The head of one of the UK’s largest waste management firms, SITA UK, has said the continued debate over collection systems is distracting from the issue of flatlining recycling rates in England.
David Palmer-Jones, ceo of SITA UK, said he believes there is likely to be a need for both source segregated and commingled collection systems to operate in unison if councils are to be fully compliant with EU waste collection law and to meet the 50% by 2020 recycling target.
Debate has raged over whether commingling is permissible under the terms of the revised Waste Framework Directive. The Directive gives local authorities until January 2015 to ensure they have separate collections in place unless it is not technically, environmentally and economically practicable (TEEP) to do so or appropriate to produce high quality recycling.
But Palmer-Jones said that he has become “disenfranchised” with the discussion around commingling, which he argued needed to encompass a wider argument about increasing recycling rates within England.
“There is a big picture I want to get across that recycling rates are flatlining and in some cases going down. This is not a good position for England to be in.
“I want to make people aware that there is a danger of us sleepwalking into a position where we cannot meet the targets.
“We have done a lot of work to look at improving recycling rates in urban dwellings. Those groups say they want simplistic systems, they want clear instructions and they want to know what happens to that material.”
And, while he acknowledged the need to ensure high quality material is produced, Palmer-Jones indicated elements such as the cost of operating a service and participation rates from householders should not be ignored.
He added: “I am not against source segregation but I don’t think it is a panacea to solve everything. It is not always easy to have a myriad number of containers.
“Everyone in the industry wants the same thing, but we are approaching it differently. I think ultimately you may see different collection systems in the same council area. You can’t have a one size fits all approach even at that level and you will have to do different things for different situations.
“The key is to not contaminate materials. One area where that is critical is food waste. After that there is the discussion about glass. The rest of it you can quite easily mix in different manners if you choose to do so.”
Figures published by Defra last week showed England’s recycling rate had fallen slightly when compared to the same period 12 months earlier.
Palmer-Jones predicted there could be a further decline in the recycling rate if the industry does not heed the impact of changing consumer habits.
He added: “There is a structural decline in both news and pams and glass, which is, in part, caused by a change in behaviour with less people buying newspapers. Glass is lightweighting and, in some cases, moving to other materials like plastics. Your very important streams are being eroded for different reasons. That is only going to mean the recycling rate is going to decline during the next few years.
“We have a lot of work to do with the public to make sure that things are done correctly. Local authorities won’t have the ability to put the resources forward to help increase recycling rates. Everyone agrees we need to do the right thing, but we need to lift the debate from just talking about commingling.”