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An article about my local council’s worsening recycling rate sent me on a quick investigation of the data and to reflect on the context.

“Cllr Jan Warwick, portfolio holder for environment, blamed a fall in the amount of newspapers being recycled.”

Hum, what does that mean? I presume it means fewer newspapers in volume are being recycled - rather than the proportion of newspapers being recycled has fallen.

Wikipedia, citing data from the UK Audit Bureau of Circulations, demonstrates that newspaper circulation is falling in the UK. Looking at newspapers with circulations of more than 100,000 copies per day in January 2012; circulation for an average January day fell 12% from 10.1m in 2014 to 8.9m in 2017. So there are fewer papers to recycle.

Now what counts as recycling is contentious, and the how the rate is calculated is quite complex; but it’s basically the weight of recycled waste divided by the weight of all waste.

So a contributory reason for a fall in the recycling rate could be a reduction in ‘recyclable things’, like newspapers - and my council’s spokesperson does make this point:

“The recycling rate in Winchester has plateaued in recent years… However changes to the make-up of rubbish, including changing behaviours like people buying less paper products and improvements in manufacturing making ‘recycled’ products lighter, have led to this plateau.”

Finding summary information at the national level for waste and recycling took quite a lot of delving; but here’s the summary for England1:

Recycling 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Total collected waste (000s of tonnes) 22131 22170 21956 21564 22355 22225
Total sent for recycling less rejects (000s of tonnes) 9112 9596 9684 9523 10025 9758
Recycling rate (based on sent recycling less rejects) 41.2% 43.3% 44.1% 44.2% 44.8% 43.90%

Total collected waste and total sent for recycling less rejects
Total collected waste and total sent for recycling less rejects

So it has plateaued across England, although this, of course, hides large variations. And the rates for Winchester, for non-composted waste, have indeed fallen2:

Non-composted waste 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Apr 25.7% 24.2% 23.2% 23.7% 22.4%
May 25.8% 23.5% 21.0% 20.1% 22.0%
Jun 23.8% 21.7% 21.2% 21.9% 19.9%
Jul 23.6% 22.5% 21.0% 20.7% 22.3%
Aug 23.1% 23.4% 22.6% 21.0% 22.4%
Sep 24.8% 24.4% 22.5% 21.7%
Oct 27.2% 23.3% 23.1% 21.4%
Nov 25.9% 22.8% 22.1% 21.3%
Dec 28.5% 26.6% 25.2% 22.5%
Jan 26.2% 22.1% 24.4% 27.5%
Feb 27.1% 22.6% 24.2% 27.6%
Mar 26.6% 22.2% 23.0% 24.3%
Average 25.7% 23.3% 22.8% 22.8% 21.8%

Note the Winchester data is for non-composted waste, whilst the data for England includes composted waste. So the data seems a bit of a mess (pun intended), and open to interpretation - but the important message, as ever, is context.

A fall in the recycling rate might possibly not be a bad thing, if it’s a result of reduced volumes of newsprint and lighter cardboard et cetera. Although you’d hope the rate continues to increase if overall packing is reduced and more products are brought into scope of recycling. There’s also a link to the user experience: are ‘recycling products’ designed to help users? For example, better kerbside collection, better design and labelling of bins and bags and clearer information could all increase recycling volumes.

1. Source = ENV18 - Local authority collected waste: annual results tables

2. Source = Winchester City Council - Household waste recycled (percentage)

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