Getting to grips with recycling

13 Mar 2024

Getting recycling right is an element of a more circular economy . Globally, about 90% of biodiversity loss can be attributed to resource extraction and processing and, in Scotland, about 80% of our carbon footprint is from emissions embedded in goods we use and consume. 

A transition to a more circular economy, where we use products and materials again and again and prevent waste leaking into the environment, needs to replace our linear economy, one of using products for a short time before discarding them. 

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on its Circular Economy and Waste Route Map.  At the same time, its Circular Economy Bill is going through parliament, with the parliamentary committee report now available.  

This is the second of three blogs which will discuss different sections of the Route Map and how they could be strengthened.   

The Route Map is divided into four ‘strategic aims’:  

  • Reduce and reuse  
  • Modernise recycling  
  • Decarbonise disposal  
  • Strengthen the circular economy 

Last week we published a blog on Reduce and Reuse.  This blog will discuss some of the proposals in the Modernise recycling section.   

The Route Map contains a number of actions to improve both household and commercial recycling.   

There isn’t much data on commercial recycling.  SEPA estimates that the commercial and industrial recycling rates are currently 53%, and waste has steadily reduced with a 21.6% decrease between 2011 and 2021.  Actions proposed in the Route Map will gather additional information, reviewing compliance and undertaking a compositional study.  Other actions include to co-design measures to improve commercial waste services, and to investigate the promotion of business to business reuse platforms. A firmer commitment to this last action would be welcome. 

More data is available on household waste.  Having more than doubled between 2004 and 2011, progress in household recycling rates has been less than impressive in recent years, remaining around 45% and standing at 43% in 2022. There is a huge variation in the rates achieved by different local authorities, varying from 21% to 58%.  Analysis of residual waste, shows that over 50% of what householders throw away could be recycled and, at the same time, that recycling is often contaminated with products that aren’t recyclable.   

Reduction and better management of household waste is also important for reducing carbon emissions.  Analysis shows that household waste makes up approximately 21% of Scotland’s waste by weight, but 55% of the total waste carbon emissions, meaning we are throwing away carbon intensive products and materials, such as food, textiles and plastics.  It is doubly important that such materials are, where possible, diverted from the waste stream and reused or recycled.  

There is clearly a need to improve household recycling rates.  This needs three components:  

1. Recycling facilities that are clearly labelled and accessible to everyone. Actions in this Route Map should lead to accessible, clearly labelled and consistent recycling facilities and services and we would urge the Scottish Government to move ahead with the Codesign process for high quality, high performing household recycling and reuse services and then bring in the Statutory code of practice for household waste services as soon as possible and look at how Wales became one of the leaders in recycling.  

2. Better labelling on packaging and products so people know whether it is suitable for their local recycling facilities.  Too often it isn’t clear whether something is suitable for the people’s local recycling collection.  The new extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging, being brought in across the UK from October 2025, will require much clearer labelling and incentivise recyclable packaging.  

3. We also need a new public awareness campaign and to be more joined up.  There needs to be a new and imaginative approach to communication so people know what they should do with their no-longer-required products and packaging.  People generally want to do the right thing, they don’t like waste People also need to see Government and local authorities leading the way.  Too often it feels like recycling is only the premise of the local authorities’ waste management services; whereas a focus on the use, reuse and recycling of materials needs to be embedded across all departments, from education to leisure to planning.   

I would like to make two additional points.   

First, reuse and recycling have often been clumped together – for example the ‘recycling rates’ referred to are actually ‘reuse and recycling rates’ and yet the emphasis and investment in facilities and services has largely been on recycling.  This needs to change – we know that it is preferable to reuse where possible, both for the environment and, if involving repair, creating  more employment.  The route map actions do include reuse (although generally coming after recycling in terms of delivery timescales), suggesting that this is being rectified, but we need to ensure that reuse services get the attention they require.   

Another thing to keep an eye on is the total amount of waste, as well as the recycling (and reuse) rates.  The total household waste (which includes the portion that goes for recycling) has slightly risen since 2017.  This should be a cause for concern and bringing this down is important, as well as increasing the proportion of it that is diverted into reuse or recycling.  We must always remember that ‘reduce’ is at the top of the waste hierarchy 

By Phoebe Cochrane, Scottish Environment LINK’s Sustainable Economics Officer

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