Closing the loop – not just on Global Recycling Day

18th March 2022 marks Global Recycling Day. Brought to life in 2018, Global Recycling Day raises awareness on the regenerative potential of waste as a resource, and the key role of recycling in keeping raw materials in the circular economy.

The need to increase global recycling rates has gained even more urgency in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Its repercussions on global energy and raw material supplies have once again shown Europe’s dependency on primary resources such as crude oil and natural gas from outside the EU, which are the main feedstock for the production of plastics. By injecting waste materials back into the economy as a secondary raw material – for instance in the form of recycled polyethene (rPET) – recycling can also help to decrease dependencies on raw materials and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), associated with the production of virgin plastics.

In short, recycling is an all-rounder – but what are regulators in the EU and in the UK doing to harness its potential?

Scotland: introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers

Involving businesses and consumers in waste collection and sorting is key to increasing recycling rates. Already a reality in many EU countries for decades, Scotland is set to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme to incentivise consumers to return their used plastic, aluminium, steel and glass drinks containers, and oblige businesses to take back and ensure the recycling of these containers.

While the scheme will make it easy for consumers to feed their used bottles “back into the circular loop”, many businesses may struggle in setting up and running the new scheme. Sellers of drinks containers sized between 50ml and three litres, whether in a physical store or online, not only have to put in place a takeback service for sold containers. They are also obliged to set up a cash flow scheme, in which the consumer pays a 20p deposit per drinks container, which is then deposited back upon the return of the container. To facilitate the process, drinks producers can appoint a scheme administrator, which helps in running the scheme.

Initially envisaged for July 2022, the scheme has been delayed following the pressure and lobbying efforts of large retailers. It will now come into force on 16th August 2023. While the date seems distant, Scottish organisations are well-advised to capitalise on the time won to get their schemes up and running.

Businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will closely monitor the roll-out of the scheme in Scotland. However, the changes are in sight yet: in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the scheme will not come into effect until 2024 at the earliest – six years after it has been announced by the then Environment Secretary Michael Gove as a key environmental policy.

This time may be best invested in preparing for the UK Plastic Packaging Tax, which will come into effect in less than two weeks.

European Union: harmonising rules for waste separation and collection  

Not only the UK is increasing its efforts to improve recycling rates. The EU Waste Framework Directive, often hailed as the “holy grail” of waste policy, obliges Member States to promote high-quality recycling. Yet, recycling rates in the European Union have been stagnating at around 49% in the last ten years – not sufficient to meet the ambitious recycling targets set out in the Circular Economy Action Plan, which foresees a 60% recycling rate of municipal waste by 2030. The European Commission has even issued official warnings to fourteen Member States which are at risk of missing the recycling targets.  In parallel, and contrary to the very idea of a circular economy, waste incineration rates are increasing in Europe.

High-quality recycling relies on effective collection of waste – and that’s where the problem arises. The approach to waste separation and collection remains fragmented across Europe, which each Member State, region and even municipality having different rules in place. As a consequence, consumers often struggle to dispose of waste correctly, which leads to the contamination of waste streams and inhibits high-quality recycling.

An EU-wide harmonised model for separate waste collection should address these shortfalls and boost recycling rates. By introducing harmonised colour schemes for bin bags, the Commission hopes to address widespread consumer confusion about recycling and make it easier for consumers to know where and how to dispose of waste. Options on extending producer responsibility (EPR) are also on the table, for instance as an obligation for producers to introduce recycling labels on their products. A legislative proposal on harmonised waste separation and collection is expected for this year and will provide more clarity on forthcoming obligations for organisations.

So on this day, more than ever, organisations and businesses alike should rethink waste as a valuable resource. While Global Recycling Day will help to raise awareness about the potential of recycling, regulators will lead the way in introducing the legislative measures that will make higher recycling rates a reality – not just on Global Recycling Day!

More on the environment can be found here.

The Whitehouse Communications team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients who seek to engage on climate and sustainability policy with policymakers in the EU institutions, but also with the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact Viviana Spaghetti, at