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Recycling rates decline amid falling budgets

A new analysis by BBC News has found that household recycling rates have fallen in 14 million homes – and half of local authorities in England are now recycling a lower proportion of waste than in 2011-12. The news has caused experts to predict that the UK will now miss its target of recycling 50% of all waste by 2020, but several of the stats suggest that it’s not all doom and gloom for council waste management departments.

Breaking down the stats

Despite the number of councils registering a decline, big improvements in the North West, South East and South West mean that actual recycling rates across England have in fact risen by 0.7% since 2011-12. This means 43.7% of household waste is now recycled.

The Local Government Association has also highlighted that rates have actually quadrupled when you take a long-term view of the past ten years – a figure that’s even more impressive when considered against the current financial backdrop.

Counting costs

Thanks to falling funding, the amount English councils budgeted to spend on recycling has dropped by 10% from its peak of £630m in 2013-14. Last year, the figure was just £569m.

Local authorities are also being forced into increasingly tough decisions over funding for front-line services. A recent survey by thinktank LGiU found that 60% of councils identified adult social care, children and education services as the most pressing areas of funding, compared to just 10% worrying about waste and environmental issues.

Alternative solutions

Given that authorities are stretched and Westminster appears unwilling to boost budgets, it may be useful to push for progress on other promises. In particular, banning disposable plastic drinking straws and demanding supermarkets cut down on plastic packaging could reduce the load on council waste processing facilities.

The recent increase in grass roots movements among residents may also prove helpful if councils can collaborate with them. Even reaching out with thanks for their efforts, as Cotswold District Council and Copeland Borough Council did recently, can encourage change. With the public more aware of the pressure on councils, it could also become easier to fine the worst waste offenders, a move currently being explored by Chichester District.

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Is reducing refuse collections the way forward for councils?

As East Devon and Powys councils introduce plans to join eight other local authorities across the UK in moving towards three-weekly residual waste collections, we take a look at the rationale behind, and potential impact of, the decision.


East Devon district council sees the shift as a significant step towards improving 2013/14 recycling rates of 44.75% and Powys council is taking steps to move them closer to its 2020 target of 64%.

The rationale is that cutting residual waste collections forces residents to carefully consider what can be recycled; and if reduced residual waste collections are accompanied by an increase in recycling capacity, the trade-off seems like a fair deal.

East Devon council, for example, plans to increase the list of materials that can be disposed of in commingled recycling boxes, meaning there should be a rebalancing of housing waste rather than an enforced cut.

Health and hygiene

A big concern is that standing waste will cause health, odour and vermin problems. The World Health Organisation recommends that waste be collected weekly in temperate climates like the UK, a suggestion that is supported by the National Pest Technicians Association, which warns that fortnightly collections can cause an increase in rat infestations.

These fears can be addressed by measures like secure bins to deter pests and making provisions for households with a high volume of contaminated waste – like nappies or medical waste – to ensure that quality of life isn't affected by the changes.


One of the biggest arguments for these changes is the savings they can deliver. Opponents argue that innovations like shared services and vehicle maintenance schemes, which have been successfully implemented by Bournemouth and Christchurch councils, are viable ways to make similarly-sized cuts.

Choosing one or the other might not be an option, however, as government cuts force individual councils to reduce spending by tens of millions – Powys council alone, for example, must save £27m over the next three years. As cost-saving measures are implemented, however, councils across the country must be sure to factor in the price of contingency plans to ensure residents don’t suffer.

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