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Are you a waster or a resource manager on Global Recycling Day?

By Phil Briscoe
18 March 2021

By Phil Briscoe

Today, Thursday 18th March is more than just the day after St Patrick’s Day and the day before Red Nose Day. It is in fact Global Recycling Day, a day that is generating more support than ever from around the world.

This year we have seen initiatives from countries including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, France, India and the UK, where the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been encouraging small companies to put “recycling at the heart of their business”. Today, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow MP unveiled a new Waste Prevention Programme for England, which includes a focus on the throwaway culture of fast fashion. Meanwhile in Scotland, the Environment and Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham MSP earlier announced a new £70m fund to help improve recycling levels across the country.

While global sustainability and climate change are headline discussions, waste can often be seen as being at the less glamorous end of the discussion. Perhaps that is because many people feel they are already doing their bit – they sort the household waste into the three or four relevant categories each week and that is the waste problem solved.

However, Global Recycling Day is a chance to reflect on some of the eye-watering statistics when it comes to how the planet consumes and then discards the cast-offs from that consumption. Rubbish, trash, waste, junk, there are lots of different names for it, but today alone the global population will generate something in excess of 5.5million tonnes of the stuff! It is also a problem we all contribute to and while the average daily waste produced by each individual on the planet is around 0.75kg, you can expect to double that figure if you live in the UK and more than treble it if you live in North America.

But those numbers will worsen, with forecasts predicting that the annual level of waste produced will increase by almost 60% by 2050, when the World Bank predicts we will all be contributing to an annual 3.4 billion tonnes of rubbish. Estimates suggest that more than 30% of that waste is left to go uncollected or is collected unsafely. There are endless figures from different waste sectors but perhaps the most topical example is plastic – to date over 8 billion tonnes have been industrially produced, of which an estimated 6.3 billion tonnes have ended up as waste. The paltry 9% that has so far been recycled is one of the reasons why the current 150million tonnes of plastic in the oceans is expected to rise to 750million tonnes by 2050.

Alongside bulging landfill sites, safety issues and the sheer inefficiency of waste, the handling and treatment of solid waste makes up around 5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, or around 1.8 billion tonnes per annum.

It would be wrong to be completely negative and not recognise the huge strides of the last 50 years. Recycling has always been around, from the Ancient Egyptians who melted down their blunted chisels to make new ones when crafting the pyramids, to the Japanese recycling paper in the 11th century and Yorkshire-based Benjamin Law who invented a process for recycling wool from old clothes in 1813. But much progress has been made in the last few decades - although bottle banks are now an everyday feature, the first one to appear in the UK only did so in 1977.

In that time, recycling levels have grown dramatically, with the latest data for the UK (from 2018) showing that 45.5% of all household waste was recycled. There are some inconsistencies in how recycling levels are calculated and whether incinerated waste can be considered recycling as part of energy recovery, but the generally accepted measures point to Germany leading the world on a recycling rate of 56%, followed closely by countries such as Austria, Switzerland and South Korea.

But the recycling performance picture varies as much within countries as it does between countries – last year, eleven local authorities recycled more than 60% (Three Rivers claimed the top spot at 64.1%) and an impressive 84 local authorities achieved more than 50% of recycled waste. The other end of the scale is less impressive with Barrow-in-Furness recycling just 18.8%, followed closely by Newham and Westminster who each managed to nudge their score just over 20%. Rather than these extremes, the more worrying feature is that 124 UK local authorities recorded a decrease in recycling levels last year. The pandemic has delayed the figures for 2020 but in due course we will see how lockdown has impacted household waste – have families had more time to take care with their waste or has home-based consumption just spiralled out of control?

All this sets the scene for Global Recycling Day, a relatively new initiative launched by the Global Recycling Foundation in 2018 and with a dual objective of urging governments to act together to promote recycling, while encouraging people across the planet to think resource rather than waste. London-based Ranjit Baxi is the Founding President of the GRF and has encouraged initiatives such as nominating and celebrating recycling heroes. The heightened activity from governments and agencies around the world show that the messages are resonating.

As COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference draws closer, these topics will no doubt be debated at length in Glasgow in November. There is no question that this is a global challenge and concerted action will be needed to tackle the waste problem, but it is also a challenge that can be addressed by every individual.

Waste is different because it is tangible, it is everyday, and it is something we can all make better choices about. Very few people have a choice about energy production, industrial mitigation measures or the exact components of their new car, but they can choose to a large extent how they handle their rubbish. So, the next time you go to put something in the bin (or the trash can), stop and consider where it is going - whether it is some empty Guinness cans from yesterday or some discarded plastic noses from tomorrow, don’t wait for others to do what you can do yourself!