Shared recycling standards and better public awareness are key to solving UK’s ‘wishcycling’ problem
Solving the problem of ‘wishcycling’ in the UK needs a joined up, multifaceted approach that includes investment in public awareness campaigns, along with closer alignment on recycling standards by local authorities, and improved labelling and packaging design by brands and retailers with a special focus on waste reduction and biodegradability.
That is according to Chris Williams, founder and CEO of ISB Global, the UK based provider of software and solutions to the global waste management and recycling industry, who makes the case for how to fix the confusing state of the UK's recycling system.
‘The wishcycling phenomenon shows that the UK still has a long way to go to improve its recycling performance,’ said Chris. ‘An October 2022 study by waste management company Biffa and climate action NGO WRAP found that nearly one-fifth (17%) of England and Wales’ recyclable waste could not be recycled due to contamination. The study also showed that 82% of UK households regularly include non-recyclable items in their recycling collections.’
‘Wishcycling occurs because people are confused or unaware about what they can and cannot recycle, and also because they overstate the possible usefulness of certain waste items,’ explained Chris. ‘Differences in recycling schemes across local authorities and boroughs, plus unclear or misleading information and symbols on product packaging, add to this confusion.’
Chris continued, ‘The consequences of wishcycling can be costly and damaging to the entire recycling process. Overloaded recycling trucks, the need for manual separation of unsuitable waste items, contamination of recycling mills, and damage to machinery and facilities are just some of the problems caused by mixing recyclables and non-recyclables. These all go on to significantly impact the efficiency and effectiveness of recycling efforts – and push up costs as well.
‘The introduction of separate bins for glass, metal, cardboard, and food waste, with local councils determining what are accepted recyclable items, is a practical step forward to improving recycling behaviour. It not only encourages proper sorting by households but also facilitates efficient collection and processing.
‘What is also clear is the need for comprehensive education and awareness campaigns. Increasing public knowledge about what can and cannot be recycled is vital to avoid cross-contamination and improve recycling rates. But this by itself isn’t enough.’
Chris also points to the need for better collaboration between national government, local authorities, waste management companies, and citizens as crucial to tackling the wishcycling problem. ‘Currently, the lack of consistency in recycling practices across different areas in the UK is a significant challenge. With 39 different bin collection regimes across 391 local authorities, the rules regarding recyclability of items vary widely. Confusing messaging by brands and retailers on packaging further complicates matters, with misleading logos and statements that might not correspond with the recycling capabilities of a specific area.
‘In its recent briefing on reducing contamination and wishcycling, Defra declared its aim to make recycling easier and achieve comprehensive and consistent recycling. Defra’s new guidance is commendable but has raised more questions than answers within the waste management and recycling (WMR) sector about the next steps for reforming recycling collections.
‘The important next step for Defra is to provide clear guidelines for ensuring a smooth transition to improved recycling practices: and then to work with local government and waste management companies is to strike the right balance between the obvious environmental benefits of recycling versus what’s practical for consumers and businesses.’
Technology obviously has a significant role to play as well – including implementing the latest automated waste sorting technology at recycling centres to efficiently identify and remove mistakenly recycled items: and also making collection and recycling processes easier and more efficient through better analysis and reporting.
‘The government's plans to encourage more careful sorting of recyclables are steps in the right direction,’ said Chris. ‘However, a comprehensive solution depends on making recycling easier and more consistent through shared standards that are aligned across all regions. Simplified packaging and clear guidelines that people can understand will give households the information they need to make informed recycling decisions and do their part to contribute to a greener future.’