Climate concerns over low recycling rates. Do you live in a green waste hotspot?

  • ITV News Meridian's James Dunham reports

The majority of councils across the Meridian region failed to meet their 2020 targets on recycling, so what hope is there of crucial carbon neutral commitments being met?

By 2020, authorities were set a figure of 50% of waste being recycled and by 2035 this should be 65%.

In some areas such as Brighton and Hove, Thanet, Basingstoke and Dean, and Dartford rates are between 20% and 30%, some of the lowest in the country.

Our analysis of official data from 2014/15 to 2019/20 found that in some parts of the South and South East there have been only minimal increases in recycling rates.

What you need to know about recycling and recycling rates in your area

Why does recycling help climate change?

Lucila Newell is an environmental lecturer at the University of Sussex and explains how recycling reduces our carbon footprint.

"Recycling is a key step in creating a more sustainable way to manage our waste. Every year we create more and more waste and it creates a lot of environmental problems and recycling is a way forward.

"Recycling is vital in trying to reduce our carbon footprint, it creates goodness from our waste, for example, by creating compost for instance.

"Mostly recycling helps by reducing energy because creating and producing recycled materials uses less energy so we are reducing our carbon footprint. It saves natural resources because we don't need to extract, refine and process and in that way we save resources and protect eco-systems and the people who live in them."

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What can I recycle and what is my council's recycling rate?

Each council has different rules about what can and can't be recycled. You can find out what your council allows below as well as the authority's rate for 2019/20.

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What some of our councils say about their low recycling rate

Thanet District Council

The Council is committed to maximising recycling volumes and reducing the volume of residual (black bin/bag) household waste.

Alongside most other areas of the country, the current pandemic has resulted in more people working from home, as well as increased online shopping and socialising in the home. This has led to a marked increase in the amount of waste being generated per household.

As part of the Council’s commitment to achieving zero net emissions, we have been focusing on a number of things to try to encourage households to reduce the amount of waste they produce, reuse where possible and then recycle. This remains a primary focus for both our Climate Change Officer and Environmental Education Officer. Similarly, we collaborate with other Kent Councils through the Kent Resource Partnership which shares best practices, joint education campaigns and enforcement activities.In order to make a direct impact, we have trials in place to improve recycling rates at tower block flats and houses of multiple occupation (HMO), within the district. We are also introducing a scheme for community groups and residents to take ‘ownership’ of bins, both in relation to where they will be stored and collected and the material placed in them. Residents local to these bins, who do not currently have the facilities to recycle, will be able to take their materials to these recycling points.

We have also introduced large recycling bins at all of our Blue Flags beaches and hope to introduce similar options for recycling alongside our on-street litter bins.

Brighton and Hove City Council

Brighton & Hove’s lead councillor for the environment Amy Heley said: “There is enormous interest in improving recycling rates, and we share our residents’ concerns about how much can be recycled in the UK.

"Recycling rates differ to recycling collection, and how much can be recycled is dependent on a number of factors - not least the fact that there are no large-scale ‘end markets’ to collect low grade plastics.

"We also know it’s important to residents that their recycling efforts are worthwhile. Some local authorities do collect more materials than we do for recycling.

"However, some or much of this is exported abroad, mainly to poorer countries, and some of it may end up in landfill in these countries.

 "It means some local authorities can state a high recycling rate. But often, there is no guarantee that exported products don’t just end up in landfill.

"Greenpeace and other groups are increasingly highlighting the problem of UK waste polluting other countries rather than being recycled.

 "Our waste and recycling processes are as follows:

 All recycling (including recyclable plastics like bottles) – varies very slightly, but we recycle around 30%.

Ordinary waste (that cannot be recycled, including PTTs) amounts to around 68%. These items are taken to our Energy Recovery Facility.

Landfill – (strictly only things that cannot be recycled or turned into energy) around 2%, which is one of the lowest in the UK. Our most recent figure is now even lower at 0.5%.

"At the same time, we are working hard to improve the number of items collected for recycling overall, and working with partners across our city to create positive change.

"We’re looking at food waste, collecting more items, and expanding our highly successful ‘tech takeback’ scheme that ensures waste electricals are completely recycled or repurposed. The door to door pick-ups we organised for this were very popular with residents.

"We are also committed to tackling waste at the source – by preventing it in the first place. While we continue to lobby for national action, we are also working with businesses in the city to reduce waste, particularly single use plastic.

"There is of course more work to be done. While we are keen to improve our recycling rates, we also want to continue to deal with nearly all nearly our waste and recycling within the UK – because we believe it is the right thing to do."

Hastings Borough Council

Hastings Borough Council is committed to tackling climate change. In 2019 we declared a climate emergency and we are working towards being carbon neutral by 2030. This needs to be a town-wide effort and increasing our recycling rate will play a part in reaching this target.

