Recycling: UK OK, but landfill not best of British

Compared with the rest of Europe, the UK is doing reasonably well at recycling but still has room for improvement with its landfill rates, according to recent figures.

Provisional figures from Eurostat show that the UK is the 10th best country in the European Union for recycling, with a quarter of its municipal waste being recycled in 2011. Even though the actual amount recycled was 1kg less per head than in 2010, the total amount of municipal waste generated was 3kg less per head, giving a 1% increase.

The UK’s landfill rates, however, are less impressive. Although it is performing better than some Member States, such as Spain and Greece, the UK still sends 49% of its total municipal waste to landfill. This is 13% more than the EU average of 36%, and significantly more than countries such as Belgium and Sweden. These two countries, along with Germany and the Netherlands, send only 1% of their total waste to landfill, with Austria and Denmark sharing second place at 3%. Germany, Belgium and Sweden are also the top three recycling nations, with Germany recycling 45% of its waste.

The Eurostat figures also show how much material is incinerated and composted. The UK incinerates 12% of its municipal waste, which is less than the EU average of 22%, and its composting rate, at 14%, is just below the EU average of 15%.

Even those countries which send very little waste to landfill and lead Europe in recycling still have room for improvement. Although Sweden’s landfill rate is excellent, the country incinerates 52% of its waste. A spokesman for the European Commission said:

“It seems that for some Member states a kind of ‘plateau’ has been met in terms of recycling. For the more advanced Member States already landfilling less than 5% of their municipal waste, the next challenge will be increasing their efforts on prevention and on reuse and recycling: waste generation can be reduced (for instance by reducing food wastage) and more waste can be recycled or reused in place of being sent to incinerators.”

Recycling Lives agrees that increased efforts throughout Europe are needed. To be ranked 10th for recycling is adequate, but the UK can certainly do better. And, while the UK fares better in terms of landfill than other countries, we consider 49% to be an unacceptably high level. It is pleasing, though, that there has been an improvement over the decade from 2001 to 2011. In 2001, 473 kg of waste per head was sent to landfill, whereas in 2011, the figure was 253 kg.

Improvement can only happen if people take advantage of the opportunities available to them to reduce landfill. The Recycling Lives social business provides many solutions in waste management, recycling a range of materials including metal, plastic, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), and scrap cars. Using our services ensures that waste is diverted from landfill, and not all of our operations recycle waste, either; wherever possible, waste items are reused instead. Our Community Dotcom schemes help with this: Furniture Donation Network, for example, donates high quality unwanted furniture to charities, whilst Bulky Waste repairs items such as white goods that can be salvaged for reuse.

An improvement in UK recycling levels would also herald the creation of more employment opportunities in the waste management and recycling sector. At Recycling Lives, we have already created many jobs as a result of our innovative waste management solutions, and a large number of these are done by people who have previously been unemployed and homeless. They are supported by our social welfare charity, and receive training and qualifications in addition to their work in recycling, which makes such a vital contribution to the environment and society.