is clear that climate change impact on the environment and people’s future, ESG reporting that is now mandatory for major UK companies, and customers’ behavioral shift in choosing one product over another – a study from 2021 shows that nearly nine in ten consumers have become greener in their purchases in the past years, have also become main drivers for recycling.

When it comes to the availability of performant technology and machines, businesses in the UK can not complain – from shredders to screening machines and bag openers for all kinds of waste, the recycling machine industry has a lot to offer. As to screening technology, In Ecostar we have developed the innovative technology Dynamic Disc Screening, which is based on a series of shafts equipped with hexagonal or octagonal discs with a flat profile, made of Hardox to guarantee maximum resistance. The material flows on the screen’s discs and is subjected to a jolting movement that separates the waste. The undersized material drops below the screening surface, passing through the gaps between the discs while the oversized material advances to the end of the screening plane. The result is a clean fraction, ready for recycling processing. The technology works on both Ecostar stationary and mobile screens and brings a lot of advantages to recycling businesses – from small spaces required to high separation quality, high yields, and low energy consumption.

If you would like to know more about our performing screening technology, you can contact our UK partner Kaizen Recycling.