An updated practical guide for local authorities on managing the quality of recyclable materials collected at the kerbside.

This guide provides an update for Local Authorities still facing regular problems with the quality of the materials collected, on ways to tackle contamination.

Quality of recycling is a key tenet of Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy. The guide focuses on dry recyclables collected at the kerbside and, primarily, on their contamination by the householders who set them out for collection.

Whilst the term ‘contamination’ is used widely by those working in the sector it is not a term that householders tend to understand. WRAP would advise that the term ‘contamination’ is not used in communications with residents.

WRAP’s research on recycling attitudes and reported behaviour reveals that 82% of UK households add one or more items to their recycling collection that is not accepted locally.

Evidence generally points to contamination of recyclables being a large-scale problem with data from MRF sampling indicating that 16.6% of input material to MRFs was contamination.

Contamination may create practical and even reputational issues at the different stages of recyclables’ journeys from kerbside to reprocessing. Increased collection and reprocessing costs effectively reduce the value of materials destined for recycling. In most cases, additional costs are eventually passed back to the local authority in the form of lower revenues or higher gate fees. 

Part A examines the issue of contamination and considers what causes it, the problems it creates and the legislative drivers currently in place. The aim is to inform thinking and decision-making within your organisation. You may wish to use this information when creating a business case to act on contamination.

To help you consider your options to reduce contamination and improve quality, we provide ideas and insight on what has been used in the past. Part B of the guide is broken down into six parts:

  • investigate & quantify the problem;
  • develop robust policy;
  • identify costs of contamination;
  • act on contamination;
  • measure impact & costs of action; and
  • evaluate next steps.

Projects with Local Authorities carried out by Resource London, which WRAP was a part of, strongly suggests that householders are informed when there is something in their recycling that shouldn’t be there. We term this a “feedback loop” to address householder confusion. The number of methods to feedback are limited, because checking container contents and potentially leaving containers unemptied can be politically tricky, but it is good to know that Local Authorities have options to consider on the following:

  • what constitutes a “contaminated” container for your Local Authority;
  • when to act;
  • where to act;
  • which contaminants to focus on;
  • whether to engage crews to act on contamination or to use third parties;
  • how robust the action will be, although this may affect its impact; and
  • how long to act, although this may affect the impact of the action.

Ultimately what actions your Local Authority chooses to implement will be unique to your situation.

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  • Tackling contamination in dry recycling report - updated March 2024

    PDF, 1.44 MB

  • Tackling contamination in dry recycling: Train the trainer resource pack - updated March 2024

    PDF, 1.16 MB

  • Tackling contamination case study

    PDF, 873.43 KB

  • Tackling contamination checklist

    XLSX, 17.81 KB

  • Tackling contamination - photos of contamination

    PDF, 5.8 MB