The headline in London’s Daily Telegraph was blunt: “‘Green Fatigue’ Behind Falling Recycling Rate.” According to the story, recycling rates will fall in the United Kingdom for the first time in more than 10 years. As a result, Britain is not likely to recover half of its household waste by 2020. To add insult to injury, the country will face “big fines” from the European Union for missing its recycling targets.
“Confusing and inconvenient” multi-bin recycling requirements imposed by local councils were blamed for the “green fatigue.” Decreased use of paper and glass, along with local authority budget cuts for recycling education, were also cited as causes for the decline. One of England’s largest recycling collection companies said recycling should be as uncomplicated as possible through single-bin collection of mixed recyclables. The company also advocated for weekly food waste collection.
But before we shed any tears for the Brits, it is worth noting that their current household recycling rate is 43 percent. Adding an additional 7 percent in the next seven years shouldn’t be too big of a stretch, especially if more local councils adopt single-bin collection for mixed recyclables with a separate bin for food waste.
I’m not sure how to compare the British household recycling rate with America’s. The EPA recycling rate here at home is not limited to just households. I’m not even sure how an accurate household-only recycling rate could be calculated. Yet, the same angst over stagnant recycling rates can be found here While our national rate has increased steadily since the ’90s, it has been flat for the last two years.
Certainly, some of the reasons for this flatness are the same as Britain’s. In particular, our use of printed paper is down by more than 18 million tons since 2000. Paper is the “mother’s milk” of recycling. With less paper available for recovery, increasing the recycling rate becomes a bigger challenge. In addition, as in Britain, the biggest boost for recovery will require a greatly increased emphasis on organics, especially increased yard and food waste collection. After all, for the first time, since the EPA has been tracking waste generation, food and yard waste now have a bigger share of the waste stream than paper. In fact, food and yard waste are close to having a larger share than containers and packaging. If paper towels and other easily compostable paper products are included, then organics exceed containers and packaging.
In response to the lagging increase in the recycling rate, several new initiatives have been announced to boost recovery. In the United States, both the Recycling Partnership and the Closed Loop Fund aim to increase recycling’s collection and processing infrastructure. The theory behind both initiatives is that recycling will increase in cities that need—but cannot afford—larger collection carts, along with more efficient collection trucks and a more robust processing infrastructure. Certainly, these two organizations should be successful at boosting recycling, especially if they include food and yard waste in their targeted collection items.
Other problems remain. For instance, we still don’t know how to collect recyclables from multifamily housing. But the Europeans haven’t cracked that nut yet either.
We also need to have a little patience. Teaching people to put their garbage in a container at the curbside instead of throwing it into the street didn’t happen overnight. Teaching people to separate out their recyclables won’t either. We should be proud of the progress we have made and strive to find ways to recover more and waste less.