Why are Londoners so rubbish at recycling? That was the challenging question the London Assembly’s environment committee put to Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for environment and energy Shirley Rodrigues this week.
The figures look stark. Londoners produce some 3.6 million tonnes of waste every year and just a third of it is recycled. The capital has the lowest recycling rate of any region in England, flatlining since 2010 and well below the national average of 43 per cent.
The picture is, of course, more nuanced than the committee’s headline suggests. Recycling rates across England have increased significantly over the past two decades and in London the went up from just eight per cent in 2003 to 30 per cent in 2010. And rates vary significantly too, both between regions and within them.
The latest government figures, which are for 2017/18, show the south west and eastern regions of England ahead of the pack at 49 per cent, with the north-east only just ahead of London.
The East Riding of Yorkshire tops the individual council league table at 64 per cent, with Bexley the best performer in London with 52 per cent of household waste recycled. Newham has the lowest rate in England at just 14 per cent, followed in London by Westminster at 19 per cent and Lewisham at 22 per cent.
Population density, type of housing – flat-dwellers find it harder to recycle – and the amount of food and garden waste collected all play a part in explaining the differences. Cities with fewer gardens and more flats – and London has a lot of those, Rodrigues told the committee – recycle less.
Mayor Khan’s headline target is for 65 per cent of all London’s waste – not just domestic – to be recycled by 2030 and 50 per cent of all council waste collections by 2025. This requires the average household to up its recycling from 33 per cent to 42 per cent as its contribution to these goals. The target is under pressure and City Hall’s powers are limited.
The Mayor sets out an overall strategy, and London’s boroughs, which do the collecting, must act in “general conformity” with that plan. “One of the barriers is the inconsistency of service people get in London,” Rodrigues said. “The first thing is to make sure that the service is available and that it is consistent. If we provide the services, people will take part.”
So Khan’s strategy requires each borough to agree a new reduction and recycling plan (RRP) by next year, with minimum levels of service – collecting a set of six basic materials from all homes, glass, cans, paper, card, plastic bottles and mixed rigid plastics (tubs, pots and trays).
What can and can’t be recycled is currently a source of confusion. A Which? survey in May this year found that a third of people weren’t confident that they were putting the right materials in the bin.
Also key to the strategy is a requirement to introduce a separate weekly kerbside food waste collection. Food waste makes up a quarter of “residual” waste, and most of that could be recycled. But a third of boroughs currently don’t have a separate food waste collection, and with no extra funding available, cost could be a factor.
The proposal has already seen a stand-off between City Hall and Barnet, where the council suspended its weekly food waste collection in November last year, citing high costs and low take-up.
Khan warned at that time that the decision was at odds with his strategy and, following discussions with City Hall, the council has now confirmed in its new RRP that it will “aim to achieve the minimum service standards by 2022”, including a separate food waste collection from street properties.
But funding is yet to be identified, with officers reporting the “notable cost of the reintroduction of the food waste collections” and council environment committee chair Dean Cohen adding that bringing back food collections before 2022 could mean a move away from weekly general bin collections. Officers also pointed to the provision in the Act that compliance with the strategy should not “impose excessive additional costs” on councils.
City Hall would begin signing off borough plans at the end of the year, Rodrigues told the committee. And she warned that Khan could use powers set out in the Greater London Authority Act 2007 to direct councils to change their plans where they were not deemed to conform to the overall strategy.
“The Mayor has always said that he wants to work with the boroughs and we’ve had very good engagement. But the Mayor reserves his right to use his powers. We are absolutely focused on meeting targets and reducing waste overall.”
Watch the whole of the 18 September 2019 environment committee meeting here.