Four degrees of separation
Strategic Development Director, Bob Barltrop, talks about the importance of waste segregation in today's world
In the age of connectivity and collaboration, there are few challenges in life where segregation is considered part of the solution.
But there's one honourable exception: recycling.
How the world segregates, recycles, and minimises its waste is central to environmental sustainability, and it is a collective responsibility for everyone to do their part.
Despite the importance of recycling and good waste management, the UK is under-performing on the global stage, with recycling rates flat-lining. The most recent figures state just 45.2% of UK households recycle ' a tiny increase of 0.6% from last year.
Without radical change, there are fears that the UK will miss the EU's target of 50% by 2020.
As a comparison, 99% of all household waste in Sweden is recycled.
We must all do better.
England, by contrast, is performing poorly, with the government refusing to commit to a revised EU target to recycle 65% of urban waste by 2035.
Its 25-year environment plan does outline ambitious targets to minimise waste and there's encouraging work being done around single-use plastics. But overall progress is slow.
Behaviours must change if the UK is to meet its environmental responsibilities.
Separating the best from the rest
So, in an environment where segregation is all-important, what separates England from the world's best-performing nations?
What are they doing right and where can we improve?
Robust government policies are found in the countries who are leading global recycling, and there's a strong argument for legislation to support the 25-year plan ' with good evidence of what's possible with effective regulation.
In Scotland, for example, 2016 regulations mandating the segregation of food waste for businesses that produce more than 5kg of food waste per week have led to increased compliance.
In the UK, there are signs of government leadership, including initiatives around bring-back schemes, disposable coffee cups, and single-use plastics are all attracting media coverage and driving public engagement.
However, local variability in household recycling continues to thwart overall progress, and policies that establish more uniform practices would help.
Culture of collective responsibility
Government policy is not the only answer. It's easy to pass the environment off as someone else's responsibility ' but we must all play our part.
In progressive countries, governments have established cultures of environmental responsibility where everyone recognises the contributions they make to the world's well-being.
It's a long-haul journey; changing cultures and behaviours doesn't happen overnight. But it must start somewhere.
It all boils down to behaviours. Our daily lives see us fluctuate between professional and consumer behaviours, but ' unlike the waste we produce ' we cannot separate the two: they're simply human behaviours.
Our daily routines include multiple recycling considerations; our food waste at breakfast; our coffee at the station; the waste we produce at work; our purchases at the supermarket; the groceries that rot in the fridge, or the “Bag for Life” we leave in the car.
From baby care to pet care and everything in-between, how we dispose of waste matters hugely. Everything we do will, in one way or another, impact the planet.
Our challenge is to acknowledge ' and change ' bad behaviours at home and at work.
Today, we're seeing some progress; supermarkets have redesigned their plastic bag policies and are turning their attentions to packaging, McDonald's is switching to paper straws, and Sainsbury's is scrapping BOGOFs to curb food waste.
But how can we, as individuals, make our own contributions?
Here are three related areas where behaviours must change:
#1. End landfill culture
The culture of putting our rubbish into holes in the ground must end. In the top-performing countries, landfill ' while still necessary ' doesn't feature prominently.
The UK must move away from its reliance on landfill, and we all have a role to play in achieving this. Although responsibility for collecting our waste is delegated to third parties, the destination of that waste is heavily dependent on how it's been segregated.
That is our responsibility.
When we get it wrong, we pay a high price ' either through the damage we do to the earth, or in the waste management costs which determine our council taxes.
Segregating waste is pivotal to efficient, high-value waste management services, and significant behavioural change is required to achieve this.
There are four degrees of separation:
In the UK, 10 million tonnes of food is wasted every year, a high percentage of which ends up in landfill. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this activity is banned, yet this is a common, costly behaviour in England.
As food waste contains high volumes of water, bags of it are naturally heavy. So, if it's dumped into general waste, collections costs increase which inevitably leads to higher council taxes.
This can be avoided with better segregation.
Paper & Cardboard
There are also complexities around paper. Clean cardboard, newspapers and 'untreated' paper can safely be recycled.
However, coated paper ' often glossy merchandising and unsolicited mail ' should be disposed of separately. We need better education on what we should and shouldn't do with different types of waste.
As with food, segregation of garden waste is essential due to its weight. However, segregating garden waste is well-understood.
Variability in plastic types makes this a complex area.
In January, China ' historically a major destination for recycled waste ' banned the import of 24 categories of solid waste including certain types of plastics, paper, and textiles, which has put pressure on waste management services.
Councils, who previously received rebates on waste streams like plastics, are no longer getting that income, and also face higher disposal costs.
The full impact of the ban has yet to be realised but UK consumers will eventually feel the pain, and the importance of segregating plastic cannot be underestimated.
#3. Minimise Waste
As costs increase and the damage to our planet continues, the most effective solution is to minimise the amount of waste we produce.
To achieve this, we need to take a closer look at how we behave at home and work and reduce avoidable waste by buying more efficiently and segregating more effectively.
The waste sector has been applauded for its pioneering approach to resource efficiency, but to drive meaningful change, these behaviours must become an integral part of UK culture.
There's a growing belief that government intervention is essential to move beyond the 50% target, and while it will undoubtedly help, there's so much we can do without it.
At both the corporate and individual level, we can still reduce waste and manage it more efficiently.
Progress is indeed a collective responsibility, and we all have a part to play.
Let's unite ' and segregate ' together.