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Wednesday, 21 November, 2001, 11:48 GMT
Getting in the recycle lane
Load of rubbish - but how much more can come?
You can recycle nearly anything nowadays. Yet the UK remains woefully poor at actually doing it.

There are schemes that let you recycle your computer. You can donate your old mobile phone for it to be recycled for the developing world. And nearly everyone recycles their old fashions.

But when it comes to boring old household waste, the British fall miserably behind their European counterparts in the amount they recycle.

Resurrecting rubbish
Plastic bottles can be recycled into supermarket bags
Office paper into toilet paper
Wine bottles into industrial abrasives
Plastic bottles into gardening equipment
Aluminium cans into drinks cans
Baked beans tins into fridge parts
It is estimated that England and Wales produce 400 million tonnes of waste each year - enough to fill the Albert Hall every hour. Of this, despite a series of government and EU targets, the proportion that is recycled has remained stubbornly around 10%.

To comply with EU directives, ministers want that to increase to 25% by 2005, rising to at least 33% by 2015.

Although some waste is burnt in incinerators to provide electricity, most of it - about 80% - ends up in landfill sites which are dotted around the country.

But there is a recognition that, as existing landfill sites fill up, it is neither an efficient use of resources nor an environmentally friendly one.

A "landfill tax", by which different sums are levied on waste depending what it is, has been in force for five years. But the summit organised by the government for business leaders, local authorities and environmental groups is looking at more ways the country can wean itself off landfills.

Whatever measures are approved by the summit, the sorting into different types of waste is seen as a key step.

Cardboard collection, Philippines-style
There is also a realisation in the recycling industry that sorting is only the first step - and that waste isn't actually recycled until another use has been found for it. In most cases, this will mean that a buyer must be found. If there are no buyers, then perhaps the most important impetus for the process is lost.

A new scheme, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) has been set up to encourage the development of markets for recycled goods from industry and commerce.

To do this, Wrap is aiming to bolster market confidence in recycling, and crucially to find ways to improve the economics of recycling.


But household waste is a huge nut to crack. One aspect is the organic matter thrown away which can be composted and then sold on to the horticulture industry.

Bottle banks sort waste
A briefing paper produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs earlier this year said that the government considered local authorities had a key role to play in encouraging households to compost their waste food.

Many councils offer subsidised compost bins for householders to put in their gardens. An increasing number are also setting up centralised composting schemes, using waste that has been separated from door-to-door collections or from council tips.

Separate bins

Some experts say the best way to make recycling more efficient is to give houses separate bins and require householders to sort their own waste. Some councils already operate such schemes, but campaigners would like to see it repeated across the country.

Recycling rates
UK: 11% Switzerland, Germany and Austria: 50%
UK: 25%
Switzerland: 93%
UK: 30%
Germany: 80%
UK: 38%
Switzerland: 89%
Another more radical idea which some people back would involve charging houses for the amount of waste they produce, rather than levying a flat fee as part of the council tax.

This, it is thought, would encourage households to re-use as much as possible, and reduce the amount they put in the bins. It is also feared, however, that it could lead to an increase in fly-tipping - dumping waste by the side of the road.

See also:

25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
What a waste of good rubbish
01 Mar 00 | Health
Recycling health warning
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