Did you know the third best country at recycling is in the UK?

Recycling in Wales: We may not need to look too far from home to find inspiration

Wales is a country famous for its sweeping coastline, its vast National Parks and mountains, the Welsh language, and – waste management.

Unknown to many, Wales is recognised as one of the world’s leading recyclers, coming first in the UK, second in Europe, and third globally, when it comes to its recycling rate. What does this look like in practice? In 2018/2019, the total amount of household and non-household waste that was reused, recycled or composted in Wales was 62.8%. For reference, England’s rate in 2018 was 44.7%.

After recently exploring the environmental impact of Brexit, it seems we may not need to look too far from home to find inspiration for how we can recycle more effectively, and move further towards a circular economy.

Wales recycling success

What’s the reason, then, for Wales’ recycling success? Part of it has to do with the devolution of government – in 1997 Wales voted in favour of creating a National Assembly for Wales in a referendum, which then came into power in 1998 – which means their national policies can be different from those in Scotland, Northern Ireland or here in England. With this freedom, Wales has found success through the strategic and unified recycling system, and community campaigns, it’s implemented.

In Wales, five out of the 22 councils operate a "co-mingled method", where the council will sort recycling for residents, while residents of the other 17 councils receive multiple containers and separate their waste themselves, for it to then be collected. Councils collect mixed paper, plastic packaging, metal packaging, mixed glass, cardboard, textiles, and even food and garden waste.

RECYCLING IN WALES https www bbc co uk news uk wales 50262067 Image from - www.bbc.co.uk:news:uk-wales-50262067

While some Welsh home-owners may not appreciate having up to ten bins, research has shown that though the co-mingling method helps increase participation, multiple containers are the best way to ensure the best quality for the recycling collected – meaning that it’s not contaminated and can retain its use as a resource.

Once the recycling has been picked up, the clever ‘My Recycling Wales’ campaign, funded by the Welsh Government and sustainability experts WRAP Cymru, helps recyclers see exactly how much waste has been collected nationally and where that recycling is going.

Being able to see clearly and transparently the impact your waste management is having on a country-wide target is a huge incentive for people to get involved, follow protocol, and feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

Wales recycling targets

Thought being the UK’s top recycler would be enough? You’d be wrong. Wales aren’t ready to stop their sustainability drive any time soon – now, the mission is to become a zero-waste, net-zero carbon economy by 2050. Moreover, Welsh politicians are pushing for a 100% recycling rate by then, too.

So, what does this target look like? In essence, single-use plastics would have been phased out entirely, replaced by biodegradable plastic (where needed, like in hospitals) or other compostable or renewable materials. It could also mean an incinerator tax, which would force officials to seek productive alternatives with their waste rather than burning it and emitting harmful gases into the air.

The Welsh government are so set on their goals that they’ve announced £6.5 million funding to help local authorities and other public bodies with this initiative.

Other things being introduced are "extended producer responsibility" rules, that will make manufacturers accountable for disposing of their products and packaging, and a Welsh Reuse Strategy Board and Reuse Practitioners Working Group, to help recover resources and reuse materials – just to name a few.


Zero waste and plastic-free communities

On a national level then, Wales has succeeded with its policies, and structural initiatives. But what about on a local level?

Llangollen, a town in North Wales, has been awarded Plastic Free Community status by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), one of the UK’s leading grassroots movements against marine plastic pollution.

Towns are recognised as ‘plastic-free’ if they can prove they have achieved five plastic-free objectives, including mobilising the community, working with businesses and engaging local government. Over 10% of Llangollen’s population are in a dedicated Facebook group where they actively speak about the project and how they can help. Many local businesses have signed up to become ‘plastic-free pioneers,’ pledging to reduce the amount of packaging they use and sell.

In ‘Zero Waste communities’, premises such as repair cafes can also help strategically with the ethos, working to fix items rather than send them to landfill.

Business recycling in Wales

If making companies plastic-free is a key cornerstone to recycling success, what’s the best way to engage businesses?

Currently, household recycling is much higher in Wales than anywhere else in the UK, but business recycling appears to be lagging, with the potential to halt the ambitious targets for 2050.

The government in Wales have attempted to counteract this by offering companies the chance to apply for grants of between £25,000 and £750,000 from the Circular Economy Fund to boost their use of recycled plastics.

As early as July 2020, up to October 2021, bans will come into effect on the disposal of food waste into sewers from business premises, recyclable materials being incinerated, landfill or incinerator facilities accepting recyclable materials, and waste collectors will be legally prohibited from mixing separated materials. If implemented correctly, there is hope that this will protect the environment, improve the quality of recycling, improve resource security, and stimulate greater investment in the country and its resources.

What can we learn from Wales?

Michael Gove, England’s former Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, said in 2019: “…there is much we can learn from Wales and our work with WRAP to produce a Framework for Greater Consistency in England, following the Welsh government’s single blueprint for recycling.”

In England, we need to take Wales’ lead and have our government work with manufacturers and producers to be accountable for their recycling, waste, and labelling of products.

A 2017 article in the Guardian UK, by Sandra Leville, explains clearly the key themes and policies we need to adopt nationally for us to follow the success path of our neighbouring country.

These include:

  • Mandatory separate collection of key dry recyclable materials.
  • Mandatory separate collection of biowaste.
  • Statutory targets for rates of recycling or the reduction of unrecycled waste.
  • Pay-as-you-throw charges.
  • Producer responsibility schemes, where producers fund the collection of key recyclables.
  • Taxes on landfill.
  • Deposit refund systems.

Looking at Wales, we can see a clear map for sustainability success – a place where recycling rates are constantly increasing, communities are engaged, the government is being clear and strategic with environmental goals, incentivising good behaviour and restricting or banning poor practice.

It’s inspiring and exciting to see, and we hope that we might be able to adopt and embrace the same change-making ideas and solutions here in England.

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