Declaring a climate emergency – as the London Assembly and mayor of London have done – is an important first step in tackling the emerging environmental catastrophe. But what comes next?
The task ahead of us is so vast and the solutions appear so complex, that individual action alone – whilst incredibly important – won’t come close to solving the issue when systemic change is what’s really needed. We require the corporations that dominate so much of our economy to fundamentally reappraise how they do business – indeed, we all need to reconsider the role that capitalism plays in our climate crisis and how we might rethink what can at present be a destructive correlation between growth and climate breakdown.
With problems (and solutions) so vast, it may feel as though there is little that can be done on a personal or local level that can make a real, tangible and lasting difference. The recent Recycling Week is an opportunity to reflect on how we might bring this sort of change about.
Here in London we lag behind the rest of the country in terms of recycling. According to the latest statistics from DEFRA, 33 per cent of household waste in London is recycled or composted, compared to 43 per cent nationally. Even within London, the rate varies considerably from borough to borough, with recycling much lower in Inner London than Outer London: 14 per cent in Newham, 19 per cent in Westminster and 22 per cent in Lewisham, while Sutton and Bromley both manage 50 per cent, and in Bexley it’s 52 per cent. It’s in no doubt that we can and must do better – but what explains this significant discrepancy?
The London Assembly Environment Committee reported on household recycling in 2017, and found a strong link between the proportion of flats in a borough and the recycling rate. The simple fact is that many flats, and particularly high-rises, were built in such a way that the act of recycling can be inconvenient, particularly for those with mobility issues. The disposal of black bag rubbish, however, is often easy, with many blocks still using bin chutes.
With 50 per cent of London’s housing stock in flats, the difficulties are considerable – but it’s not an excuse not to drive up standards. In the municipality of Milan, where 80 per cent of residents live in flats, recycling rates have improved by 20 percentage points to 54 per cent in the past decade – a direct consequence of introducing better enforcement and food waste separation. This points not only to how we might improve recycling rates with state action, but also how the state might better incentivise individual action.
With London needing to build 65,000 new homes per year – most of which will inevitably be flats – the mayor of London and London boroughs must make sure proper recycling facilities are included in all new build homes. The ,ayor’s new draft London Plan states that developers need to consider how facilities are designed to ensure there is enough space for separate collection of dry recyclables, food waste and other waste.
Providing the space within the building is one thing, but councils also need to work closely with landlords and building managers to make sure the right kind of bins are provided, and residents know their obligations and how to use those facilities. This is an additional problem in London as people tend to move more often than elsewhere, and different boroughs have different recycling policies.
The Government’s proposals to introduce more consistency in household recycling is welcome, and the mayor should push local authorities to go further. Sadiq Khan has called for councils to provide all kerbside properties with six dry recycling streams (glass, cans, paper, card, plastic bottles and mixed plastics) and separate food waste collections by 2020 – but this absolutely must be for all types of property if we are to meet our target of 65 per cent recycling by 2030.
The evidence is that Boroughs can actually save money through this approach: Ealing reportedly saves between £1.7m and £2.3m a year by transferring dry recyclable and food waste recycling out of residual waste. However, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is by providing boroughs with the resources needed to scale up their recycling and collection infrastructure.
We should also be more creative about how we design space for waste and recycling inside the home. Guidelines could set out standard ways for recycling and food waste segregation to be built into new kitchens, which would increase the quality of materials collected and their efficiency for recycling. Too many people are limited to small spaces under sinks, and if we want them to recycle the majority of their refuse then this just isn’t good enough.
Experience has also found that limiting the amount of space for residual waste (i.e. that which isn’t recycled) increases recycling rates, so authorities should be careful not to overprovide wheelie bins for landfill rubbish, so that residents have plenty of space for recycling.
Finally, information is king. Partly due to the inconsistency of services, but also because manufacturers do not always put clear recycling instructions on products, many Londoners report confusion over what they can recycle and how. Clearer labelling must be mandated and regulated by the government. This is particularly crucial for single use products such as wet wipes, which many people don’t realise cannot be recycled, composted or flushed, and as a result end up contaminating recycling loads or contributing to horrifying fatbergs.
We have come a long way since London recycled just 8 per cent of its household waste twenty years ago, but to meet the climate challenges of the 21st century and beyond, we must push on. Recycling in London’s flats has lagged behind, but with stronger policies and creative thinking, we can design our homes and buildings to make it easier for everyone to recycle.
Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.