Jarno Stet, waste and recycling manager, Westminster City Council, UK shares his views on recycling and waste management.

With 15 years of experience dedicated to the task of waste management, I’ve learnt that the collection and sourcing of optimum outlets to recycle waste is a balancing act with affordability within the logistical and technical constraints that we face.

We are a long way from the circularity targets that are set within the UK and EU. However, the issues we face are international – recycling waste is ultimately a globally traded commodity. Perhaps we were too comfortable with the model established during the nineties, whereby our waste was accepted in certain Asian countries. Back then, we didn’t monitor how this waste was processed. Maybe it was discarded or burned and was not managed to the best of its potential. Today, some of these countries are no longer accepting our waste and we are now faced with a glut of low-quality materials that are very difficult to establish a clear-cut process for. 

Yes, there are some niche technologies available for certain types of waste materials, but nothing that works yet on a commercial scale. Recycling as a solution is not a panacea – the model does come with drawbacks. It still causes pollution, it still uses energy, and there’s a quality loss every time you recycle most materials.

Recycling also doesn’t solve the trend of excessive consumption, especially within the food industry. Why do we need extreme convenience such as peeled and sliced bananas wrapped in polystyrene, LDPE film and cardboard when bananas come packaged in their natural skin already? I can’t justify the need for this. Recycling is often seen as a ‘get-out-of-jail free’ card, a way perhaps to justify increasing consumption. It should not be viewed as an excuse for wastefulness, but holding a crucial role to play within a balanced matrix of waste management technologies.  It’s all very much reliant on what we put into the process. For example, there has been an increase in use of paper-based packaging. However, recycling of an increasingly more complex mix of materials can result in more hazardous waste residues in the end.

It’s important to establish systems that work. In Germany, the ‘DSD yellow bin’ system was introduced to support a widescale collection of packaging. Generally, around 60 per cent of waste collected in this system is discarded as there is either no market for the materials, they are too contaminated, or there is no solution for the mix of composites. The German government has taken steps to improve this situation but it’s a complex issue.  

In the UK, as an example, the market for BOPP trays and tubs at end of life is very limited: it mostly ends up as fuel for cement kilns or is directed straight to energy from waste incineration. There are issues surrounding different plastic film grades, and even the mixed paper grades, produced by many household recycling sorting facilities, are becoming problematic to recycle. By no means are we on the last mile – we have a long way to go. The UK government’s Resources and Waste Strategy is a step in the right direction, and we are ensuring that sufficiently high-quality products are made from recycled materials.

We do also face cost effective pressure points. Local authorities are pressed on the affordability of services. Many recycling contracts are based upon the value of the waste materials – a county council as an example could spend £2 million more per year dealing with recyclables due to the crash of international recycling markets. For certain materials there are even no outlets at all, or the options are very limited.

On an EU level, and with the introduction of EPR strategy, it’s important to avoid mistakes that have been previously made. We need to look at what is produced from recycled materials, keep it simple and use higher grades.

I believe we need to evaluate our consumer decisions more consciously. Perhaps we should be making purchases that are to a higher standard, rather than following the trend of living in a disposable culture. We need to change our way of thinking on an individual basis.