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Covid-19 causes UK recycling to go straight to landfill

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Researchers have called for a revamping of the recycling system in the UK as the Covid-19 lockdown has hampered our ability to properly process recyclable waste.

With almost all household waste recycling centres closed and an upsurge in home clearances and DIY projects, there has been a reported 300 per cent increase in reported fly-tipping in rural communities.

Researchers from Southampton and Portsmouth Universities conducted an analysis of how the virus is impacting the UK’s waste collection systems.

They found that nearly half of all local authority recycling services in the country have stopped or reduced since the lockdown and have warned that unless people are willing to store their recyclable waste at home, much of it will end up in landfill or be incinerated.

The closure of charity shops is also likely to affect people’s ability to ensure their unwanted goods can be re-used by others.

Food waste is also set to have a greater impact on the environment, as disrupted supply chains and import restrictions are likely to increase the levels of food loss. The £1.9bn worth of groceries that were panic-bought and stockpiled at the start of the crisis has increased the amount of food being thrown straight into the bin.

In addition, the increase in home deliveries is leading to a shortage of cardboard, as many households are unable to recycle.

Professor Ian Williams, of the School of Engineering at the University of Southampton, said: “This pandemic has been a wake-up call to governments and the waste sector to ensure that supply chains and markets for recyclates are diverse and resilient.

“Our current waste management system will need to evolve to be resilient to the impacts of these rare, extreme, global events to create a successful circular economy.”

Councillor David Renard, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, said: “Despite the inevitable impact of coronavirus, almost all councils are continuing to collect household waste and recycling normally or with only minor disruption, along with fly-tip clearance operations which have increased. Fly-tipping is never acceptable. While some councils have reported fly-tipping increases, levels have also fallen in some places. 

“There are concerns that unscrupulous traders are exploiting social distancing rules in some areas to try and provide illegal waste disposal services.

“Councils appreciate residents may have larger amounts of rubbish building up and they will continue to work hard to keep waste and recycling services working as effectively as possible.”

The research comes as local councils begin preparations to reopen household recycling centres.

In March, a group of German researchers identified a strain of bacteria capable of breaking down some of the chemical building blocks of polyurethane, giving hope that it could one day be used to reduce plastic waste.

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