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Councils burn recycling amid virus-linked rise in waste and staff absence | Recycling


Councils are burning household recycling after being hit by a massive surge in domestic waste and coronavirus-related staff absences during the pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

Councils in Cardiff, St Helens and Inverclyde confirmed they were temporarily incinerating recycling, while those in Oldham, Redbridge and West Dunbartonshire also said they had stepped down their recycling services for the time being. A further six authorities have stopped collecting glass or cardboard.

Cardiff city council said it was continuing to collect recycled material as usual and was asking residents to rinse out their recycling and sort items in the correct bags even though the materials would be incinerated for the near future.

“Strange as it seems, we still need you to put recyclables into your green recycling bags so that we can return to recycling the waste when we are able,” the council said in a statement.

The coronavirus lockdown has generated a massive increase in domestic waste collection UK-wide, with nearly a third of authorities reporting an increase of between 20% and 50% on normal volumes of waste collected through household bins. Nearly one in 10 reported waste increases of up to twice as much as usual.

The pressure on local waste disposal services has been underlined by data showing that huge areas of the country have suspended bulky waste collection (55% of councils), garden waste disposal (29%), and food waste (10%) to cope with the crisis.

A survey of 250 UK councils carried out by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (Adept) found that a quarter of local waste teams reported losing up to 40% of staff through illness or self-isolation last week.

A pile of fly-tipped rubbish in a north London street
Fly-tipping has increased since the closure of household recycling centres. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

The charity Keep Britain Tidy has warned that some councils are struggling to keep on top of fly-tipping, suggesting that it might be linked to an increase in DIY and decluttering as people stay at home, as well as the widespread closure of household recycling centres under physical distancing rules.

However, all councils have maintained normal or near-normal levels of domestic refuse collection, and just 2% have suspended recycling. Fears that reductions in recycling collection would lead to a shortage of cardboard packaging have receded, with about 10 councils restarting suspended recycling services.

Ian Fielding, chair of Adept’s Waste Group, said: “It is encouraging to see that local authorities are maintaining core waste services with minimal disruption and that councils are able to put resources into tackling fly-tipping.”

Just 32% of councils are operating normal levels of street sweeping, the Adept survey showed, although the majority were experiencing only moderate or minor disruption. About 7% reported “severe disruption” to street cleaning services.

Richard McIlwain, deputy chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, said: “As organisations providing key frontline services, local authorities are having to prioritise core services, including the regular collection of our household waste.

“However, we are aware that some local authorities are reporting an increase in fly-tipping, potentially linked to the temporary closure of recycling centres. Fly-tipping is a serious environmental crime that blights local communities and harms wildlife, and local authorities should not be having to deal with increased illegal dumping.

“At a time of national crisis, we all have a personal role to play in keeping our environment safe. If you have rubbish you can’t put in your normal bin, either store it until the recycling centres are open or pay for a waste company to take it away, checking first that they are correctly licensed as a waste carrier with the Environment Agency and always ask for a receipt.”

An Inverclyde council spokesperson said: “The reintroduction of recycling collections remains an urgent priority. Like most Scottish councils, we experienced a significant reduction in workforce due to national guidance around self-isolation.”

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