Many of us are clear on the environmental and economic benefits of recycling. It conserves natural resources, frees up landfill space, preserves energy, reduces pollution, saves money, and creates jobs. The list could go on. Until recently however, local authorities, who are responsible for waste collection and disposal and have a key role to play in this area, have been embroiled in a long debate over what is the optimal way to recycle.
In 2011 the Campaign for Real Recycling (CRR) launched a judicial review against the government. CRR argued that commingled waste collection, which allows residents to combine all their recyclables into a single container to be sorted at a centralized processing facility, should not be acceptable in England and Wales. If they had won, 274 councils, covering 19 million households would have lost the right to decide how their recyclables should be collected. CRR lost, however. On 6th March 2013, the judge dismissed the case.
The main source of contention between the two parties was over the definition of ‘separate collections’. CRR argued that Defra and the Welsh Government had incorrectly transposed the revised European Waste Framework Directive (rWFD) – the document which sets the ground rules for waste management across Europe – into UK law. They were specifically concerned about the government’s interpretation of separate collections of waste, discussed in Article 10 and 11 of the Directive, and how it will affect the quality of recycling.
Article 11 of the rWFD states that:
“Member States shall take measures to promote high quality recycling and, to this end, shall set up separate collections of waste where technically, environmentally and economically practicable and appropriate to meet the necessary quality standards for the relevant recycling sectors…by 2015 separate collection shall be set up for at least the following: paper, metal, plastic and glass.”
Defra defended its inclusion of commingled waste collection into UK law, by arguing that as long as recyclable material such as, waste paper, metal, plastic and glass are separated from non-recyclable rubbish, then the conditions of the Directive have been met. However, CRR supported by other organisations, including Novelis, Berryman, Straight and Friends of the Earth claim that the inclusion of commingled waste collection is contrary to the EU Directive and reduces the quality of recyclable materials. Hilary Harrison, a partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors, who represent CRR commented that, “Closer adherence to EU legislation will greatly improve the quality of material able to be recycled and drastically reduce the current level of material that end up in landfills.”
Judge Mr Justice Hickinbottom, ruled against CRR’s case and said that he saw no justification for referring the decision to the European court. He found the government to have correctly interpreted EU law and commented that the obligation to set up separate collection of paper, metal, plastic and glass from 2015 applies only where it is necessary to ensure waste undergoes recovery operations.
Representatives of the Local Government Association, Environmental Services Association and the trade association for the waste management sector are pleased with the judge’s decision. Although CRR are said to have been disappointed, they have decided to not appeal, but instead concentrate on maintaining focus on the quality of recyclate and its objective to maximise value from recovered material.
We here at LGiU feel that councils will be relieved at this outcome. Local authorities have spent many years researching and developing the right recycling strategy for their area; what suits one locality may not suit another. To have been forced to separate waste at source would have been costly, lead to complicated changes in outsourced contracts and in many cases would not have increased recycling rates, particularly in dense urban neighbourhoods. Looking forward, the big challenge for waste management is creating markets for recyclate, not tinkering with collection systems.