Recycling education: are we in need of a new curriculum?

By Dr. Aidan Bell, director at EnviroBuild.*

In 2015, the ‘waste from households’ recycling rate for England dropped below 44% for the first time since 2011. The latest statistics from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) revealed that the amount of household waste being recycled by English homeowners dropped from 44.8% in 2014 to 43.9% in 2015.

More worrying still is the fact that the amount of household waste being rejected for recycling in England has increased by 84% over the previous four years, according to a BBC Freedom of Information request. Local councils were unable to recycle 338,000 tonnes of waste in 2014-15, a jump from 184,000 tonnes in 2011-12, due to so-called contaminated recycling bins, which are expensive to re-sort.

As a result, 270,000 tonnes of rejected waste was incinerated in 2014. These numbers suggest that while the UK public has increased the amount of waste that they intend to recycle, we are falling at the final hurdle because of incorrect sorting by homeowners: a direct result of a lack of recycling education.

Scotland and Wales both increased their household recycling rates by around 1% in the same time frame, so what’s going wrong in England?

Our map visualises the latest data from Defra and illustrates which English local authorities made an improvement in their household recycling rate between 2014/15 and 2015/16 and which didn’t. Why is there so much disparity between the local authorities?

Envirobuild Recycling Map En-form


Uncertainty and a lack of direction

While the responsibility for collecting and managing waste lies at council level, these decisions are influenced by government policy and funding, so let’s start at the top.

The current Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, has spoken little on the topic of recycling and waste management since assuming her position in July 2016. This raises questions about the fate of recycling policy going forward. If the localism and the lighter regulatory approach established by the previous government are lacking in effectiveness, what will be done to resolve this?

There is yet to be an announcement on the direction of waste policy for the UK during and after Brexit. A recent report from The House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee found that the EU has helped to shape ‘over 80%’ of UK environmental legislation on issues including agriculture, air quality and waste; when the UK leaves Europe, will this legislation still apply, and to what extent?

This uncertainty surrounding Brexit was addressed by a cross-party group of MPs at the start of January with a push for a new Environmental Protection Act to be passed before Brexit is completed. This would maintain the UK’s environmental targets and ensure that existing EU environment law does not become ‘zombie legislation’ after the UK’s exit.

Waste management decisions made at local authority level are currently being influenced by government policy that lacks strong direction in its approach of localism, and funded by a centralised budget that is ever-reducing.


The result of this is an inconsistent approach to waste and recycling across England, as demonstrated by our map.

The government and local councils can put the infrastructure in place, however, ultimately, it’s down to the individual homeowner to complete the circle, to recycle the correct plastics and cardboards for their area. In other words, it seems that the British public understands the need to recycle, but that many people do not know how to do it correctly.


It’s no wonder that the homeowner is confused: recycling in the UK is coordinated by more than 300 different recycling schemes, which each have their own list of what can and can’t be recycled, and their own way of educating the public about this.

The result of this is, the so-called contaminated recycling bin that is rejected and redirected to landfill if the local council cannot afford to resort the bin. A lack of clear education for homeowners is preventing England from making recycling progress and contributing to continued damage to the environment.

The drop in the household recycling rate could also suggest that homeowners’ attitudes are changing due to the lack of education: without clear direction, the public will become disillusioned and disengaged with the recycling cause and either recycle the wrong materials or opt to not recycle at all for fear of getting it wrong.

Who’s getting it right?

Happily, this isn’t the case all over England, as our map illustrates. There are some English authorities that are bucking the trend and that have managed to increase the amount of household waste that they are recycling by a considerable amount. Indeed, residents in the ward of Colchester Borough Council increased the amount of household waste that they recycled from 23, 702 tonnes in 2014/15 to 29,661 tonnes in 2015/16.

How are these local authorities improving their residents’ recycling habits? Education.

A quick look at the Richmondshire District Council website demonstrates that recycling and waste management are clearly at the top of this council’s agenda: a scrolling banner informs residents of this local authority that recycling days are changing. It’s not surprising that residents in this ward increased its household recycling rate by 14.7 percentage points between 2014/15 and 2015/16, this was the greatest increase seen in England.

Next to Tameside MBC, which improved its recycling by 7.8 percentage points in the same time period. Again, ‘Refuse & Recycling’ takes pride of place as the first homepage menu tile.

It’s the same story on the Colchester Borough Council website where a ‘Greener Living Newsletter’ is advertised to residents on the first page of the website. Those councils that are making recycling important news in their local area are hitting the national headlines for the improvements that they achieve.

It’s clear to see that those who are educating are winning! These councils, and a number of others, have made information on recycling clearly accessible to their residents, who are in turn recycling more of their household waste.

At EnviroBuild, one of our central aims in supplying a recycled, sustainable product is to boost the demand for recycling. However, increased recycling will only happen if the homeowner receives enough education on how to recycle correctly.

A solution?

An increase in education needs to be at the top of the recycling agenda at both government and local authority level. Recycling needs to be made news, or at least make it into our newsfeeds. Luckily, it would appear that communication with the general public has never been easier thanks to social media.

This communication would be most effective if nationwide recycling guidelines were introduced, with a single scheme in place for the whole country. It would be much easier to publicise a nationwide scheme, and to promote changes and updates, and there would never be area-by- area confusion as to what can and can’t be recycled.

However, a nationwide approach is much easier said than done. Existing infrastructure isn’t identical across England and so proposed unification would call for conversations with the businesses responsible for recycling the waste to decide on an optimal process and to ensure the convergence of a system. With the government determined to continually reduce the budget for environmental issues, it is unlikely that the resources would ever be invested into a unified recycling system. There would also likely be pushback from councils who may feel suspicious of central control and implications on their budgets.

These obstacles mean that for the foreseeable future local authorities need to take it upon themselves to improve their communication with their residents using social media, information on the council’s website and even recycling events.

This increase in activity will require increased budget and this is where the government needs to step up. If localism in recycling and waste management activity is here to stay, then the government needs to provide more budget to enable much needed educational activity to be successful.

*Please note that the views are that of the author, not necessarily that of en-form.









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