Recycling in England. It can sometimes feel like you’re going round in circles.
Nobody’s quite sure what goes in the bin and what stays out, and everyone in your family has a different opinion. Do you need to rinse everything before you chuck it? Do the lids stay off or on? Can you recycle dead animals?
To make things even less certain, the rules vary up and down the country, with no two counties sharing the same set of rules. Think you’ve got your head around things in West Yorkshire? Move to Devon and you’ll be back to square one.
We investigated every English county’s recycling policy to find out who’s doing the most (or at least trying to), and who’s doing the least. Keep reading for the full results, and a colourful map to boot.
What's on this page?
Why have we done this study?
“Who cares about each county’s recycling policy?”, we hear some of you ask.
It might be a little dry and mundane, but we at The Eco Experts go crazy for any regional ranking competition, and there’s no hotter topic than the national effort to combat the climate crisis.
This is an opportunity to recognise and reprimand in equal measure. We want to call out the local governments who aren’t trying hard enough, while praising the county councils of England who are doing a ruddy good job.
Of course, “good intentions” aren’t the only influence on a county’s recycling policy – local budget is also a major factor. High-tech recycling scanners and processors are not cheap, and nor are kerbside bin collections free to operate.
This is why we’ve considered each council’s gross expenditure per head at the same time.
How did we conduct this study?
Through a combination of hard graft, passion, and every county council’s official website.
We put together 12 questions as a way of assessing each county’s recycling policy. They were as follows:
Does the county provide the kerbside collection and recycling of…
- Food waste?
- Garden waste?
- Plastic bottles?
- Plastic bottle caps?
- Plastic tubs, pots and trays?
- Black plastic (e.g. microwave meal packaging)?
- Plastic carrier bags?
- Tetra-paks (i.e. cartons used for milk and juice)?
- Metal food/drink cans?
- Sweet/biscuit tins?
- Aluminium foil?
To find this information, we visited each county’s official website and pillaged their PDFs for the answers. Unsurprisingly, some counties did a much better job than others at explaining their recycling policy (well done Worcestershire).
Every county received a score out of 12, with half marks for a partial service (e.g. only St Helens in Merseyside includes aluminium foil in its kerbside recycling collections), or a service that requires paid subscription (e.g. garden waste collection in the West Midlands).
As this is a recycling index, if a county chooses to incinerate a material at a energy-from-waste plant (as opposed to actually recycling it), then they received a ‘0’ in that category. The Greens have denounced energy-from-waste incineration as “bad for climate change”, and suggest that it has held back recycling rates.
Then we really got crunchy with the numbers. To give each county a fairer recycling score, we had to factor in their budget.
By combining 2018 county-by-county population figures with each county’s gross expenditure for 2019/20 (or 2018/19 if not available – all sources below), we calculated the gross expenditure per head for every English county.
The finishing touch? A quick bit of division. For each county, we divided its initial score (1-12) by its budget per head to create an adjusted recycling policy score.
These scores range from 2 to 13, which doesn’t mean an awful lot, so we assigned a school-style grading system:
Which county recycles the best?
It’s Leicestershire. Famed for plucky football teams, fox hunting, and tyrannical monarchs buried in car parks, this landlocked midlands county has just bagged itself another crown.
We’re not saying Leicestershire actually processes the most waste for recycling. That’s not what we’re doing here. But we are saying that Leicestershire has the most all-encompassing recycling policy in England when you take budget into consideration.
It racked up a decent 10 points out of 12 in the first round, missing out on full marks through a lack of food waste collection and black plastic recycling. With an extremely modest gross expenditure per head of just £768, this gave Leicestershire an adjusted score of 13.01 – the highest mark in the class.
Following in a reasonably close second and third are Gloucestershire (10.13) and East Sussex (10.09).
Which county recycles the worst?
It’s Northumberland. Regularly the scene of Anglo-Scot battles in days of yore, this northeastern county really hasn’t put a lot of effort into its days-of-now recycling policy.
It bagged a meagre 6 points out of 12 in the first round, sharing Leicestershire’s lack of food waste collections, but also not recycling drink cartons or aluminium foil (amongst other items). Combine this with their particularly prodigal £2,955 gross expenditure per head, and Northumberland receives a score of just 2.03.