However, a lower recycling rate doesn’t necessarily mean that more waste is going to landfill. As people become more aware of the need to reduce their consumption, and options like refill facilities are more readily available, the amount of waste produced will be lower and there will be less material that needs to be recycled. We know that the type of homes we have in Hastings has an impact on the amount of recycling we collect as a council.

We have a high number of terraced houses, flats and bedsits, many of which receive a weekly waste collection due to a lack of space for bins, as well as a weekly recycling collection.

Research shows that this reduces the amount of recycling. We also have fewer garden waste customers than neighbouring areas which negatively affects our recycling rate. We are working to ensure residents know what they can recycle. To make it easier, our recycling collection is mixed, which means residents can put all their recycled items into one bin or sack.

The items are then sorted at a ‘Material Recovery Facility’. We are waiting to hear from government about the changes in the Environment Act/Bill and what impact that will have on the recycling service we offer. We will continue to encourage residents to recycle what they can, as well as shopping local and reducing what they buy to minimise the waste produced.

Reducing what is produced, reusing what has already been produced and then recycling what cannot be reused is what everyone should be doing to work towards our carbon neutral target.

Manufacturers also need to make radical changes with their packaging – they have a corporate responsibility to ensure it is easy to recycle or, preferably, biodegradable.

Plastics are often dyed to make them more marketable and TetraPaks include a mix of materials which make them very difficult to recycle. Big corporations make billions out of their products but need to move away from a disposable mentality, taking responsibility and supporting recycling efforts. Local authorities are doing what they can on very limited budgets, it’s now time for businesses to step up.

Dartford Borough Council

Dartford Council Leader Jeremy Kite said: “I’m afraid that some campaigners may only look at half the story.  We are as committed as anyone to the environment and to carbon reduction but recycling is only one component of a sustainable waste cycle.

“Here in Dartford, we have reduced the amount of waste we send to landfill to less than 1% and most of the remainder is used to create energy in a process that is becoming cleaner and greener by the day.

“It’s easy to focus on recycling at the expense of other contributions like re-using and reducing resources which can make a huge contribution to building a greener society.  

“Dartford is pursuing a full and energetic programme of environmental policies across all service areas including planting new orchards and creating meadows and natural green spaces wherever we can.

“We are proud of our environmental focus and pride ourselves on an open and honest dialogue with our residents before we define our waste contracts, to ensure that they make informed choices about the services they receive and their impact on recycling.

“Waste collection and disposal are public services and residents have a right to have them delivered the way they prefer.”

Crawley Borough Council

Crawley’s recycling rate is growing. 30.3% in 2019/20, including 6.8% of garden waste. Provisional figures for 2020/21 indicate a recycling rate of 31.9%, including 7.4% garden waste

Crawley also does very well in waste minimisation, with one of the lowest figures for waste produced per person, at 293.7 kg (2019/20)

20% of residual waste is recyclable materials that can already be recycled within the current collection system. As a consequence the West Sussex Waste Partnership (WSWP) has a number of joint communication campaigns in order to encourage residents to recycle more of this material

Additionally the WSWP is working with Wastebuster, who provide waste education materials to primary schools in West Sussex and who are now offering a more appropriate solution for secondary schools

We are working with Biffa to reduce contamination of recycling and other waste problems

Crawley took part in a WSWP pilot project to set about tackling issues with recycling contamination and participation within flats. This project involved a number of aspects including: updating containers, improved signage, working with residents and managing agents, providing leaflets and reusable bags. The project proved to be very successful and has since won two national awards. Consequently we have continued this work across similar properties within other parts of Crawley and this year are targeting smaller blocks of flats

In addition, this year we are also relaunching our small electrical and textiles kerbside collection service, which will include trialling it at flats. We are also including battery collections at both individual and flatted households. Whilst these materials do not add a huge percentage onto our recycling rate, reducing hazardous waste such as small electricals and batteries from the residual waste stream is very important

We are shortly to start on the re-procurement of the waste and recycling service, which will be taking into account the government’s Resource and Waste Management Strategy in order to increase recycling rates further, but also in doing so, to ensure our carbon footprint decreases. There is talk of a move away from recycling tonnages and percentages to a more carbon related measure as it is recognised that recycling rates don’t necessarily take account of the full carbon impact.

Basingstoke and Dean Borough Council

Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Recycling, Waste and Regulatory Services, Cllr Hayley Eachus said: “As the collection authority, the borough council cannot set what can be recycled through our waste services. However we do actively promote recycling in the borough and encourage our residents to recycle more by providing them with regular digital and where necessary, printed information. We are also working closely with residents, housing associations and private landlords to install improved signage in the 800 communal bins areas across the borough giving residents the confidence to recycle more. 

 “Our residents are provided with a free large recycling bin and box for glass bottles and jars as well as a small general waste bin to encourage them to divert their recycling away from their general waste. We run ongoing social media campaigns to offer advice to our residents on recycling, incorporating information from organisations such as Love Food Hate Waste and promoting home composting via a partnership with Hampshire County Council.

