Skip to main content

Household Waste Recycling

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 7 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the fall in household waste recycling rates in England.

Me again, I am afraid. Through our resources and waste strategy and our landmark Environment Act, we will transform our waste system. We are introducing consistent recycling collections across England, creating a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, and introducing extended producer responsibility for packaging to ensure that packaging producers cover the costs of recycling and disposing of their packaging. Through these measures, our ambition is to reach a municipal waste recycling rate of 65% by 2035.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the officers, recycling operatives and residents of Conwy Council in north Wales, who in 2020-21 achieved a recycling rate of 70% and are set to repeat that figure this year despite the pandemic? Key to their success is getting the infrastructure right. Councils from across the UK, Lithuania and further afield have visited to learn from its example. Would the Minister accept an invitation to visit to Conwy County to judge its success?

There is nothing I like more than visiting beautiful parts of the world to see their waste management processes. On my way, I might look in at West Berkshire, where the local authority inherited a lamentable 19% recycling rate and has now got it to more than 50%; I cannot remember who it inherited it from. We want to see every council doing that. The measures we have in the Environment Act can provide a means for getting consistency over the country—consistency that has hitherto been absent.

My Lords, it is estimated that 7 million tonnes of food is discarded from the home every year, nearly half of which is edible, at a cost of about £700 per average family per year. The top reasons given are not writing a shopping list, not planning meals and forgetting what is in the fridge. What levers do the Government have to nudge and encourage households to do better?

My noble friend is right that households, particularly hard-pressed households, can save a lot of money by managing their food waste better. It is question of encouragement, education from an early stage and support, but it is not for me or the Government to dictate how people operate in their home. This is an enormous burden on society. We have to dispose of this, and I am delighted that food waste recycling will be consistent over the country, but we want to have to recycle much less.

Further to the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, can the Minister explain the growing disparity in recycling rates between England and Wales? Last year, England’s rate went down to 43.8% while Wales’s rate increased to 65.4%. If Wales can be so successful, why can England not be? What discussions are being held with the Welsh Government so that we can learn those lessons and apply them to England?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that recycling levels have plateaued. Over the pandemic, they went down by 1.5%. The decrease reflects the impact of Covid, with waste tonnages from home increasing as people spent more time at home and waste collections decreasing due to household waste recycling centres being closed. She is also right that there are disparities not just between England and Wales but between different parts of England. That is why, through the provisions in the Environment Act, we want consistency. In every home, even if people move from one part of the country to another, they must know that they can recycle the same articles of their household waste in the same way in all parts of the country to help us hit our targets.

My Lords, can the Minister expand on the measures being taken to promote separation and sorting technologies at recycling facilities, to increase the usability and efficiency of household waste in England?

There is improving technology in this area. Robotics and artificial intelligence are identifying waste in a way that we were not able to do before so we are able to divert yet more away from landfill. However, the real silver bullet is preventing it getting to the facilities in the first place by stopping packaging and other measures upstream and having many more recyclable products, which we are working with industry to achieve, before we even get to that separation process.

My Lords, there is never a silver bullet; I do not understand why this Government do not understand that. You need a range of options. The Minister said that recycling has plateaued. That is not true: the Government’s statistics from May suggest that it has in fact declined. Why not talk about incineration? As incineration increases, recycling declines, so will the Government bring in a moratorium on new incineration plants?

The noble Baroness is right that rates dropped by about 1.5% over the pandemic, as I think I said. I am not sure whether there are any incinerators planned at the moment but I will take her point away because I agree with it.

My Lords, the Government want to standardise household waste collection services throughout England, as the Minister said. Having moved from an area that collected—separated—nearly everything recyclable to one whose recyclable collection is pretty poor, I am frustrated to be told that I may have to wait two years for the collection to improve. Listening to the Government, however, I may have to wait 10 years for it to improve. Why are the Government dragging their feet?

As I said, we passed provisions in the Environment Act that give us new powers to improve consistency and introduce both a deposit return scheme and an extended producer responsibility for packaging. All these measures require working with industry; we are consulting, and have consulted, on them and will bring them forward. The producer packaging measures will be brought forward in 2024.

Will the Minister address the possible small and perhaps niche issue of home composting? A lot of food waste and packaging could be composted but is not. Obviously, this is a more challenging prospect for those who do not have outside space, but what are the Government doing to encourage people who have outside space to use some of it to compost their own waste?

That is a very good point. As the noble Baroness rightly says, many households do not have the ability or space to do this but those that do need to be given information. They also need to know what they can do with the end product; for example, we are banning peat as a growing medium and compost can be an alternative to that.

My Lords, I wish my noble friend happy travels in Wales and a long period in office, but does he accept that what this country desperately needs now is continuity in government? It would therefore be wise if, when the present Prime Minister resigns, he does not remain as a caretaker but rather has an acting Prime Minister in the deputy in the other place.

My Lords, the words “above”, “pay” and “grade” come to mind. There is constitutional precedent on this, of course; I am sure that that is what will be applied.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Scottish Greens intend to fight the next general election on the single issue of independence? Is that not a betrayal of their main purpose, including recycling?

My Lords, towards the end of 1834, the Duke of Wellington ran the Government single-handedly for some 24 days. I wonder whether there is a case for suggesting that his highly respected successor the current noble Duke, with his well-known environmental interests, be invited to assume the position of Prime Minister on a caretaker basis to improve recycling and clean up our rivers.

That is a very good suggestion. I will put it to my honourable friends in the other place. Having a duke in No. 10 is probably long overdue.

My Lords, the problem with recycling is not just the recycling but the rubbish that is left behind. How does the Minister think the country should deal with the recycling now going on at No. 10 and the rubbish being left behind?

My Lords, in his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the Minister said that there should be a national strategy. Does he agree that one of the problems faced by the public is that they get confusing and conflicting instructions on packaging waste? For example, it can say “Not recyclable here” or “Widely recyclable. Consult your local authority”. Surely there is an important need for more clarity.

There is. Local authorities, which have the interface with the customer or householder, are beholden on this. The drive that we are now pushing to increase recycling rates to 65% will require close working with councils and councils working closely with householders to show them how they can do it with minimal impact on their lives, whatever type of house they live in. We must make sure that we hit our targets because they are important for climate change and the cost of living, as well as for the kind of society, countryside and environment that we all want to enjoy.