Financially, Northumberland is not one of the strongest counties, so it makes sense that most of its expenditure goes on more ‘socially pressing’ areas than recycling. Indeed, in the 2019 report on English indices of deprivation, the ONS showed Northumberland to be one of the more economically deprived regions of England.
Merseyside narrowly avoided the bottom of the pile (2.78), with Tyne and Wear placing third to last (3.31).
The full roundup
So here’s the whole picture – an eye-popping cartographic representation of England’s “green and pleasant land” based on adjusted recycling policy scores. Or in other words, a map. Hover over each county to see its grade.
Please note: that white splodge over London represents… London. The capital city has its own internal mess of confusing recycling rules, so we left it out of this study. We’ll be doing a separate London study shortly.
The top ten counties for recycling policy
|County||Total (/12)||Budget per head||Recycle score||Grade|
The bottom ten counties for recycling policy
|County||Total (/12)||Budget per head||Recycle score||Grade|
|Tyne and Wear||7||£2,112||3.31||E|
|Isle of Wight||10||£2,397||4.17||E|
Why is there such a difference between counties?
It’s certainly not the case that every county has exactly the same recycling capabilities, and some are simply choosing to be less green than others.
Rather, recycling plants cost money (as much as £65m), and they can significantly vary in size, quality, and technology. Counties are simply choosing to spend different amounts of money on recycling.
So what are the main factors influencing a county’s recycling spend?
- The amount of money available for spending on the most up-to-date recycling technology. For example, if a county council can’t afford the best equipment, they’ll only be able to accept a limited range of materials.
- Other spending pressures. For example, if a particularly large county has to dedicate a significant amount of budget to infrastructure and transport, it won’t be able to invest too heavily in its recycling capabilities. Similarly, a county with a low average income will probably invest most of its money in social housing/social care.
- What the people want. Sometimes residents just don’t want their local taxes being spent on improving recycling if they feel like other things are more important. This is one of the reasons food waste collection hasn’t been particularly successful in certain parts of the country, because it usually involves a tax hike.
Other than Buckinghamshire and Cambridgeshire, all counties in the UK are unable to recycle thin black plastic (i.e. the stuff you find in microwave meal packaging). This is because most optical scanners (which use light reflection) are unable to distinguish black plastic from the black conveyor belt underneath, and so it gets rejected.
Plastic pots, tubs and trays (PTTs)
PTTs (e.g. yoghurt pots, margarine tubs) comprise several different types of polymer (PS, PVC, PP, LDPE etc.), which can make them very difficult to separate and process in a recycling plant. Only counties that have invested significantly in the right equipment are capable of dealing with PTTs, which is why almost 20% of English counties either partially recycle or don’t recycle them at all.
The most common type of carton used for juice and milk is the Tetra-pak, which typically consists of six different layers of material (including plastic, cardboard and aluminium). Similar to PTTs, the hybrid nature of Tetra-paks makes them difficult to process – while the cardboard is fairly easy to salvage, the aluminium-plastic compound (PolyAl) often has to be incinerated.
Once again, the equipment that can properly recycle Tetra-paks is expensive, and not every county has it. Currently, nearly a third of English counties either partially recycle or don’t recycle them at all.
What can you do to help?
Here are some quick tips for how to help your local council’s recycling efforts.
- Give stuff a quick rinse. If it’s plastic or metal and it still has food on it, wash it under the tap for a few seconds before chucking it. Otherwise, food can contaminate any paper or card in the same load and make it unrecyclable.
- Keep your paper dry. Conversely, paper/card needs to stay dry, so don’t go rinsing that. Even cardboard pizza boxes are better greasy and dry than rinsed and clean (just don’t leave any pizza in there).
- Squash down bottles. Doing this will save space in your own recycling bin/bag, and it’ll reduce the chance of bottles rolling off the conveyor belt once they’re at the recycling plant.
- Follow your county council’s instructions. This is the most obvious one. As we’ve made pretty clear, every county has a different approach to recycling, and you can help the most by recycling the correct stuff. If you get it wrong and put an unrecyclable item in there, “one bad apple can spoil the barrel”.