Rethinking Recycling

Why waste management companies might not be the best stewards

In the grand scheme of waste management, recycling is often portrayed as the golden child—the solution to our ever-growing landfill dilemma, the beacon of sustainability in a sea of refuse.

Yet, behind the scenes, there’s a complex web of interests and incentives that shape how recycling is handled, particularly in the UK. And at the heart of it all are waste management companies, tasked with the monumental challenge of managing our waste streams.

But are they the best stewards for recycling?

The Focus on Waste

First and foremost, it’s essential to understand the core mission of waste management companies. Surprise, surprise, it’s managing waste.

From collection to disposal, their primary goal is to efficiently and cost-effectively handle the vast quantities of waste generated by society – and, the killer, to do so profitably.

And that’s the crux of the issue—recycling, while certainly a component of waste management, may not always be the top priority.

When waste management companies are driven by the imperative to maximise profits and streamline operations, recycling can easily take a backseat.

After all, recycling requires additional resources, infrastructure, people and sorting processes compared to traditional waste disposal methods like landfill or incineration.

Two women sorting waste plastic and glass



The Recycling Conundrum

In an ideal world, waste management companies would diligently sort, process, and divert recyclables from landfills, contributing to a circular economy where materials are reused and repurposed.

However, the reality is often far from ideal.

With their focus primarily on waste, these companies may opt for the path of least resistance when it comes to handling recyclable materials.

This could mean sending recyclables to incinerators or landfill alongside general waste, a practice known as “co-mingling.”

While this approach may be more expedient and cost-effective in the short term, it undermines efforts to promote routine recycling and long term sustainability.

Profit Maximisation vs. Recycling Targets

Let’s address the elephant in the room: kerbside collection.

In the UK, kerbside collection has become the norm for household recycling, with local authorities providing bins for residents to separate recyclables from general waste.

But is this approach driven by a genuine commitment to recycling, or is there another motive at play?

Some might argue that facilities managers are not incentivised to examine too closely the validity of waste management sustainability claims.

Either they’re too busy trying to meet a plethora of other targets – or, once the waste has been collected, the accountability problem shifted and it’s easier to move on to the next problem.

Others argue that kerbside collection aligns with the profit-driven interests of waste management companies.

By consolidating recyclable materials at the source—our homes—waste management companies can more efficiently collect and process these materials, maximising their profit margins.

However, this convenience for waste management companies doesn’t necessarily translate to optimal recycling outcomes.

Row of kerbside recycling bins

Conflict of Interests

At its core, the issue boils down to a conflict of interests. Waste management companies, beholden to shareholders and bottom lines, may prioritise cost-cutting measures over investments in recycling infrastructure.

This short-sighted approach not only undermines recycling efforts but also perpetuates our reliance on finite resources and contributes to environmental degradation.

And, is there adequate transparency and accountability in the waste management industry?

Without clear oversight and stringent regulations, waste management companies may operate with impunity, making decisions that prioritise profit over sustainability.

Call for Change

So, what’s the solution? It begins with recognising the inherent limitations of entrusting waste management companies with the stewardship of recycling.

Instead, there’s a growing call for dedicated recycling initiatives led by organisations with a vested interest in sustainability rather than profit alone.

This could involve empowering community-led recycling programs, fostering partnerships between local governments and grassroots organisations, and separating the process of waste tendering from recycling tendering.

By decentralising recycling efforts, opening up the tender process and placing greater emphasis on accountability and transparency, we can create a more robust and resilient recycling infrastructure.

Towards a Sustainable Future

In the grand narrative of waste management, recycling is not merely a footnote—it’s a critical chapter in our journey towards sustainability. Entrusting the responsibility of recycling to waste management companies, whose primary focus is on waste rather than resource conservation, may not be the most effective approach.

As we confront the challenges of waste management and environmental stewardship, it’s imperative that we re-evaluate our priorities and embrace holistic solutions that prioritise sustainability over short-term gains.