Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

| be Waste Wise | December 5, 2022

Scroll to top


No Comments

Commingled versus Source-Separated Collections from a UK Perspective

Source Separation

Waste management consultant, Victoria Hutchin of Ricardo-AEA, considers what the key drivers are for the choice of collection systems in the UK.

Unfortunately, in the UK it is no longer simply a case of implementing the option which is easiest for residents to use or which will result in the greatest yield of material at the expense of material quality.

Image Source:

Image Source:


The waste industry in the UK is heavily regulated, driving all decision making processes. The revised Waste Framework Directive, transposed into the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2012 and the Waste (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2011, requires separate collection of four target materials (paper, glass, metals and plastics), wherever it is “necessary” to achieve high quality, and where it is “technically, environmentally and economically practicable” to do so. The Waste(Scotland) Regulations 2012 require separate collections to be implemented unless the local authority “considers that the amount of material recycled from such waste in its area will not be significantly less, and the quality of the material recycled will not be significantly lower.”


Source: 49 minutes


Carine Abouseif 


You can support us with your sponsorship at any level. Write to to know more. Sponsorship helps keep our content free.

Unfortunately, in the UK it is no longer simply a case of implementing the option which is easiest for residents to use or which will result in the greatest yield of material at the expense of material quality.

When considering what type of collection system should be implemented at a local level, it is very difficult to demonstrate that separate collections are not “technically practicable” as in the majority of cases there are examples of similar authorities operating source-separated collections. In the current economic climate, the argument often comes down to costs since evidence around material quality standards is limited, making it difficult to demonstrate that it is not “necessary” to separately collect materials. However, new reporting requirements on MRF material quality should improve this.

Current trends still seem to be towards commingling, with 77% of UK authorities collecting some form of mixed materials. In England there was a 7% increase in commingled collections of recycling between 2013 and 2014, and of the top 10 authorities in 2013/14 (in terms of recycling and composting performance) 7 had some form of mixed material collections.


England has no government policy on the type of collection system which should be operated, but systems must comply with the Waste Regulations 2012. Scotland and Wales on the other hand have clear policies on preferred collection methods, both favouring source-separated systems.

Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan set a target of separate collections of dry recyclables by 2013. The resulting trend is away from commingled collections, with some exceptions.

In Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government has developed a ”blueprint” which outlines the recommended waste collection service profile; currently source-separation. Threats of funding withdrawal and funding incentives have been used to encourage authorities to move to source-separated collections. Currently 50% of Welsh authorities follow the “blueprint”.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s “Delivering Resource Efficiency” Waste Management Strategy sets out the possibility of introducing a municipal waste recycling target of 60% by 2020. However, the Northern Irish Government has no direct policy on which collection system should be operated, provided that it meets the requirements of the Waste (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2011.

Despite the regulations and devolved government policies steering local authorities towards source-separated collections, a key deciding factor in determining whether to commingle or source-separate is value for money. Although it is challenging to evaluate the relative merits of one system over another when it is not always possible to anticipate how different systems may perform and what market values for different qualities of materials may be in the future, local authorities have to achieve significant budget savings, as a result of austerity measures, with cuts likely to continue until 2017.

Another key driver in the UK is recycling targets; the UK is required to meet the EU target of a 50% household waste recycling rate by 2020, and both Scotland and Wales have introduced their own more challenging targets (60% and 64% respectively). Targets are tonnage driven, meaning the focus is on the quantity of materials collected, rather than quality. However, the UK’s Quality Action Plan and 2014 statutory MRF material quality sampling requirements aim to drive an improvement in material quality, particularly from commingled collections.

Overall waste arisings in England are up by 3.7% from 2014, whereas recycling rates have only increased by 0.6%. If this trend continues, it will make the ambitious 50% recycling target even more challenging to achieve. In terms of the composition of the recycling stream there are clear trends, towards a reduction in paper in part due to increased availability of material online (8% annual decline in newspaper circulation); an increase in cardboard packaging due to an increase in online purchasing; and an increase in plastic packaging due to light-weighting. This material composition change places pressure on MRFs to adapt their technology to cope with ever-changing inputs.

The question of how relevant the debate on collection system type is in the face of falling markets is an interesting one. In the UK the argument is very relevant as we need to comply with EU legislation and national regulations in relation to both recycling performance and how materials should be collected at the kerbside.

The choice of system comes down to a balance between cost of collection/sorting and the resulting value of the materials. However, statutory targets have driven a need to collect high volumes with quality being almost a secondary consideration. Despite falling market values for recyclables (with some recyclable materials having to be reprocessed at a cost), delivering collection services which achieve maximum performance is necessary if we are going to deliver on our statutory recycling targets. Authorities are having to look at collecting materials which are more costly to recycle in order to meet recycling targets.

There is a widely held belief that commingling material results in more contamination and thus poorer quality products. The Resource Association believes that as little as 0.5% contamination in products going to reprocessors could result in the maximum price reduction and potential rejection of that material. MRFs need to adapt to ensure they can deliver high quality outputs without significant increases in processing costs, if commingled collections are to remain a viable option. If MRF operators are unable to balance the cost of processing against the value realised from the sale of the products, local authorities may find source-separation is the better value option.


Submit a Comment