Martyn Ticker, Chief Advisor at the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, explains how utilizing data can help local authorities boost their recycling rates.

There is a need to think differently about waste collections from households and businesses across the UK. Amid a backdrop of funding constraints, almost every local authority in England plans to raise council tax by the maximum amount this April to ensure their finances are sustainable in the long term. But is this sufficient to meet recycling targets?

Local authorities are battling for ways to boost their recycling rates towards meeting the Government’s ambitious target of a 65% recycling rate by 2035. However, with last year’s figures showing 43.4%, there is a lot still to be done.

Data can drive better collection and sorting

One way to address these issues is to deploy digital technologies to leverage data driven, detailed and real-time insights to drive improvement in recycling collections.

This innovation can take many forms. For example, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste has funded commercial demonstration of digital watermarking technology, which has the capability of identifying quantities of specific packaging put onto the market at a retail outlet and quantities of the same articles received back at a sorting centre or recycler. This can inform participants in the value-chain on recycling rates at a detailed level and enable precise sorting to create customised recipes for high-value recycling.

Another approach is to use AI-enabled sensors to detect levels of bin filling, using this data to understand bin usage patterns, optimize collection schedules and make informed decisions about behavioural change campaigns. Ultimately, the goal is to optimize costs, performance and service levels in waste management.

Rethinking recycling collections gives us an opportunity to improve their effectiveness. Sensors detecting levels of bin usage mean there would be no need to travel to bins that are not ready for collection, saving fuel, carbon and time.

This is not just theory; in Asia technology enabled smart-bins (reverse-vending machines) serve as drop-off points for recyclable materials. Each smart bin detects when it is reaching capacity, triggering inbuilt waste compaction and sending an alert to the centralised support team. Once the bin has reached capacity, a message is triggered for the deployment of a local collection crew to empty the bin and transport the contents to a transfer station that is optimally located for its route.

Quality of recycled materials is the key

Recycling quality is another key issue across the UK. The huge variance in recycling quality is evident in the fact that household waste recycling rates ranged from 17.7% to 61.6% in 2022/23. There is the need for support to monitor and register when contamination is entering recycling systems to ensure that this does not detract from the quality of the material being recycled, adding cost to taxpayers for additional sorting and/or seeing large volumes of recyclable material being lost. Such contamination is often through an inadequate understanding of what materials can be recycled, but also may be through lack of appropriate diligence.

We see an embryonic version of this underway, again in Asia, where recycling waste bags have a QR code that is scanned upon collection and again when it reaches the transfer facility. Composition analysis is then fed back to the local authority to ensure targeted campaigns and engagement can be effectively directed at communities to inspire action. Another development in Canada and the US are trials where AI-enabled object recognition is installed onto garbage trucks to provide direct feedback to households who are not recycling appropriately.

Councils should collaborate on collection

We have seen that services that are shared across local authority boundaries can drive synergies: councils working collaboratively have contributed to more than £1bn in efficiency savings. This cross-boundary working could see centralised teams dynamically mapping collection routes and directing recycling to the nearest suitable facility.

Partnerships are effective, with active collaboration between local authorities in Wales enabling the country to achieve an overall recycling rate of 65.7% last year, beating its statutory target of 64%. It is possible to bring multiple authorities together to drive value in waste collections, but much more can be done to maximise this benefit across the UK.

With many councils reprocuring waste services in the coming years, there is an opportunity to seize the momentum built by policy shifts towards consistent collections, thinking differently about how household waste services are delivered in communal settings, and then using these savings to reinvest in more innovation and public service savings.

This article first appeared in the Spring issue of LAPV. To subscribe for free click here.