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6 Sep 2019

How good are the UK's councils at explaining their recycling systems?

27% of people think their council's communication on recycling is poor. Find out what you can do at home to clear up the confusion

Nearly a third of people who recycle don't feel confident that they are disposing of their packaging correctly, according to a survey we ran in May 2019. There are clear differences between regions, with some councils making sure people know what to do, and others lagging behind.

We've taken a look at how you rate the information provided by your local council. It's important for them to get this right - consumer confusion is one of the biggest barriers to higher rates of recycling.

We asked 1,987 people to tell us how they rate the recycling information provided by their local council, such as labeling on bins, leaflets and online help. We found significant differences between regions.

How to recycle in the UK: we answer common questions, including what recycling labels really mean and what to put in your recycling bin

Local authority recycling rates by country

According to EU targets, the UK needs to recycle at least 50% of waste from households by 2020. But recycling targets within the UK - and how far each country is towards meeting them - are varied:

  • Scotland: Scotland Managing WasteScotland aims to be a zero-waste nation, and has a 70% recycling target set for 2025. In 2017, 45.6% of Scottish waste was recycled.
  • Wales: One Wales, One Planet Wales aims to be a zero-waste nation by 2050. The Welsh government has set a target for 70% of waste to be recycled by 2025. In 2017-18 it recycled 57.8% of waste - the only country to be ahead of the 50% target. Including waste that was reused or composted, this figure rose to 62%.
  • Northern Ireland: Delivering Resource Efficiency Northern Ireland has set a 60% recycling target for household waste by 2020. In 2017, it managed to recycle, reuse or compost 48.1% of household waste.
  • England: Resources & Waste Strategy for EnglandThe target is for 50% of household waste in England to be recycled. But in 2017, the recycling rate in England stood at 45.2%. It aims to move towards a 'circular economy' for recyclables.

In December 2018, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published the recycling data for local authorities in England covering the financial year 2017/18.

The top local authority by recycling rate was East Riding of Yorkshire Council, with 64.5%. But more than 40 local authorities had a recycling rate of less than 30%.

We've spoken to people involved in every step of the recycling journey, from manufacturers and consumers to local authorities and waste management facilities. The conclusion was unanimous: communicating the correct recycling information to people at home is one of the biggest barriers to higher recycling rates.

There are two ways this can be improved - through local authorities and waste management firms, and through the labeling provided on packaging.

How well do councils communicate recycling information?

Nearly one in three people in our survey told us that the communication about recycling in their local area, provided by their local council, is poor.

In the North East, 35% of people told us that their local council did a poor or very poor job of communicating and distributing information about recycling, compared to just 19% in London.

One of the main difficulties local councils and consumers face is the many different recycling schemes across the country, and even within regions. People living just streets apart could have completely different recycling schemes.

Some of those we surveyed said they struggled to match the symbols on packaging with the information provided on their local councils' website or leaflets.

Less than a third of people rated the information presented by their local council as good, although in London this figure was higher - 40% of Londoners surveyed thought it was good.

Overall, 38% of people felt their council was doing a lacklustre job of recycling education, marking it as average.

Who is responsible for collecting my recycling?

recycling box

In England and Wales, two-tier local authorities (such as cities and districts) must provide household waste collection, while county councils have to handle its disposal.

If you live in a unitary authority, then it has to do both. Your local council or authority should provide information on how to recycle at home and work closely with the waste-management firms involved in collection and sorting.

What can I do at home to help recycling rates?

We want local authorities and manufacturers to make it easier for you to recycle correctly, but in the meantime there are a few key things you can do at home.

Get some clarity online

You can check your postcode at recyclenow.com to find out what types of packaging are accepted in your area, particularly if you're confused by the information provided by your local council.

Don't contaminate waste

Putting dirty products such as nappies or containers with food inside into your recycling bin can cause all sorts of issues when it come to sorting and processing recycling. Putting the wrong types of packaging in it can impact the quality of the recycled material, too.

Clean your packaging

We know it can be annoying to add extra washing up to your bowl, but local councils told us that packaging contaminated with a lot of food can lead to poor-quality recycling or loads that have to be incinerated. It needs to be clean of debris, but doesn't have to be sparkling.

We think local councils should do a better job of explaining how clean packaging should be, and why it's important. The experts we've spoken to say that giving packaging a rinse is a must, and if an item is particularly coated in food - such as a baked bean tin - then pop it in leftover washing-up water to get rid of the worst of it.

Reduce the amount of plastic packaging you buy

In a recent investigation, we found that up to 29% of supermarket packaging is not recyclable, and we found some supermarkets seem to be taking the problem more seriously than others. Follow our list of tips to reduce your plastic use, including simple swaps such as investing in the best reusable water bottle, using reusable storage containers such as tupperware, and picking loose fruit and veg over packaged where you can.