“The council has in the past collected pots, tubs and trays in collection banks around the borough, but these were removed as there was no sustainable market for this material.

 “Our existing waste contract has electric bin lifts and electric supervisor vehicles included, to help reduce our carbon footprint.

 “In addition the council is working with partners as part of Project Integra to provide an integrated approach to the collection, treatment and disposal of municipal waste in Hampshire.

 “Longer term we will be looking closely at the outcome of the government’s consultation​s from the waste and resource strategy which include the possible recycling of plastic pots, tubs and trays and food waste collections and will adapt our waste collection services to meet any changing requirements.”

Gosport City Council

Cllr Graham Burgess Leader of Gosport City Council says: "In Gosport, we have seen recycling rates increase year-on-year since 2016 and we want to continue this trend. We are working hard to engage directly with residents on this issue and our garden recycling scheme in particular has been very popular and successful at increasing recycling. We hope the introduction of a local performance indicator will support increased rates of recycling as would the forthcoming Environmental Bill. It is currently under consultation, but has proposed statutory duties for all authorities to collect a consistent range of materials within wheeled bins as well as mandatory weekly food and garden waste collections, all of which would continue to increase recycling rates."

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Secret to success

South Oxfordshire District Council consistently ranks in the top five of local authorities for recycling.

In 2019/20, residents helped the council reach a recycling rate of 64%.

South Oxfordshire District Council has one of the highest recycling rates in the country Credit:

Cllr David Rouane, cabinet member for housing and environment at South Oxfordshire District Council, says the authority is very proud of its success.

"There are two elements to it, we work on the principle that people wan't to do the right thing and it's our job to help them to do that. We make it simple, we don't ask people to do any sorting, we leave it to our staff to do that.

"The second thing we do is information to help people make the right decision. We run quizzes, for example on Facebook to keep people engaged.

"Doing these things well is what we concentrate on. There are challenges, particularly around contamination so if for example, you put food waste in your recycling that could contaminate not only your bin, but also the whole lorry, so the education process we do to stop people contaminating their bins makes a huge difference."

Will recycling woes impact the carbon-neutral ambition?

There is concern that the slow progress on recycling will impact the wider ambition to improve the planet and reduce carbon emissions.

Councils across the South, Thames Valley and South East have committed to reducing their carbon footprint by 2030, and while environmentalists have hope the targets will be reached there is also concern.

Dr. Lizzy Harley from Woking in Surrey, is part of Extinction Rebellion.

"In terms of whether they will be met at present, honestly no on the current trajectories we are on.

"I almost sympathise with local authorities trying to build their own roadmap because so far leadership on this issue has not been consistent and it has been highly chaotic.

"What I would really love to see is the Government to start to take its own legally binding pledges seriously and meet its own targets and I think it will then galvanize local authorities to meet their targets.

"In the face of climate and ecological emergency hope is the best thing we can have. The bigger change needs to come from the top and we need to engage with people who can make change, we need to write to MPs, our councils and business leaders."

Rushmoor Borough Council knows it needs to improve Credit:

Rushmoor Borough Council knows it must do more. It averaged a 27.6% recycling rate between 2014/15 and 2019/20.

"Our performance at recycling has been poor at best", says Councillor Maurice Sheehan, Rushmoor Borough Council's Cabinet Member for Operational Services.

The authority is introducing a weekly food waste collection in the autumn in the hope of lifting figures.

In Reading, the introduction of a weekly food waste collection service and a change from 240 litre to 140 litre domestic bins for 59,000 properties from February saw the recycling rate increase to 53% in March 2023.

  • Watch: Councillor Maurice Sheehan, Rushmoor Borough Council's Cabinet Member for Operational Services is challenged over its environmental targets.

In Hastings the six year recycling rate averaged 29%.

The Borough Council says it's 'committed to tackling climate change' and that the type of homes impacts the amount of recycling that can be collected.

Councillor Julia Hilton is the only Green councillor in Hastings and describes the rates of recycling in the town as 'really sad'.

"People really care passionately about waste and they want to do their bit.

"I think there is a bigger picture and we need to be reducing packaging generally and the fact it shouldn't all be on individuals it's about the Government giving incentives."

  • Councillor Julia Hilton says a deposit scheme could help improve recycling rates:

The Government admits there is more work to do but insists progress is being made.

It has put forward legislation to clean up the environment, protect wildlife and species.

The Government admits more work needs to be done but insists progress is being made

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, "Recycling and reusing more of our waste, and ensuring we get the most out of our precious resources, are central to our ambition to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. 

"We are making positive progress, with less than 10% of household waste now going to landfill and the amount of food waste being recycled increasing by over 40% since 2015. 

"But there is still a lot more to do, and that’s why we have brought forward major reforms for packaging and kerbside collections which will boost recycling, step up our war on plastic pollution and reduce litter."If the country is to meet its climate ambitions then recycling rates in some parts of the South, South East and Thames Valley must increase.