As the UK lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic continues and looks set to continue for some time, councils across the country are struggling to accommodate dramatic increases in household waste. Staying at home has become the new normal with the Government issuing very clear guidance but the change in our social habits is having a dramatic effect on our households and on the household waste we generate.
With recycling centres around the country closed until further notice, local council collections are feeling the pressure.
To build-up of household waste, the Government has advised local councils to prioritise black bag collections over recycling. Although the guidance includes advice for councils to continue with recycling collections if possible, the message is clear that as recycling waste poses a much lower health risk than black bag rubbish, the latter must take priority.
Although well intentioned and based on protecting health and safety of people, this advice does not take into account the long-term effects on our environment and the overall awareness and commitment of consumers in the aftermath of the current crisis. It is true that black bag waste poses a greater health risk in the short term however the long-term effects on our people and environment particularly in the ongoing climate emergency must be a consideration.
Councils across the country are already reporting a dramatic increase in fly tipping as households become overwhelmed with the increased waste they are producing. Waste dumping reporting app ClearWaste shows that overall fly-tipping is up by 76%, with some London boroughs facing a 100% increase.
Meanwhile, British Glass has urged councils to continue recycling collection services if possible as concern grows that valuable materials which could be recycled back into use are instead finding their way to landfill. The representative body for the UK glass industry has noted that several local authorities have reduced their waste and recycling services due to staff shortages. If recycling rates continue to fall, it not only impacts the circular value of recyclable materials but also increases demand for carbon-intensive raw materials which have a much more negative environmental impact.
Increased sales in the food and drinks sector means demand for glass has risen sharply so the need for good quality recycled glass is now at record levels.
Household waste recycling rates in England have increased to 45% over the last 20 years due to a combination of increased knowledge, environmental awareness and government commitment. Yet these figures still fall short of EU targets so any reduction in recycling at this point would surely represent a step backwards and would undo the progress that has been made. It is important for all consumers to remember the overall long-term value of recycling generally and we must work collectively to ensure the great advances that have been made in recycling rates over recent years should not be undone. The climate emergency we are all facing will remain a challenge long after the current crisis has been controlled
These are unprecedented times and as councils and contractors experience staff shortages, some temporary compromise around waste collection must be made however it is important to remember that while the current pandemic will eventually come to an end, the damage we are doing to our environment will continue to grow. During this crisis, the most important actions we take must be to keep people safe, but it is also imperative we protect our essential services and infrastructure for the long-term benefits of us all and of our planet.
Tim Gent is director of Recresco