Whilst participation in recycling is up across Scotland, the proportion of non-recyclable materials that are being sent for processing is limiting Scotland’s success in ‘sustainable’ waste management.
A 2014 report by Zero Waste Scotland highlighted high levels of contamination within recyclable materials, resulting in waste management facilities having to operate at a slower and more inefficient level and an unreasonably high volume of collected materials being deemed unfit for recycling and often ending up in landfill.
Nearly two years since the report, and many within the industry feel the situation has worsened, threatening to undermine the effectiveness of recycling across Scotland and impact on sustainability targets.
Further engagement between the waste industry and consumers may help address the high levels of contamination within recycled materials. However, a greater level of clarity and consistency in how the Scottish Government regulates and administers recycling programmes could have an even greater impact.
Whilst the existing European legislation is clear about the need for separate collections of recyclable waste streams, where practicable, the wording of the Scottish regulations is ambiguous. This has resulted in commingled collections becoming the preferred option of most Scottish Local Authorities, enhancing the potential for contamination which is ultimately at odds with the purpose of the EU legislation.
A unified approach to published guidance could also be beneficial. There are numerous guidance documents on recycling practices published across the UK, including in Scotland where many local authorities have launched their own campaigns to educate their residents about different materials and how they should be presented for collection. This silo approach often compounds the inconsistencies between companies contracted to collect the waste and those which operate waste management facilities.
While there are huge disparities between European, UK and Scottish recycling targets, it is encouraging to see movement in the right direction. The Scottish Government is expected to put a greater focus on separate collections and also introduce new targets for the packaging industry to ensure an increased proportion of plastic and glass packaging will be recovered and recycled in the lead up to 2020.
If recycling is to deliver real sustainability benefits, clearer legislation combined with a more unified and consistent approach from those operating at all levels across the industry will be essential.
This article first appeared in the Scotsman of 10th February 2016.