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Monday, February 2, 2009

Recycling – why we must not stop now

If you believed what you read about recycling in recent days, you could be forgiven for wondering if it was really worth it. We've been told that prices of recycled materials are going through the floor, and now that recycling adds to global warming. What on earth is going on?

Diehard recyclers and research by Wrap, a government-funded agency promoting recycling, shows that about two-thirds of households now recycle as a way of life will be delighted to hear that the truth is very different. In fact, the biggest threat is that people believe the lies and stop recycling, because if that does happen it will be extremely hard to recover lost ground. We risk destroying all our achievements in recycling if we as a nation decide it is a waste of time.

In 2000-01, the recycling rate was 11.2% – for 2007-08 this was up to 34.5%. We need to get that figure to 50% by 2050, and we simply cannot afford to be derailed from that target. We are running out of space in landfill, and the cost is fast becoming prohibitive.

So, how do we know recycling really is worth it? Our independent research, carried out by internationally recognised experts, has shown that recycling is the best environmental option. Yes, really. Incineration, currently touted as the holy grail for dealing with recyclable materials, is just not as good from an environmental point of view. It is only when recycling is not a viable option that recovery of energy from waste can help provide a balanced energy policy.

Research shows that more energy is saved by recycling plastics than is gained by burning them. Recycling saves two tonnes of CO2 (pdf) equivalent emissions per tonne of plastic in comparison to incineration . Even exporting recycled material provides around five times the savings in carbon emissions compared to sending it to waste for energy treatment facilities.

Landfill is even worse (pdf). Sending the UK's used plastic bottles and paper for recycling in China actually saves carbon emissions. Shipping these materials more than 10,000 miles produces less CO2 than sending them to landfill at home and using brand new materials.

In 83% of circumstances (pdf) recycling paper, card, glass, plastics and metals is preferable to any other option for dealing with them. Recycling these items is estimated to save more than 18m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year in the UK.

And so, to the sticky issue of the economic climate, and, more specifically, the price of recycled materials. It is true that, along with all commodities trading on the world market, prices have fallen. However, the good news is that prices have begun to stabilise, even though, in common with the rest of the economy, markets are still fragile. This is not the first time that prices for recovered materials have fallen sharply in this way; the same thing happened in the 1990s and prices recovered within two years. Also, some recyclables – such as glass – have hardly been touched by the price reductions and prices are holding steady. The vast majority of glass collected in the UK is reprocessed here – and demand for it remains strong.

At the end of December, we did a snapshot survey of 50 local authorities to find out if they were managing to move the recycling that householders were putting out. Only 5% of local authorities said they were storing materials.

I am disappointed and angry that the great recycling success story, and the hard work and efforts of millions of people is being threatened in this way. When we asked people about their attitudes to recycling just last year, 95% said that it had become part of their everyday routine. And 90% said they were "happy to be doing their bit for the environment" and 69% said they felt "good about themselves" when recycling.

In 2007-08 local authorities collected 9.7m tonnes for recycling from English households. This is something to celebrate – and to continue. So – let me encourage you to take action. Don't let the anti-recyclers win – keep on recycling yourself and spread the word. In today's credit-crunch world we cannot afford to waste resources. Let's make the most of what we have – by turning it back into something new.

• Dr Liz Goodwin is the chief executive of Wrap

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