Waste plants operating at 'post-Christmas levels' as recycling rates rocket during Coronavirus lockdown
Video report by Environment Correspondent Charlotte Cross
What can our rubbish bins reveal about us? You might be surprised.
Back when the Coronavirus lockdown first began, the headlines were full of tales of panic-buying, with supermarket shelves emptied of non-perishables faster than they could be restocked.
Sure enough, recycling figures for mid-April show a whopping 70% increase in the number of tins and cans being processed. And - perhaps a reflection of reports that wine sales rocketed - there was a 20% increase in glass being recycled, too.
By early May, waste and recycling firm Suez UK says it saw an 80% rise in plastics.
In fact, bosses at Suez tell me they’ve been operating at record-breaking levels for weeks now, likening it to the post-Christmas peak when households are throwing away tonnes and tonnes of packaging.
In the first week in June, the plant at Landor Street in Birmingham processed 2,200 tonnes. That’s 10% above record levels, and 25% higher than the same time last year.
And interestingly, where all this extra work has come from also reflects the story of lockdown.
For my part, I didn't find it all that shocking to learn that the amount of commercial and business waste produced overall by the UK during lockdown had plummeted - with offices and shops closed, and people not travelling around as much, that seems fairly obvious.
But this drop hasn’t been balanced out by an increase in household waste.
Two separate waste and recycling companies - Suez UK and Veolia - provided me with figures which both tell the same story: While commercial waste fell by 50%, the amount of household waste the country produced only increased by 20%.
This means that, as a country, we have simply been throwing away less stuff - which has potentially enormous benefits for the environment.
Even better, there’s been an overall increase in the amount of recycling. Veolia UK say overall, the amount of recycling being processed has increased by 30% - and in some cases, even more.
“This is great news,” Helen Bingham, from environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy, told me.
“Recycling rates have been flat-lining for years. It’s a shame that it took a global pandemic to see them go up, but it is still really good news.”
And it’s not just the quantity of recycling which has increased - the quality of it has improved too.
Perhaps due to spending more time at home, people are making the effort to wash their tins, bottles, and other recycling properly before popping it in the bin.
And they’re putting less non-recyclable items in with it. Dirty nappies are, apparently, a big problem for companies - people dump them in the recycling bin, contaminating entire loads.
During lockdown, they’ve seen that drop off completely.
“What I would like to see is that this will continue, and that it won’t go back to how it was,” Helen added.
That’s now the challenge facing companies like Veolia and Suez - and they say that being more environmentally-friendly could be a huge boost for the economy too.
“We’d like to see a green recovery happen - that’s the main thing,” chief operating officer at Veolia, Richard Kirkman, told me.
“We were already doing this. Our business is about reducing the impact of humans on society, and we had these huge challenges in front of us of climate change, biodiversity being impacted, plastics in the ocean. These are real present dangers that we had, for the world and for the UK, and these haven’t gone away.
”This is a great learning, that actually there are things in our environment which can really impact our lives. They’re not just things which are made up by pressure groups.
“So let’s address them, and let’s build society off the back of solving those problems. Because we can generate jobs, and we can generate huge investment, and our sector is ready to invest money - we’re not asking for investment from the government, we’re saying that we will invest if you put the right business conditions there.
“So I think the future will be really bright, and I think we can be part of that.”
One of the big policy changes to come in the near future is a deposit return scheme, due to be introduced in 2023, which will see people pay a levy products which come in things like plastic bottles - which will then be repaid when the product is returned to be recycled.
Another issue is the labelling of recyclable products, with campaigners saying it’s not always clear.
Dr Adam Read, from Suez UK, said he strongly believes that having one consistent way of marking out recycling was the way forward.
“I think the whole agenda around recycling labelling has to be around simplicity, so when you buy an item, you know exactly what to do when you’ve finished with it because the packaging says ‘recycle’, or ‘don’t recycle’,” he said.
“This means we’d get less non-recyclable stuff in here, which makes the system more efficient. And it means that consumers can make more informed decisions, and buy products knowing whether they’ll be able to recycle the packaging or not.”
He is now calling for collaboration across the industry and with government, in the hope that waste companies can capitalise on the opportunity presented by the lockdown.
After years of trying to get the public to not only recycle more, but recycle better, it’s hoped that they can find a way to keep these good habits up as lockdown eases and life returns to some semblance of normality.