Tonnes of recycling sent to landfill

B0K7HJ Man outdoors pulling garbage bin. Image shot 2007. Exact date unknown.taking the garbage out.
B0K7HJ Man outdoors pulling garbage bin. Image shot 2007. Exact date unknown.taking the garbage out.

The contents of millions of recycling bins are being incinerated or sent to landfill because some householders are confused about the rules.

Government figures show that the amount of waste rejected for recycling and buried or burned instead has rocketed by 84% over the last four years.

While just over 173,000 tonnes of rejected waste was incinerated or sent to landfill in 2011-12, that figure had risen to 270,000 tonnes two years later, and has now hit 338,000 tonnes.

The data, unearthed by the BBC through a Freedom of Information request, shows that in one area - Kirklees in West Yorkshire - as much as 15% of recyclable waste is rejected.

Greenwich, in south-west London, and Hull aren't much better, at 14% and 14.2% respectively.

Currently, around 45% of household waste is recycled - but there's an EU target to increase this to at least 50% by 2020. However, there's great variation between councils about how recycling is managed.

"The problem is there is widespread confusion over what can and cannot be recycled," says a spokesperson for the Local Government Association.

Many people don't realise, for example, that coffee cups and broken glass cannot be recycled. They don't appreciate that paper when contaminated by food is a no no - including things like pizza boxes - and they don't know that mixed recycling is not allowed - such as yoghurt pots where the cardboard surround is not separated from the plastic.

"If just one non-recyclable item is included with recyclable items, the whole bin is effectively contaminated. Councils then have to re-sort it, which is time consuming and very expensive."

However, waste management trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA) points out that the 338,000 tonnes of rejected waste represents less than 3.5% of the total amount of household waste collected for recycling in the UK.

"Whilst efforts should and will continue to be made to reduce contamination, we should not forget the progress that has been made to increase recycling in the UK - from near zero in the early 1990s to almost 45% today," says ESA's head of regulation, Sam Corp.

"However, this increase in contamination does still highlight the need for a long-term framework from the government to help drive recycling and reuse, and reduce the levels of contamination that have been shown in these figures."

Figures released two years ago by the Green Alliance Circular Economy Task Force revealed that local authorities spend more on waste management than housing or planning. And, it says, greater standardisation on what can be recycled and even on which bins are used could see council tax bills fall by £61 per year.

Some councils are taking extreme measures to try and make sure residents understand and abide by the rules. Hull, for example, recently announced that it has hired two people to go through household bins to check the contents. If bins are found to contain unacceptable items, they won't be emptied.

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